La Follette Wines
Best Wines Online: Interview with Winemaker Greg La Follette
La Follette is a boutique Sonoma County winery intensely focused on crafting wines that offer benchmark expression of vineyard site and appellation.
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Greg’s route to winemaking began inauspiciously when he realized that his first love – playing the bagpipes – was simply not a practical career path. He earned a double BA in Plant Biology and Chemistry from California State University, Northridge, then a Masters in Food Science and Technology at UC Davis. It was at Davis that he became fascinated with the scientific components of mouth feel. As it turns out, his particular interest in the Burgundian techniques of sur lie aging and battonage emerged on the crest of a tidal wave of interest in new production techniques in California. His studies, funded by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, gained the attention of winemaking icons such as Dick Graff, and paved the way for Greg’s future success.
In 1991, Greg left Davis for Beaulieu Vineyards, where he was the research viticulturist /enologist for famed master winemaker André Tchelistcheff. He travelled to Australia, working on Chardonnay for Yarra Ridge, then returned to Napa Valley to work for Jarvis and then again at BV. He consulted for Kendall-Jackson, and was on his way to becoming a top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer when he joined Flowers Vineyards & Winery in 1996 as head winemaker and general manager. The winery he built at Flowers during his tenure is still considered one of the best gravity-flow, gas-assist green wineries in the world.
In 2001 he founded Tandem wines to produce small-lot Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He has also consulted on vineyard and winery projects around the world, including the new UC Davis teaching winery. In 2009, Greg met Pete Kight – Proprietor of Quivira Vineyards & Winery in Dry Creek Valley – and saw an opportunity to partner, enabling him to have more time to focus on winemaking. Tandem was renamed La Follette, and Greg continued on as Winemaker of the new winery.
La Follette wines showcase not only Greg’s skill with cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but also the world-class Sonoma County and Mendocino County vineyards he sources from.
When Greg and the Kights met, Greg was in the midst of transitioning away from life as a consulting winemaker for numerous wineries both in California and abroad, returning to a focus on Tandem Wines, a winery he co-founded in 2001. Tandem produced small-lot Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to high critical acclaim, but had not found the consistent commercial success expected of such unique bottlings.
Pete and Terri were struck by Greg’s astounding knowledge of the vineyards he worked with, as well as the strength of his relationships with his growers. His meticulous approach to winemaking, coupled with a renegade flair that drove him to produce stand out wines, spoke particularly to Pete, who has also taken the road less traveled in his career.
Based on that chance meeting, the Kights acquired Tandem later that year, with the agreement that Greg continue on as winemaker. The arrangement offered Greg a freedom he had long craved: to be able to pursue the art of winemaking exclusively, leaving the business side to his partners.
While La Follette evolved out of Tandem, it represents more completely the partners’ shared vision. La Follette wines are about discovery: an emerging vineyard, an ancient winemaking technique, an unexpected note in the finished wine. They also reflect a singular focus, as grower and winemaker work together to produce wines that reveal their origins in an unwavering voice.
A California native, Simone has spent a decade in the wine industry, working in virtually every aspect of the business, including hospitality, distribution, lab analysis and cellar production. She’s also worked abroad, picking Pinot in the Cotes de Beaune for the excellent 2002 vintage of Burgundy and making Malbec at Vina Cobos in Mendoza, Argentina in 2006.
More than just a perceptive palate, she’s our Assistant Winemaker – which at La Follette also makes you a social planner, task master, correspondent, grape picker and part of our creative team—a modern Girl Friday! Simone lives on the Sonoma Coast with a view of Pinot Noir vines and the Pacific. Apropos, no?
Practices & Techniques
While each La Follette vineyard-designate wine offers decidedly different flavor and aroma profiles, a clear thread of continuity ties the portfolio together: a rich and powerful yet noticeably elegant texture. Greg prefers to break away from common, safe winemaking techniques -- striving to craft exciting wines using bold techniques that are unfiltered and un-fined. La Follette wines may form sediment or may not be brilliantly clear, but keep an open mind: they are abundantly alive and will evolve over time in both bottle and glass.
Estate Vineyards / AVA
Vineyard Partner: Martin Mochizuki
AVA: Mendocino Ridge
Varietals and Clones: Pinot (115, 114, 777), Chardonnay (Old Wente, 76, 809)
Year planted to vines: 2002-2004
Soil Types: highly eroded sandstone
Trellising Systems: modified double Guyot
Set in the Mendocino Ridge wine region, Manchester Ridge vineyard is the crown jewel in this unique AVA of non-contiguous ridges paralleling the Mendocino coast. This exciting vineyard is still somewhat undiscovered, perched at a 2000-foot elevation, approximately 400 feet above the fog line, among persimmon and chestnut orchards. Greg La Follette and Martin Mochizuki share a friendship and a passion for Pinot Noir that dates back to the early 1990s when they first collaborated on Pinot Noir clone selection. In this vineyard, Pinot Noir fruit enjoys a very long hang time because of the cool and steady temperatures at this high-elevation, coastal site. This allows for full phenological ripeness and complexity without losing any of the freshness of the acidity.
The signature of La Follette’s Manchester Ridge Chardonnay is the Dijon 809 clone, known for beautifully intense aromatics. La Follette’s Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir is rich and opulent with a luxurious mouthfeel and weight, a wine that defies both Californian and Burgundian definitions.
