Greg La Follette – Overalls Tell All
Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present. -Albert Camus
If one made a movie about Greg La Follette’s many occupations, the public would likely consider it a fiction film. Prior to his wine career, he was a bag piper, seminary student, scientist, and groundbreaking cancer researcher. Today, he is one of the most important winemakers of our time.
Early on, he was mentored by winemaking legend, André Tchelistcheff. He counts contemporary icons such as Jim Clendenen, Randall Grahm, Manfred Krankl, and David Ramey as major influencers in his career development. Today, this one time apprentice has turned master. He has been mentoring winemakers at domestic and overseas wineries for several decades. His unmatched understanding of yeast biology and its effects on the fermentation process makes him a unique and revered authority. Around the world, his clients are in awe of the flavors and textures that he is able to coax out of their wines.
Part precision scientist, part passionate poet, this cellar dweller who perennially dresses in overalls, is an overall genius. What makes him unique, however, is his humble and generous heart; that is as big as his beloved Sonoma Coast and as gentle as its coastal, morning fog.
Prior to meeting Greg, I knew and loved the wines he made under the Flowers and Tandem brands. As a founder of these two terrific brands, he was responsible not just for planting the vineyard, but also for winemaking, building the winery and making the wine. I first met Greg several years ago at the “Pigs and Pinot” event in Healdsburg. He didn’t know me, yet he treated me as though I was his peer, and with utmost consideration. It is a heady experience when someone you admire shows you unexpected kindness and grace. Over the years, there were many encounters, each mirroring the original. Greg, a man of consistency and unwavering sense of respect for people is so authentic, it is unnerving.
I recently caught up with Greg and his partner at a Sebastopol custom crush facility to taste his brand new exciting wine venture currently resting in barrel.
Greg deliberately chooses fruit sources from cool climate vineyards in Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain, Russian River Valley, and Mendocino regions. Some of his perennially favorite vineyards are DuNah, Manchester Ridge, Sangiacomo and Van der Kamp.
Manchester Ridge, a “vineyard in the sky,” sits above both fog & cloud lines and gets 140 inches of rain per annum. Its proximity to the ocean and high elevation yields stunning fruit. It is “wine growing X”—extreme adversity that causes vine overachievement. There, a new type of American chardonnay is being cultivated. Planted to the recently developed Dijon 809, this hot off genetic press clonal material produces intensely floral, Musqué -like characters.
When tasting at La Follette’s tasting room at The Barlow, note the difference between Sangiacomo and Van der Kamp vineyards. One vineyard is located at the base of the mountain, the other on top. Both are aromatic and, yet, their flavor profiles are fascinatingly different.
DuNah Vineyard’s climactic and geological characteristics make it yet another extreme Sonoma Coast site. The vineyard sits one ridge away from the ocean and above the cloud line. Its climate essentially resembling a giant refrigerator with plenty of sunshine, the vineyard’s well-drained Goldridge soil is ideally suited for Pinot Noir. Picking fruit from this site requires precise timing. Harvest isn’t driven by sugar and alcohol levels, it revolves around flavor and texture.
Guess who hasn’t used a refractometer in 20 years? Greg picks solely by taste and his instincts never fail. Each vineyard block is picked separately, and at different times. It is a labor intensive, expensive and sometimes frustrating process. Yet, in La Follette’s world, details matter. South facing, solar exposures basking in warmer mesoclimate get picked first, followed by the north facing sites. Different elevations, even creases that hold fog, make a difference in ripening. Some fruit gets picked as low as 21.7 Brix. The goal is not to artificially pick at low Brix, as trends would suggest. It is simply to catch the optimal moment in the life of the fruit. In terms of laser-like focus and bright acidity, the flavor profile resemble wines from Oregon more than California.
What follows choosing the optimal site and picking at the right hour is a dogged dedication in the cellar. With 30 years and over 60 harvests under his belt (he had harvested more than once a year around the globe), Greg’s skill and breadth of knowledge cannot be overestimated.
A proponent of intelligent risk-taking, he operates with a single goal in mind – maximum flavor and texture. In order to achieve this, Greg keeps a very close eye on the entire process. He does just about everything by hand, including labor intensive, manual punch downs to ensure close contact with the fermenting wine. Greg believes that wine and its maker enter into a pact of sorts. Winemaking a highly interactive dialogue, where sensory cues become essential, providing crucial intel entirely unavailable to a hands-off winemaker.
Greg makes a habit of constantly checking in with his barrels. He shepherds and knows every one intimately. We tasted a number of wines, some from different vineyards, some from different picks within the same vineyard. Fascinated, I inquired how is it possible for a man with several clients to keep such accurate track of each barrel, each pick in his head? He gave me a pointed look: “You have to know your kids’ birthdays.” His paternal, thoughtful attitude extends far beyond his six children, to his extended family of friends, colleagues, perfect strangers and yes…barrels.
Greg’s life is all about collaboration and nurturing. La Follette is a big believer in building and sustaining quality relationships. Some of his growers, clients, crews, staff have been with him on and off for 30 years. In fact, he even compares Pinot Noirs to a partner who likes cuddling and holding hands, someone who craves your continuous presence. If you take the time to listen and understand, you will have a great lover and faithful companion. “Get it right and you will get wildly rewarded. Turn your back and you will have a short-lived and unhappy relationship on your hands.” Ever tasted an angry, frustrated, lonely Pinot? A well cared for Pinot Noir is a happy wine.
Greg’s consummate generosity is revealed when he speaks of stylistic choices. He makes elegant, nuanced, and sophisticated wines and he never criticizes winemakers who produce bigger, bolder Pinots. Instead, he refers to them as appropriate extensions of winemaker’s personality. Wines reflect their makers; that’s the beauty of engaging in such a creative craft.
Wine is a living, and ever evolving entity. It is wide open to interpretation. It is a canvas on which each artist makes his or her own unique imprint. Some choose a minimal, light touch, some craft with bold, broad, brush strokes. The point is to enjoy what you love and to appreciate the rest for what it is, rather that criticizing what it isn’t.
His brand new project, in partnership with writer/editor, Patrick Dillon, is titled “Alquimista Cellars.” The grapes are sourced from a vineyard owned by the Fetzer family, called Haiku (Ukiah spelled backwards). His partner is an accomplished writer and avid sailor who has spent a lifetime experiencing life’s extremes. The two men’s intense synergy is obvious and touching. Dillon refers to it as “operating in a state of grace.” There is almost a mysticism, a certain magic to the way they relate to one another and the entire winemaking process.
After a very stimulating afternoon in great company, I was ready to head back to my writing perch, when Greg asked if I wanted to stay for a small bottling project. My curiosity was peaked, so I accepted his offer. To my surprise, the task was to bottle apple cider made by his friend’s young son. Greg patiently, and with great detail, described every step of the finishing process, as well as inoculation and racking. We tasted four different versions of the cider Greg doctored up with a dash of his “magic drops.” We discussed the pros and cons of each version. It felt like a combination of tasting and blending session…except it was a first fermentation of apple juice by a college freshman.
Why would a world-famous winemaker spend his valuable time helping a 21-year old? Because he is Greg La Follette —a man who teaches by example. No matter who you are or what you do, pay it forward. Period.
La Follette and Dillon’s new wine’s website will be www.alquimistacellars.com.
It’s a no-holds-barred project; a pinnacle of passion, paired with precision, with wines made in two to four barrel quantity. Procrastination in this case, will not pay.
If you love purity and authenticity in wine or in life, you owe it to yourself to try their new creations.