Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Comedian and actor Eric Wareheim is a new kind of celebrity winemaker.

Eric Wareheim wants me to pop the cork from a bottle of his Las Jaras sparkling carignan into the swimming pool. “If it goes in, you get to make a wish,” he says, explaining that all first-time visitors to his Highland Park home are required to take part in the ritual. My aim is too high, and the cork vanishes. We look around—no trace. “That’s never happened before, but we’ll count it,” Wareheim reassures me.

Two decades ago, Wareheim was living in Philadelphia, playing in punk bands and drinking beer. Once in a while, he’d treat himself to some Ruffino Chianti. It had to be good, he thought, because it’s what Tony Soprano drank with dinner. Eventually, though, the wine rapture came for Wareheim. After graduating from Temple University in the late ’90s, he moved to Los Angeles with his classmate and creative partner, Tim Heidecker, to pursue a career in comedy. It took some time for audiences to warm to the duo’s lo-fi stoner surrealism, but once they did—and Wareheim “had a few bucks in the bank” from a flurry of successful film and TV projects—he started dining out with frequency. He knew nothing about good food, but friends like the chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who he met through fellow comic Aziz Ansari, would shepherd him on restaurant adventures around town. Wareheim and Ansari organized a crew called The Food Club. Every once in a while, they’d dress up in white suits and captain’s hats, and dine at places like Totoraku, the secret Japanese steakhouse near Century City, and Michael Voltaggio’s first restaurant, The Langham, in Pasadena.

While navigating this new milieu, Wareheim met winemaker Joel Burt, who was already an established name in California corporate wine through his work with LVMH-owned Napa vineyards Newton and Domaine Chandon. But on the side, Burt was drinking at San Francisco bars like Terroir, and had begun experimenting with lower-intervention methods in his Vacaville garage. Meanwhile, Wareheim was just beginning to take an interest in wine—mostly Bordeaux, Burt recalls with amusement. At a Fourth of July party 10 years ago, Burt introduced Wareheim to some of his home projects, including a pét-nat, and everything changed. Like so many who experience their first hit of natural wine, Wareheim recalls the wine tasting “so … alive.” It was, he says, “the moment I realized how a low-intervention wine could make you feel.”

That exchange marked the beginning of a collaboration that has become much more than a side hustle for Wareheim. The first wine he and Burt made together was born out of Wareheim’s desire to sell a commemorative bottle during Tim and Eric’s live performances. “This is kinda kitschy, and it is also illegal, because you can’t sell alcohol at a merch stand,” Burt recalls thinking. “But what if we made it really good?” Wareheim, who never formally trained as a comedian or actor and built a career upon his DIY streak, was down to take the risk. He told Burt to put the character Steve Brule, a disheveled, endearingly uncanny “doctor” played by John C. Reilly, on the label. “I know at least 20 fans will buy it,” Wareheim remembers telling him. Sweet Berry Wine, a cabernet Burt describes as “a nice, easy-drinking red wine that most people would be able to connect with,” was released in 2016. It debuted alongside a rosé, a carignan and a sparkling wine, all of which sold out almost immediately. In the years since, Las Jaras has released 13 different labels—each designed by artists like Chloe Wise and Duke Aber—and, to meet demand, expanded production to 10,000 cases in 2018.

According to Burt, Las Jaras reflects their mutual affinity for “clean, not funky” minimal-intervention wines. While Wareheim can still wax on about labels from the more extreme end of the natural wine spectrum—the kind of stuff “produced by nudists who make sure [their] testicles hit the vat a certain number of times”—he’s stopped drinking many of the hip bottles in his collection. (“It was really fun to get in that world, but then I realized that it sometimes can be really flawed,” he says.) Las Jaras is not totally sans soufre, and it never will be. The company wants to distinguish itself from the more militant tendencies of the natural tradition by situating itself instead within a larger contemporary American movement. “A lot of people still don’t think that wine made here is on the level,” says Wareheim, but he sees enormous potential, citing inspirations like Martha Stoumen in Sebastopol and Andrew Young from Oregon’s St. Reginald Parish.

natural wine eric wareheim

Most celebrities with a label in their portfolio would probably have a more difficult time namechecking winemakers positioned so squarely in the zeitgeist. To wit, Las Jaras stands apart from efforts like Dave Matthews’ Dreaming Tree cabernet, Drew Barrymore’s cheery “primers” on rosé, or Sarah Jessica Parker’s Invivo X sauvignon blanc, to name but a few. The Sebastopol-based operation is small and devoted to natural wines, and has earned a following at restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, like The Four Horsemen and Amacita, where it’d be much easier to find cult catarratto from Alessandro Viola than Sting’s Sister Moon red.

