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In Depth: La Follette Wines

Winemaker Greg La Follette is making wine for a new wine brand and this time it bears his name. Mr. La Follette has been working in the wine business since 1991 when he was a research viticulturalist/enologist for André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards. He’s held consulting, research, winemaking and executive management roles at several top North Coast wineries since then, including Jarvis, Kendall-Jackson, Flowers, and Tandem Vineyards. He has also contributed at a number of overseas wineries, including Yarra Ridge in Australia.

Focus is a key theme of the new brand though, which is an evolution of Tandem Vineyards. Whereas Greg La Follette has usually worked for multiple wineries at the same time, he is now winemaker solely for La Follette Wines and doesn’t have any outside consulting contracts. “Now, winemaking is no longer my weekend and evening job,” said LaFollettte. This is good news, because his winemaking style is very hands on, varying substantially from one wine to the next as he tries to maximize expression of terroir. One example of this is the “fluff racking” he employs for Lorenzo Vineyard Chardonnay.

Fluff racking involves very carefully using a racking wand while the wine is being moved from the press in order to evenly distribute light, fluffy solids into each barrel while preventing heavier solids with stronger, earthier flavors from going in at all. “If you don’t fluff enough, you can wind up with a boring wine and not enough texture,” according to La Follette. He did his post-graduate thesis on how Burgundian winemaking techniques affect mouthfeel. Mouthfeel hadn’t yet been a focus in the characterization wine. La Follette was the first person to do so and puts a lot of emphasis on texture in his winemaking.

But Greg LaFollette isn’t about employing a bag of winemaking tricks to create a signature style. He sees both irony and a special opportunity in working on this eponymous brand. “My overall philosophy has been to focus on the wine, not the winemaker. I kind of railed for years against the machine that has the winemaker as rock star. When you think about the greatest vineyards in the world, you think of the vineyard not the winemaker. Here I am now with a brand with my own name on it... But really what I want us to do is focus on the wine which is the culmination of more than a quarter century of work, with a lot of vineyards that I’ve actually helped to establish and bring to fruition.”

GregLaFollette2
Greg La Follette

To help make that happen at La Follette, the lineup of wines will also be more focused than was the Tandem portfolio. According to La Follette general manager Nancy Bailey, “La Follette is about Pinot Noir with a bit of Chardonnay. Tandem offered several different varietals, La Follette will offer just two, plus a Pinot Meunier for club members.” There are six La Follette wines scheduled for release around September of this year and one more, the 2008 La Follette Lorenzo Vineyard Chardonnay, to be released in February or March of 2011. The lineup includes three Chardonnay and four Pinot Noir, plus just two barrels of Pinot Meunier.

She added that the new brand plans to maintain “a compact lineup that will consistently show terroir and seasonal variation.” To that end, La Follette will be more focused with respect to vineyards too. Tandem produced wines from as many as fourteen vineyards. La Follette will use just four in vineyard-designate wines: Lorenzo Vineyard, Sangiacomo Vineyard (Roberts Road, Petaluma Gap), Manchester Ridge and Van der Kamp Vineyard. This ties in to the importance Greg La Follette places on site specificity,

“These wines are authentic to their sites. Each one of these wines is very different from each other. These wines represent the land, the soil, the rocks, the sun. And those kinds of things are much larger than any one person... You first completely let go of what you want to see and let the land speak to you and then help to interpret that... This for me is the most exciting and thrilling thing about being a winemaker.”

Greg La Follette and assistant winemaker Simone Sequeira make the wines at a facility in Sebastopol used by roughly 40 other labels. The winery, in a complex formerly used by Vacu-Dry to process apples, is not open to the public. Greg La Follette actually helped establish it in 2001 and was the first person to make wine there. Now known as Owl Ridge Wine Services, companies using it to make their wines include Kosta Browne, Londer Vineyards, Paul Hobbs, Wesmar Winery and Halleck Vineyard.

I was among the few wine writers invited to attend the first press tasting for La Follette. It took place in San Francisco at Baker & Banker restaurant. After we tasted and evaluated each wine in silence, Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein led a discussion of them with Greg La Follette, detailing the vineyards and the processes used for creating each wine.

