Ever fantasize about running a winery? Many do, but few ever take the risk. From bagpiper to vintner, Greg La Follette discusses the upcoming launch of his Sonoma County-based wine label La Follette.
Anu Karwa: You’re launching La Follette winery in September. What’s the focus of the winery?
Greg La Follette: The focus of La Follette Wines is crafting benchmark, cool-climate Pinot Noir.
AK: What wines are you introducing?
GL: We’re showcasing renowned parts of the vineyard in the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain, and Mendocino AVAs with 3 vineyard-designate Pinot Noirs, a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and 3 vineyard-designate Chardonnays, a wine produced from the grapes of a single vineyard.
AK: How would you describe your winemaking style?
GL: I would say it is intentionally wild. Practicing winemaking without a safety net. Taking risks and gambles in an effort to be true to the voice of the vineyard.
AK: What is mouthfeel, and why is it important to you?
GL: To me, mouthfeel is about pleasure. It’s what makes your tongue feel caressed when you sip a wine. A broad spectrum of descriptors can apply to mouthfeel, including “energy” and “nerve,” but what it comes down to is the pleasure your mouth experiences when drinking the wine.
AK: Does the reality of owning a vineyard match the fantasy?
GL: I am living the fantasy, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But it is a lot of work and requires the kind of tremendous support I get from my wife and kids. During harvest I am lucky if I get 1–2 hours of sleep a day. The day begins at midnight when you prepare to pick by sanitizing the bins. Then, you pick until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Then you head to the winery to taste all the fermenting wines and do punch downs until 9:00 a.m. or so. Sit down and have a bite to eat and a high-octane espresso. From 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., I’m looking at the chemistry and what’s happening in the cellar, then, from 11:00 or 11:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., I’m sorting grapes. The second round of punch downs goes until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. Then, I’m tasting ferments again till 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. I am always in close communication with the wines. If I am lucky, I am in bed by 11:00 p.m. so I can get up an hour later and start it all over again. On days I am not picking, I can sometimes sleep until 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. There is no off-season for me really, not in this business and not when I love to travel to Australia to help out friends during their harvest.
AK: If you weren’t making wine, what would you be doing?
GL: Drinking it! I honestly cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing. It’s unfathomable to me at this time. When I was young, I pursued any number of things, from bagpiping to running a botanical garden. But now I can’t see any other path.
AK: You work with your 6 sons and daughters. Any challenges to running a family business?
GL: The kids have learned a great deal of discipline by being in a wine family. They haven’t always wanted to work as hard as I have asked them to. And when they’re teenagers, it’s not easy to be the dad that makes them come to the winery early in the morning after a school party or graduation. The biggest challenge is begging forgiveness for the time I am away from them.
AK: Is winemaking an art or science to you?
GL: It’s both. You can’t have one without the other. Nabokov stated, “There is no science without fancy and no art without fact.” Complexity in wine is not an accident. A truly artistic creation like wine is possible when scientific knowledge sets the stage for experimentation and intuition. When you partner with the land and interpret the voice of a certain parcel of earth, you have to be open to what it is saying . . . at that point, you forget the science. The letters are the science but the speech is the art.
AK: What’s your favorite wine in the launch of this line?
GL: It’s like asking me to pick my favorite kid, can’t be done! But I will say, whichever one my wife likes (the wine that is!).
AK: Biggest challenge in running your own winery?
GL: The real challenge is balancing the demands of being a wine family and being a good spouse and a good dad while spending so much time on the winemaking.
AK: Favorite part of your day?
GL: Being with my family, when my wife or some of my kids come to find me at the winery to say hello. Or, when the work is done and we sit down together and break bread.
The Man Behind the Wine: Greg La Follette
Greg’s route to winemaking began when he decided that playing the bagpipes wasn’t all that practical. After earning a masters in food science and technology at UC Davis, Greg learned winemaking at Beaulieu Vineyard, Kendal-Jackson, and Flowers before founding Tandem Wines in 2001. In 2009, he sold Tandem to Quivira Vineyards, and the new partners, Greg and Quivira-owner Pete Knight, developed La Follette to spotlight Greg’s unparalleled cool-climate vineyard resources and passion for Pinot Noir.
Anu’s Picks from La Follette:
Buy La Follette 2008 Van der Kamp Pinot Noir, $39.99, at lafollettewines.com
Buy La Follette 2008 Sangiacomo Chardonnay, $29.99, at lafollettewines.com
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