Vineyard owners: Rick and Diane DuNah
AVA: Russian River Valley/Sonoma Coast (positioned in AVA overlap)
Varietals and Clones: Pinot (115, 667, Pommard). Rick and Diane also produce Chardonnay.
Years planted to vines: 1998
Soil types: sandy clay loam Goldridge
Trellising Systems: VSP
Planted above the fog line in the Sebastopol Hills, the DuNah Vineyard is the southwestern outpost of the Russian River Valley appellation. Established in 1998 by growers Rick and Diane DuNah, this site enjoys long hours of sunlight, cool coastal temperatures and breathtaking Sonoma County views. The DuNahs work their 10-acre vineyard with a small crew, and farm our blocks to La Follette specifications. The vines are trellised on the vertical shoot positioning system and rooted in Goldridge soil—a fine sandy loam. Careful viticulture ensures healthy vines, small clusters and low but flavorsome yields.
The La Follette DuNah Pinot Noir is an age-worthy wine of great depth,color and structure, with minerality, fresh acidity and supple tannins.
Vineyard owners: Phyllis and John Bazzano
AVA: Russian River Valley
Varietals and Clones: Chardonnay (old, unspecified clone)
Years planted to vines: 1974-1975
Soil types: Huachita clay loam
Trellising Systems: quadrilateral cordon system employed to maintain vine balance in these robust vines
Greg La Follette first worked with fruit from the Lorenzo Vineyard for the 1993 vintage. The forward, lime and pineapple statements of John Bazzano’s Old Vine Chardonnay left a lasting impression. Bazzano was one of the region’s first growers to practice pre-bloom leafing on his vines, providing dappled sunlight for grape clusters that would otherwise be in the shade of the canopy, and ventilating the interior of the canopy to mitigate disease pressure. Given the opportunity, years later, to work with Bazzano again, Greg jumped at the chance. The striking flavors and profound terroir that originally captivated Greg are now hallmarks of La Follette’s Lorenzo Chardonnay, a richly-layered wine with an effortless balance of fruit, minerality and acidity.
The La Follette Lorenzo Chardonnay is a true expression of old vine Chardonnay, in all of its depth and complexity; our most California-style Chardonnay.
Sonoma Coast: Sangiacomo Vineyard
Vineyard Owners: The Sangiacomo Family, managed by Mike and Steve Sangiacomo
AVA: Sonoma Coast
Varietals and Clones: Pinot (Swan and 777 from Robert’s Rd., 114 from Vella), Chard (Old Wente)
Year planted to vines: 1998
Soil Types: Alluvial washdown at Robert’s Rd., Zamora silty loam & Wright loam soils at Vella.
Trellising Systems: Double Guyot (Robert’s Road), Quadrilateral Guyot (Vella)
The Sangiacomos are true vineyard partners who understand and appreciate Greg La Follette’s passionate pursuit of fine wine. It is a friendship that dates back through the years, with Greg participating in the planning of Robert’s Road, including selecting clones and plant material. At every turn, the family works to bring forth the very best of this exceptional vineyard, from devising an excellent lighting rig for early morning harvesting in the dark to deploying an improvised sorting table right in the vineyard, with additional hands to sort into the ½-ton picking bins.
Over the years, the Sangiacomos have allowed Greg to make some of his own alterations to the rows they farm for him. Greg is able to do a strategically timed and executed leaf pulling pass each year, yielding a more open-cluster architecture, favorable for disease pressure resistance. Grower and winemaker also work together on green drops (removing excess fruit before veraison) and fruit drops.The tiny yields in both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from this vineyard result in consistently concentrated fruit year after year.
The La Follette Sangiacomo Pinot Noir is quite feminine and red-fruited, with classic Pinot Noir aromas and color. The La Follette Sangiacomo Chardonnay shows feral aromas of intentional reduction, and a well-structured acid/tannin balance.
Sonoma Mountain: Van der Kamp Vineyard
Vineyard Owners: Dixie and Martin Van der Kamp, managed by Ulysses Van der Kamp
AVA: Sonoma Mountain
Acres: 34. Organic vineyard treatments and some dry-farmed blocks
Varietals and Clones: Pinot Noir (777, 828, UCD 23, Martini, Swan); Pinot Meunier
Year planted to vines: Pinot Noir - early 1960s; 1961 for Pinot Meunier
Soil Types: loam with volcanic material and decomposed river bed
Trellising Systems: modified double Guyot, modified Guillelmo for old vines
Overlooking the town of Kenwood, the Van der Kamp family has been making wine from this north-facing vineyard on Sonoma Mountain for more than four decades. The vineyard is farmed organically in key vineyard blocks, with some dry-farmed blocks. Few growers in the world give the kind of dedication that vineyard manager Ulysses Van der Kamp gives – and the results show. The Van der Kamps provide their own picking labor, calling on family and friends to pick the fruit so that no outside labor is brought in. Greg La Follette typically does 6-7 picks of Van der Kamp fruit each harvest. He ferments all of these separately, so they end up supplying many colors to the winemaking palette, adding to the overall complexity of the finished wine.
The vineyard sits at 1,400 feet, next to a full vegetable and herb garden and fruit orchard. It used to be that mountain fruit like this meant aggressive tannins but, through Ulysses’ tireless efforts, the viticulture here has worked to finesse the tannic structure of the wines.
La Follette’s Van der Kamp Pinot Noir is known for its Burgundy-like complexity and well-integrated tannins. The Van der Kamp Pinot Meunier is light-bodied, fruity and gently perfumed, drinks quite young.