Wednesdays with Winemakers – Greg La Follette 7 min read
I am excited to announce a new series: “Wednesdays with Winemakers.” It is intended to offer a glimpse into the minds and hearts of your favorite vintners and winemakers.
My first winemaking hero is none other than Greg La Follette. His extraordinary career began at Beaulieu Vineyards with mentorship by André Tchelistcheff. He traveled all over the world (and still does!) to make wine. His stellar efforts are behind building Flowers Vineyards and Winery, Tandem, his namesake brand and many more. Greg is one of the most sought-after winemaking consultants worldwide, yet he remains as humble as he was at first harvest. He is revered not only for his legendary winemaking prowess and artistry, but his extraordinary generosity of heart. He regularly mentors fellow vintners and winemakers and, despite his star status, is always willing to lend a hand.
Everyone who tastes his wine has an authentic experience, everyone whose path he crosses is a better person for it. I have written about Greg here.
Why did you become a vintner/winemaker?
I thought growing wine grew good people. I’ve wanted to be a winemaker since I was 17, but never thought it was very practical to be a winemaker. So, after stints as a professional bagpiper, Catholic Church seminarian, and then plantsman, I did the next easiest thing and became a physical chemist doing HIV research at UCSF’s teaching hospital. This really burned me out as everyone I worked on died in those early days of AIDS. And so, I finally said to myself that life was too short and transferred over to the staff at UC Davis. The rest, of course, led from the academicia of winegrowing to the actual practice of the art of winegrowing.
If you weren’t a vintner/winemaker what would you be and why?
I’ve had a number of careers over the years, and as satisfying as they were, I can’t imagine doing anything other than wine at this stage. Being a priest still appeals to me and if it weren’t for the celibacy thing, I might still be there. Therefore, probably something along the lines of conflict resolution or working with youth-at-risk, both of which I did a lot of as a young man.
What is your greatest strength as a vintner/winemaker?
People. My family, and the folks I’ve worked with over the years, including my growers and wine crew members, who have been with me through thick and thin. Knowing a vineyard intimately and knowing your crew and what they can and will do for the wine is irreplaceable. Having a great wife, which is incalculable during those long, late nights of shoveling out tanks with the one you trust the most, only to jump into your truck without getting to bed and starting another day, keeps me going. Her (my wife Mara) having brought the kids in during harvest to sort grapes and clean barrels, and working all together, have given me the strength to continue on, year after year. My kids are now pretty much grown and doing their own thing, but those memories still bouy and strengthen me.
What is your biggest weakness as a vintner/winemaker?
I am not well-organized – too much of an artsy-flighty poet-philosopher who works on intuition and feeling. Fortunately, I have a great strength in the people I work with to write things down and organize my life (see question 3 above).
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
Getting to a point where I was so exhausted during harvest that I made a bad choice in a production movement and almost lost my finger. I managed to keep it after 5 days in the hospital but still don’t have any feeling in it and only a fraction of the range of movement.
What is your greatest achievement?
Holding together people: 1.) a group of growers and winemen and winewomen over many years and many different projects and 2.) also holding together a marriage with my wife over the span of raising 6 kids and her putting up with a winemaker to-boot and having her still be with me today.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
It would have to be a tie between 2006 in a compressed California harvest (I am writing a short story about it) and in The Hunter in Australia in 2012, when the crop was rotting away and there were family health challenges. I can stand hard work (sometimes barely), but seeing family members sick with nothing you can do and watching their grapes melt away and lose everything from the year can be the most heartbreaking of times.
What is your favorite saying?
An old salutation that is now seldom-used as it is possibly considered as corny by the young ones of our industry but I think it is still and even possibly more appropriate than ever: Vint with Honor!
What is your most prized possession?
My wife, though I don’t by any stretch possess her or even want to intimate that she is my property. But I am hers, and she is mine.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
That I have the capacity to sing with a very good voice when only singing Aussie kid tunes (anyone know Don Spencer’s “Feathers, Fur or Fins”?) and Aussie drinking songs, but bray like a mule in any other attempt at “American” melody. When I asked my wife what was most odd, this is what she came up with. I concur. Some people would say dressing up as Captain Crush at the end of every harvest would rate up there, but I’ve never met the character, somehow seem to just miss him each time he is around…
What song best sums you up?
John Denver’s “The Eagle and the Hawk.”
What is your favorite memory?
The birth of my first-born child!
Which one of the five senses is your strongest?
There is a 6th, but that is a rather private one.
What is your biggest motivation?
Which bottle of wine would you choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
Whatever my wife’s favorite wine is. It changes from time-to-time as I actually first attracted Mara with my big Pinot but it is now the Chard that keeps her coming back (see question 21 below)
What is the difference between good and great wine?
Aside from the obvious, it often boils down to the time, place and company in which you consume a wine. That can make the difference between good and great memories of that particular wine (see question 19 below).
Name any individuals you would like to have dinner with.
Why, you, Ilona! We have to rectify that soon!
Who is your winemaking hero?
Andre Tchelistcheff, my mentor.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
Having a life that actually allows you to think about something other than wine. In that sense, I’ve never been accused of having balance in my life, but I’ve sure had fun! In wine itself, it is the perfect intersection of all of the components of wine (acid, tannin, extract, macromolecules, RS, VA, etc. ad nauseum) and time and place of consumption (see question 16). The key is to drink really, REALLY good wine with people you love or have fun with, and the magic of the intersection is what brings greatness to your memory-library. Pull that volume out any time in the future and you will have a wine to remember that created balance and harmony in that moment of your life. Powerful stuff!
What is the one thing that you want people to remember about your wine?
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade, or press?
“Sex in the bottle” which was coined by my wife Mara, but also echoed in Amy Reiley’s aphrodisiac cookbook “Fork Me, Spoon Me”. She called my Sangiacomo Chardonnay one of the “5 true Aphrodisiac wines of the world” – the only one from the US – you can buy the book on Amazon!