Recently, I had an opportunity to meet with Greg La Follette, the namesake behind some wines that I believe will race to the top of the sommelier's "must have" Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of California. These wines have IT. He takes risk in making them. Greg's wines talk to you. They implore you take another sip, find another nuance, look for another slight complexity of flavor.
Wine reflects the personality of the person who makes it. Skilled winemakers look for the right land for the right grapes. Great winemakers find land that suits them. Greg's long history of grape growing and winemaking in northern California has helped him to identify the land that suits him.
He started his professional career innocently enough, after consideration of his first choice, bagpiping, probably not being a very practical career. When he jumped into winemaking, he jumped in with both feet. He earned a double BA at California State University at Northridge, in Plant Biology and Chemistry, and following a stint as a staff chemist at UCSF, he went back to school to earn a Masters degree in Food Science & Technology from UC Davis.
While working at the student winery at UC Davis, Greg became highly focused on the scientific components that make for mouth feel. He obsessed with identifying the Burgundian techniques of battonage and sur lie aging, at a time when California winemakers showed interest in different production techniques practiced around the world. His studies, funded by the Napa Valley Vintner's Association, caught the attention of some of the iconic winemakers of the time, and helped to carve a path for Greg's future success.
Greg's first job out of UC Davis in 1991, was with Beaulieu Vineyards during the legendary tenure of Andre Tchelistcheff, and I asked him what influence Andre Tchelistcheff had on him and his approach to vineyard sites and winemaking?
"Profound and enduring. Andre was the most influential person of my journey in wine. He had the ability to pull out of his pocket the most incredible wisdom, hold it in his hand, and offer one to take it into theirs. If it was not taken, he gently put it back into his pocket without a word. But he always asked what I, as a young and recently graduated UC Davis person, had in my pockets for wisdom. A gentle, powerful, reaching man. He looked first to the vineyard for his winemaking, which is the cornerstone of my style. In the cellar, he was way ahead of his time, including thoughts on lees management and going to barrel early to partner yeast with fruit and oak."
Through Greg's storied career, he has worked in Australia for Yarra Ridge, spent a little time as winemaker at Jarvis in Napa Valley, and did consulting vineyard analysis for Kendall Jackson. By 1996, he was hired as the winemaker and general manager for Flowers Vineyard & Winery. For Sonoma County Pinot Noir enthusiasts, these were breakthrough wines that showed off the possibilities for Pinot Noir, giving a stamp of a sense of place.
What is the reason he is most interested in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?
"Pinot Noir is the finishing school of winegrowing-'nuff said! I need Chardonnay as the blank canvas on which I can paint my therapy for the crazy world of Pinot Noir and reduce my psychotherapy bills. Chardonnay is the ultimate winemaker's wine-like Gumby, for the most part ready to stretch and pull into the right shape. Not so with Pinot Noir, which is an exacting mistress..."
His background in winegrowing is very scientific and technical. Where does the technical and scientific grape growing and winemaking end, and where does intuitive and artistic grape growing and winemaking begin?
"It is a blend, a blur. There is no beginning and end. There are only regions of knowledge where art transcends science, and visa versa. It is like learning music-you can go to Juilliard, where you learn the language (science) of music; call and response, timbre, meter, pitch, form. What goes into you is the language or science; what comes out of you is art. So it is with winegrowing. One of my favorite quotes is from Nabokov; 'There is no art without science, nor fact without fancy.'"
By 2001, Greg had left Flowers and founded Tandem Wines where he has produced small lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from some of the most highly prized vineyards in the sub-appellations of Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast within Sonoma County. At the same time he embarked on highly successful side work as an international vineyard and winery consultant. In total, Greg designed, or redesigned fourteen wineries on five continents; including the new UC Davis teaching winery.
In 2009, Tandem Wines was bought by Quivira Vineyards and Winery owner, Peter Kight. He structured his acquisition to retain Greg as the winemaker and face of Tandem which will become La Follette. Then, the two of them laid out their plans to launch La Follette wines.
What does La Follette Wines allow Greg to do that he has not done before?
"There are four main areas that really make a difference.
1) Focus time/energy totally on my beloved Burgundian varietals, as my actual day job without distraction of other varietals or...
2) A myriad of consulting projects .
3) Supported in the business side of the equation, I am free of the day-to-day nuts and bolts of running a winery and able to concentrate on winegrowing-my love and aptitude.
4) I have been able to hand select a few vineyard jewels on which to exclusively focus. Each of these vineyards are the best examples of terroir with which I have worked over the years and narrowing my focus on a few places that dramatically exemplify a sense of place in their AVAs also increases my focus in the cellar."
This project, La Follette Wines, will be released in the marketplace in September of this year. The wines are:
Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2008 (Sonoma County) (395 Cases)Suggested Retail $29.99
Chardonnay, Lorenzo Vineyard, Russian River Valley 2008 (Sonoma County) (100 Cases) Suggested Retail $37.99
Chardonnay, Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge2008 (Mendocino County)(272 Cases) Suggested Retail: $47.99
Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2008 (Sonoma County) (2324 Cases) Suggested Retail $29.99
Pinot Noir, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast 2008 (Sonoma County) (433 Cases) Suggested Retail $39.99
Pinot Noir, Van Der Kamp Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain 2008 (Sonoma County) (494 Cases) Suggested Retail $39.99
Pinot Noir, Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge 2008 (Sonoma County) (214 Cases) Suggested Retail $49.99
Greg shows his skill as a winegrower by knowing the positive elements of each vineyard site he is working with, and playing to his grower/partners' strengths. The Sangiacomo Chardonnay and Sonoma Coast Pinot represent two of the finest crafted values for their price category. The Manchester Ridge Chardonnay may be one of the most complex, best integrated, finest California Chardonnays I have ever tasted. The Van der Kamp Pinot keeps changing in the glass, like a great Burgundy; a subtle spice, good soft tannins, bright integrated fruit. The rest of these wines show off the unique qualities of the vineyards they were raised in, and the meticulous cellar skills of Greg La Follette. They will be available in September, but I would suggest you contact the winery now. They won't be around for long.