Mark Tarlov (1952–2021) - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Mark Tarlov

What would it mean for humans to understand the world through our noses as much as through our eyes and ears

I don’t have that much time, Mark Tarlov often told me. He was attempting many experiments at once, conducting research that one person might have devoted a lifetime to accomplish. In Burgundy, he pointed out, the process took millennia.

A lawyer turned film director turned wine grower, Tarlov had focused his energies in the third act of his life on understanding the world. And it was pinot noir that provided the starting point.

He had taken this on as a quest without, at first, fully understanding the challenge. It began with his launch of Evening Land Vineyards in 2005, where he convinced Dominique Lafon to join him in exploring the terroir of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. And then, later, at Chapter 24 and Rose & Arrow, where his project expanded, connecting volcanic rock to yeasts and vine and human perception. His project focused on the growing of grapes, the identification of the right place to grow those grapes, the shepherding of those grapes through fermentation and aging into wine. But it also considered what we taste when we taste great wine, how we perceive it and what it triggers in our brains.

Most people who drink and collect New World wines have come to recognize certain aspects of “better” wines and seek them out. It amounts to a generalized mapping of the world through wine. That regional map and the style parameters associated with it did not interest Tarlov. What caught his attention was why wine from one particular site in Burgundy could consistently produce the same kind of euphoria when he drank it. What was it about that site? What was it about that euphoria—something, certainly, tied to recognition, but triggering some activity in the brain that’s different from what the sight of a face, even a beautiful lover’s face, might do. Different triggers, in any case.

At the peak of his energetic quest, Tarlov had enlisted a wine geologist, Pedro Parra, to map the soils of Chapter 24’s vineyards in the Willamette Valley, searching out the edges of lava flows where the alteration in the soil would provide the most information to the vines as they invested it into their ripening fruit.

He partnered with a young wine grower from a noble family in Burgundy, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, responsible for the wine at La Romanée, to investigate the process of pinot noir fermentation and aging and take the wines from Chapter 24’s Willamette vineyards to the next level, released as Rose & Arrow.

Tarlov hired Jean-François Hamel, a biochemical engineer who runs a lab at MIT, to run a census on yeasts in his Willamette vineyards. Then Hamel helped him study the behavior of those yeasts as they fermented his pinot noirs, to better understand how to translate the information they carried about the geology of the vineyard into the wine.

And he enlisted Jim Bower, a neurobiologist and the regional director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to consider, among other things, people’s reactions to great wine, and how pleasure receptors and other brain functions are triggered by the recognition of a scent.

Tarlov had begun his creative career observing the world through the sights and sounds of film. He moved on to mapping a small part of the world with his nose. What would it mean for humans to understand the world through our noses as much as through our eyes and ears? Personally, I believe it would fundamentally change our place in the world and how we live in it.

Before I met Mark Tarlov, I told myself I was interested in wine as a way to preserve a particular place and moment in time. I had a notion that creating wines to effectively preserve the character of a place required an ecological understanding and sensitivity to that place.

Mark had little patience for what he might have considered my Walden-Pond environmentalism. There was no ideology to his obsession. He valued the places that could produce what he called “sexy” wines, particularly the places that had yet to be discovered. Maybe, for Mark, it was like finding the young film talent that would become a star. Only, this required more technical research and digging holes in Oregon basalt. Mark wanted the facts, and the wines he was producing by seeking the facts have been among the most fascinating wines I have tasted—and drunk with pleasure.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

This story appears in the print issue of October 2021.
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