 

2008 La Follette Chardonnay Lorenzo Vineyard, Russian River Valley - 100 cases, 14.6% alc., $37.99.
Greg La Follette characterizes this wine as “layered, lush, fleshy and spicy” and the closest to a “California-style” Chardonnay of the three. One of the oldest vineyards in the Russian River Valley, La Follette says, “this is the one vineyard [where] I actually have my hands on every single vine every single year.” He uses fluff racking on this wine to provide texture while maintaining fresh aromas and flavors. This is also the only vineyard for which uses just one specific cooperage. The particular small-production barrels complement, rather than dominate, the wine’s natural spice.

My notes: Medium intensity lemon-green in color with legs and a moderately intense nose of butter, spice-poached pear, bruised apple, canned peaches and peach pit. It is supple on the palate with lightly perceptible tannins. It has flavors of butterscotch, buttered rum, poached pear, fleshy peach and a very long finish. Very Highly Recommended.

 

2008 La Follette Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast - 395 cases, 14.1% alc., $29.99
Greg La Follette said that this is one of coolest, and latest ripening, vineyards in Sonoma County. He sees its unique signature as a “feral, sauvage et animal” quality which Evan Goldstein also describes as matchstick. “Most California winemakers and small children will run away from a wine like this in barrel screaming,” joked La Follette, “but when my French buddies come taste with me they smell it and say, “Ha, I am at home.””

These characteristics of the vineyard are amplified by inclusion of a lot of solids, there is no fluff racking for this wine. The presence of considerable solids also leads to higher fermentation temperatures which in turn brings out a “yeast stress aroma signature” that adds its own feral aspect and increases textural interest.

My notes: Medium plus intensity lemon-gold with legs and aromas of mineral, yellow and green apple, mild spice, oak and matchstick. Full bodied and lightly creamy with light tannins and flavors of apple butter, nectarine, cinnamon and vanilla. Highly Recommended.

 

2008 La Follette Chardonnay Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge - 272 cases, 14.5% alc., $47.99
This is the ultimate example of La Follette’s hands-on winemaking and attention to detail with respect to Chardonnay production. The vineyard, characterized by delicacy and perfume, includes three Chardonnay clones, Dijon 76, Old Wente and a very recently developed Chardonnay musqué clone called Dijon 809 which is noted for floral aromas. Vinification for the Dijon 76 and Old Wente clones is done by including all of the good solids, but not fluff racking, sticking with wild yeasts for fermentation and then using intentional reduction (preventing the juice and wine from being exposed to any oxygen).

But, for the the Dijon 809 only, he keeps the juice in contact with the de-stemmed skins for as much as 36 hours. This increases the aromatics but also the phenolics. Since these phenolics can cause wine to turn brown or pink, and also take on a bitterness, he puts the juice through controlled oxidation - the opposite of the intentional reduction used for the other two clones. This lets the juice go through the color changes so that it doesn’t occur in the wine. It also takes away the bitterness. According to La Follette, the resulting wine will start out more golden than a typical Chardonnay, but will hold that color for a long time and age very well.

The Dijon 809 is then put through a basket press, not a bladder or tank press. Yield from a basket press is only 75% of what the other presses would achieve. But, the basket is more delicate and doesn’t extract harsh compounds from the skins. The juice is cold settled and fined using skim milk, egg whites and bentonite to further reduce the phenolics and proteins before vinification takes place.

My notes: Medium plus intensity lemon-gold in color, no legs. The nose is forward, yet delicate and pretty, and includes peach, spice, melon and flowers. The palate is fully-bodied, creamy and intensely flavorful. Vanilla, butter, baked peach, butterscotch, sweet spice and poached pear are easily discerned. Very Highly Recommended.

