Oregon Startup: Alit Wines

Alit Wines offers its bottles direct-to-consumer

written by Sheila G. Miller

Mark Tarlov
Mark Tarlov
Mark Tarlov wants you to drink good wine. He wants you to know how he made it taste so darn good, and he wants you to drink his wine for less money than that of his competitors.

To that end, he’s started Alit Wines, a direct-to-consumer winery based in Dundee that may just upend the wine world.

The general idea: Craft wine with old-world methods (read: organic, biodynamic dry farming, using native wild yeast) by hand, price the wines transparently and cut out the “luxury brand” mystique. Sell to wine lovers online and in a modern Dundee wine room. Profit.

Tarlov worked as a film producer before founding Evening Land Vineyards in Dundee (and Sonoma and Burgundy) as a retirement venture. The wine stuck but the retirement didn’t. In 2012, he left and started Chapter 24 Winery, also in Dundee.

“Having made wine in Santa Rita Hills, in the Central Coast in Santa Barbara, in Sonoma and in Burgundy and in Oregon for five years with Evening Land, I knew enough about what I loved and where I could find it to know I only wanted Oregon,” he said.

For starters, it’s cheaper to buy land in Oregon. But it’s also possible to dry farm in Oregon, mimicking the style of winemaking in Italy and France, where irrigating vineyards is not allowed. “Those are the wines we all talk about loving and then we completely ignore how they came about,” he said. “I think there’s a purity to making wine in Oregon. If you believe in the Burgundian ideals of vine-growing and winemaking, I don’t believe you can achieve that in California. That’s not to say they don’t make fine wine, they do. But it’s not as pure. It doesn’t have the same integrity that I think we need to follow.”

For Tarlov, his business is as much about the farming as it is the price transparency. Neither is a gimmick.
On the farming side, Tarlov selected the growing area for its rich volcanic soil. In addition to dry-farming, which yields less fruit but also means the fruit flavor is more concentrated, Alit is organic, practices “whole-cluster fermentation,” in which the stems are left in the mix during fermentation, and Alit uses only wild yeasts to ferment the wine. “Dry farming produces a whole different yeast population,” he said. “The yeast metabolize sugar in a different way. It’s all one super-connected ecosystem.”

Tarlov wants the farm-to-table ethos to extend to wine. Just as many consumers now take great interest in where their produce and meat and other food come from, he thinks wine is just
as important.

“We’re the ultimate farm-to-table product,” he said. “We make it at the farm, we farm the grapes. We don’t grow corn and then send it to someone to mill, or send to a distributor or to Whole Foods. We are the farmer, we are the agent of change, and we are the farmstand, because we are direct-to-consumer. Drinking a glass of wine is also an agricultural act, and you should apply the same criteria you do when you walk into a farmers market or a New Seasons.”

Arguably the most appealing part of Alit for wine lovers will be the price. For example, on its website Alit breaks down its bottle of pinot noir thus: $5.66 for farming and fruit, $2.14 for labor, $3.31 for winery equipment, $1.11 for French oak barrels and $2.88 for recyclable packaging. That adds up to $15.10. Alit adds in a 45 percent profit of $12.35 a bottle, selling it for less than $28. Tarlov said a bottle made that way would typically cost about $60 because of retail markup. The 2016 vintage will be slightly less—$26.80.
Tarlov calls it “hacking the system.” The company doesn’t distribute its wine to restaurants or wine shops. It’s a direct-to-consumer plan. That means you can go to its Dundee tasting room, or you can go online and buy the wine.

It’s about proving luxury doesn’t have to be overpriced. “The traditional European way to look at it is about excellence and exclusion,” he said. “Why can’t we make wine that’s excellent and inclusive? I think there’s been a big shift. Now luxury can be about exclusion and price and scarcity, or it can be that there’s this benefit, social or intellectual, or they can look at origin of product and say, ‘I identify with what this guy is doing, so it’s a luxury good to me.’”

Alit Wines also offers The Collective. For a $100 annual fee, you buy unlimited bottles of wine at cost for the rest of the year. Instead of paying almost $28 for a bottle, for example, you’d pay about $15.
Alit’s approach is unique, but in the end what Tarlov wants is for people—not just the fancy among us—to drink great wine.

“You have a right to demand a lot from a glass of wine, because it’s still a lot of money,” he said, “and there’s still good-tasting wine out there for less money. It just doesn’t taste as good. There is no wine out there at this point, certainly not at The Collective price point, where we approach it and share this level of care that we take with the wines.”

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