Greg La Follette. It's a name you might know – and if you're a fan of California wine, it's a name you should know. Greg has spent time developing and implementing fine winemaking techniques, many inspired by those practiced in Burgundy, at wineries such as Beaulieu Vineyard, Kendall Jackson and Flowers. In addition, Greg has been instrumental in the design and redesign of vineyards using "green" techniques.
Greg's influence has been broad and important, but never so pure as with his latest project: his own lineup of cool-climate Burgundian wines. These Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from some of the greatest sites in Northern California allow Greg to use all the techniques he has mastered by simply letting the grapes and land speak. In fact, Greg freely uses that analogy of allowing the fruit and vineyard to talk; and he sees his job as giving them that voice. It's an interesting observation from a fascinating man.
The truth is, Greg set out on his own way back in 2001 when he founded Tandem Wines with the goal of producing, well, producing the wines he produces today. As is the case with many winemakers (probably most if you ask them at the right moment), there are some things that simply should not fall within their purview. I’m talking about pretty much anything that keeps them behind a desk.
Another generalization you might make about winemakers is that they tend to be a bit stubborn, which might explain why it took Greg eight years to fully realize this and enter into an agreement with Pete Kight, the owner of another of my favorite wineries, Quivira. Pete bought Tandem, but kept Greg where he could do the most good, and that means Greg splitting his time between the vines and the cellar.
This amount of freedom allows Greg to treat each wine like one of his children, getting to know the vines, learning about each vineyard’s terroir (from soil to yeast and everything in between) and tweaking his pantheon of winemaking techniques to allow each to speak with as pure and bold a voice as that terroir will allow.
What sorts of things excite Greg? How about forced carbohydrate deficiency, where Greg and his six children manually remove the leaves directly adjacent to each bloom right before berries set? This allows for fewer berries, looser bunches, natural concentration in the vineyard and ultimately, better wines for the consumer.
How about fluff racking? We all know what racking is: drawing wine from one vessel to another in order to help clarify the wine. When wines are racked, sediment gets left behind in the emptying barrel. Fluff racking involves removing a cloudy layer of wine that includes some fine yeast and even some grape skin particles, and including it in the racked wine. Why? Well this allows for additional aging on the lees, which adds depth and complexity, resulting in better wines for the consumer.
Other techniques embraced by Greg include: producing Chardonnay that undergoes skin contact; and allowing his whites to be exposed to oxygen during pre-fermentation. These so-called brown juice wines freshen up just fine after they’ve undergone fermentation and aging; but they tend to be more complex and age better than whites made without skin and oxygen contact. Why does Greg bother to do this? It does carry with it some risks after all. Because he feels these make better wines – for the consumer!
There’s a pattern developing here. I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical; but once I tasted the wines and was able to hear Greg describe in meticulous detail how each of these wines is treated distinctly differently to allow for the expression of site, I became convinced that La Follette wines were worth paying attention to. And frankly, when I was done typing up my notes and saw the prices for these wines, I have no qualms recommending that you try these as well.
These are super premium Pinots and Chardonnays that are very well-placed for the quality and the style. Whether you might prefer the ”most feminine” Sangiacomo Pinot, or the “meaty, venison” aromas of the Van der Kamp (which come from the dying yeast cells that are native to this site) is a personal choice, but you will find a wine here that rings your bell.
Maybe it’s the high percentage of whole cluster fermentation that’s used in the Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir, a hilltop site far to the north of Mendocino County that is directly exposed to the ocean (I want to visit this place), or the high fermentation temperatures used to accentuate the feral character of the Sangiacomo Chardonnay that grabs you. In any, and every case for that matter, you should know that Greg La Follette is working those vines (as well as in the cellar) to provide consumers variety, with site specificity and above all, quality and value.