That’s not to say Las Jaras is the first serious celebrity wine. Though they may not be everyone’s style, the critic Jon Bonné points to the pop singer Pink (born Alecia Beth Moore), who bought vineyards in Santa Barbara to develop her Two Wolves label; Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Château Miraval rosé, for which the former couple hired cultural consultants to ensure the effort didn’t appear like a vanity project; and Francis Ford Coppola’s reinvigoration of the Inglenook winery, an influential forerunner. Wareheim, says Bonné, is among those who “commit to making the pursuit part of their professional or financial life. He posts about his wines and he does promotion, sure, but it’s also part of a continuum of his interest in food and wine. There is a legitimate, serious passion, so it feels—and I mean this in a noncynical way—like part of his brand.”

In addition to Las Jaras, Wareheim’s brand will soon include a wine-focused cookbook, Bacchanalia, published by Ten Speed Press, who previously released such titles as Peter Liem’s Champagne and Bonné’s The New California Wine, both category-defining—and downright serious—books on wine.

More compelling, perhaps, is how Wareheim has emerged as an unwitting symbol of certain contemporary energies in the worlds of food and wine. When he first got into gastronomy, he benefited from a climate of exchange, when “comedy guys loved musicians and chefs, and musicians and chefs loved comedy guys.” The second season of Master of None, during which Wareheim and Ansari’s gastronomic adventures include a meal in the PDR of Osteria Francescana in Modena, captures the fervor well. Another vivid example of the climate: LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, a friend of Wareheim’s, now owns one of America’s most celebrated natural wine bars, and that doesn’t at all strike insiders as unusual. Neither does the emergence of the new, sometimes divisive sommelier: a cheeky communicator who no longer aspires to the more buttoned-up traditions of the past. Wareheim seems to, very wittingly, play into this irreverence. His Instagram bio reads “Top Food Blog,” and the account is a gleeful catalog of show-stopping meals from around the world. There’s more than one video of a yacht voyage, and numerous references to the “piss” he likes to drink.

The unblushing revelry might undercut his desire for people to take the product seriously—“I’m anal about how everything I do is perceived,” he says—but the persona he’s created may also work in Las Jaras’ favor. The writer and editor Emily Timberlake, who is collaborating with Wareheim on Bacchanalia, suggests that a comedian might be exactly what the wine world needs at the moment. “The promise of the natural wine movement was that it was going to democratize and kick wine off this hoity-toity pedestal, and I have a lot of thoughts about that,” she says, stopping short of an indictment of the more dogmatic corners of the culture. “There’s no doubt that Eric is bringing people to the table, from fans who may have never mail-ordered a bottle of wine in their lives to the cognoscenti.”

Sitting on the porch by the pool, I ask Wareheim about the push and pull between levity and seriousness in his life, and in his wines; he cites some, like the carignan we’re currently drinking, as meant for partying, and others, like a pinot noir from Oregon, “you’re supposed to ponder.” I wonder if it’s been difficult for him to convey the range. He says it hasn’t, surprisingly, and that even if Las Jaras had faced more backlash, whether due to his own self-presentation or the wines themselves, he probably wouldn’t have a problem staying the course. There’s a story he and Heidecker like to tell about their first, misbegotten years in L.A., when they didn’t know how to break in, didn’t know whether they needed to be part of the comedy club circuit or vie for spots in writers’ rooms.

“We were universally despised,” he remembers. For a hot second, he considered joining the historic improv group The Groundlings. Bob Odenkirk, who Wareheim worshipped thanks to his sketches on Mr. Show, offered them some advice just when they needed it: “He said, ‘You don’t need to go to any performances or join any group. Just make what you make and make sure it’s pure.’” Plus, says Wareheim, “I like the challenge of going into a room full of people who might have preconceived notions and being like, ‘Check it out, motherfucker.’”

Eric Wareheim was photographed at Orsa & Winston.

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Gabe Ulla is a New York-based writer who has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, T, Saveur and Town and Country. He has co-written two books, Ignacio Mattos’ Estela and David Chang’s forthcoming memoir, Eat a Peach.