 

2008 La Follette Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast - 2324 cases, 14.6% alc., $29.99
Created primarily for restaurants’ by-the-glass programs, this wine is a blend of of components from six different vineyards. La Follette says, “if you listen close enough you can pick them out, but my goal is to make it very hard to pick them out.” He wants to showcase the hallmarks of the Sonoma Coast region as a whole: color, a strong backbone and texture, and layers of aroma and flavor. And, unlike some regional blends that consist of leftovers from single-vineyard efforts, the first blend of this wine is made very early. That wine is then adjusted frequently by adding more components over a period of months until the desired profile is achieved.

My notes: Dark ruby with legs and an inviting nose of black cherry, cocoa, earth, charcoal and a hint of meat. The mouthfeel is like slightly coarse silk with somewhat prominent, grainy tannins balanced by juicy black and red cherry. The fruit is framed by mild oaky spice and the flavors last quite a long time. An excellent value and Very Highly Recommended.

 

2008 La Follette Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast - 433 cases, 14.3% alc., $39.99
La Follette has been working with the vineyard since 1984 and says the wine is the most feminine of his single-vineyard Pinot Noir. Spice and acidity are signatures of the vineyard. I have been impressed with 2008 Sangiacomo (Roberts Road) Pinot Noir, even more so than the very fine 2007s. I asked La Follette to describe the two vintages. He said that while “2007 was perfect, maybe too perfect,” 2008 had just enough moist, cool weather late in the year to keep the grapes smaller than normal, resulting in a greater skin to juice ratio.

My notes: Ruby in the glass with legs and attractive aromas of cherry, delicate spice and caramel. On the palate it’s smooth — almost creamy — with flavors of juicy cherry and caramel. Highly Recommended.

 

2008 La Follette Pinot Noir Van Der Kamp Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain - 494 cases, 15.1% alc., $39.99
Whereas Sangiacomo Roberts Road is the lowest (60 ft) vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, Van Der Kamp is the very highest at 1200 ft. Among other things, this means that it’s top soil is very thin relative that of Sangiacomo, so the vines are less vigorous, leading to a more structured wine.

In an effort to avoid off-flavors that might have affected these grapes due to the intense forest fires of 2008, La Follette wanted to minimize crushing of the grapes. He therefore used a high percentage of whole clusters and also carbonic fermentation in this wine which also includes 5% Pinot Meunier. The results are very good.

My notes: Medium dark ruby with a pale meniscus and legs, the nose is wild cherry and spice. The palate holds a complex mix of dark fruit, caramel, charcoal, spiced meat and slate. Highly Recommended.

 

2008 La Follette Pinot Noir Manchester Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge - 214 cases, 14.6% alc., $49.99
Manchester Ridge Vineyard is located in a very remote part of Mendocino County. It’s a three-and-a-half hour drive from La Follette’s Sebastopol winery, the last hour of which is on treacherous and rutted dirt logging roads. Greg La Follette likens the wine to some of the fine Pinot Noir has recently made in Chile with it’s “old school herbal quality.” As with the Van der Kamp, he used a lot of whole cluster, carbonic fermentation to avoid any possibility of smoke taint.

My notes: The wine is dark ruby in color with a fascinating nose of cranberry, strawberry, dried herb, orange peel, light brown spice and tobacco leaf. It offers a rich, creamy mouthfeel with flavors of cranberry, cherry cream, spice, orange peel and raspberry. The finish is extremely long. This is one of the best Pinots I have had this year and it gets my Highest Recommendation.

 

The La Follette Wines is owned by Pete and Terri Kight. In 2008, Mr. Kight purchased Tandem Vineyards from Greg La Follette, retaining him as winemaker. The Tandem Vineyards brand is being discontinued in favor of the new brand and approach of La Follette. Tandem wines can still be found in the market, but the winery has sold through their inventory and won’t produce any more under that label.

Pete Kight founded CheckFree Corporation and served as its Chairman and CEO until it was sold to Fiserv in 2007. His longtime passion for wine led him to acquire Quivira Vineyards & Winery of Dry Creek Valley in 2006 and to become a partner in Torbreck (Barossa Valley, Australia) with its founder Dave Powell.

Disclosure: These wines were tasted non-blind at a press event in the presence of the winemaker.

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