Extreme Winemaking by Tandem's Greg La Follette

When it comes to winemaking, you can’t be an extremist without having two feet set firmly in the ground; or terroir, to use the all encompassing wine word for ecosystem specification.

Greg La Follette is cut from the same cloth as other extreme winemakers whose work is measured not only by what they put in the bottle, but also by the waves they generate while doing it. In France, I think of Lucien Peyraud, André Ostertag and the recently departed Didier Dagueneau as consummate extremists; casting shadows over even their more respected peers with their bold winemaking tactics.

The modern era of California winemaking was pushed along – willingly, and at times unwillingly – by the fighting spirit of Martin Ray, the prescience of Joseph Swan, and the energy of André Tchelistcheff (under whom La Follette studied at Beaulieu); and in recent years, by oft-times prickly icons like Randall Grahm, Jim Clendenen, David Ramey, and Manfred Krankl.

There are many more, of course, of varying degrees in all parts of the wine world. The common thread describing all these vintners making their living at the edge: contrarian methodology conducted on the basis of what’s worked in the past, but lost in the present mostly due to fear factors.

For La Follette – who arrived to the point he’s at today after somewhat more mainstream successes at Hartford Court and Flowers – it’s about taking pristine raw material from largely cold climate sources (Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Russian River Valley, Mendocino, and north facing slopes of Sonoma Mountain), and applying his self-styled “Euro-centric” instincts to risk-taking measures that retain (rather than “extract”) every last drop of flavor and texture a grape can give. In a story in Wines & Vines, for instance, La Follette talks about the science of fermentation he learned at Davis; particularly what happens when yeasts are stressed (consequentially, assorted sulfides and mercaptans; i.e. skunk, rubber tire, cooked cabbage, etc.): “I thought, cool! I gotta try that.”

And so the arsenal of experiential techniques La Follette throws at his wines each year at Tandem – established in 2001 as a dual winery/custom pad in Sebastopol – includes high stressing of native (as well as inoculated) yeasts, passive oxygenating (when wearing his Chardonnay hat, La Follette calls himself a secret member of the “Brown Juice Club”), as well as deliberate sub-sensory level sulfide production. Steps such as depriving yeast of nutrients, says La Follette, “is like being a coach… you force your athletes to a certain level beyond what they thought they can do.”

In other words, forcing wines to dig down deeper to assert themselves. The results? Chardonnays with levels of viscosity and terroir related minerality you never thought possible in California grown Chardonnay. Pinot Noirs with more spice, more perfume, more feral or animale notes than hitherto suspected in the grape.

In the wines of Tandem, sometimes these elements soar out of control; like La Follette’s 2006 Auction Block Pinot Noir, which exudes a heady cacophony of gingery spice, tropical flower, rhubarb and roasted beef that is more likely to confound, rather enthrall, the vast number of Pinot lovers of today; akin to what Dylan did to folkies at Newport in ’65, or the way Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew alienated the jazz crowd in ’70.

In other cases – like the way the tropical and cardamom spices are embedded in densely compacted, plummy varietal fruit in his 2006 Sangiacomo Pinot Noir – La Follette takes you to an exhilarating edge, without throwing you off into realms uncharted.

But when all is said and done, La Follette is still basically (to use that overheated term) a terroirist; albeit, a molecular one (to borrow a description by Tim Teichgraeber). In early September 2008 he took me on a tour of North Coast terroirs; and letting the wines themselves describe the scenery along the way:

2006 Tandem, Manchester Ridge Mendocino Ridge Chardonnay – Manchester Ridge is a spectacular high elevation (2,900 ft.) vineyard on the first ridge in from the Mendocino coastline; planted to the old Wente clone as well as the new Dijon 809 (a floral variation of Chardonnay musque). Knife edge acidity is the natural offshoot of this remote (accessible only by miles of logging roads), cold climate site (grapes picked in the third week of October), and La Follette challenged it with natural yeast and minimal battonage (once-monthly lees stirring during barrel aging). The result is a wine of fresh, unfettered perfume (more of meadow wood flowers than pineapple), a subtle creaminess just hinting at honey and butterscotch, and unusually long, extended, smooth, even keeled flavors (not a tart or rough edge to be found).

2002 Tandem, Porter-Bass Russian River Valley Chardonnay – Porter-Bass is a mature vineyard (its Zinfandel block over a 100 years old), biodynamically and organically farmed by Sue Porter and Dirck Bass; its Wente clone Chardonnay picked at a ton or less per acre. La Follette inoculated with a strain to bring out delicate, white flowery notes of the grapes; and at after over five years in the bottle, the wine is still crystal clear (shimmering pale gold), with floral, minerally, and roasted/honeyed almond components riding on a mildly tart edged, silken textured, medium-weight body. Definitely a finesse style; and yes, you can say Burgundian, but more in terms of its snail’s pace evolution and steely structure than actual aromatics (apart from its stony subtleties).

2006 Tandem, Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay – In ’06 rains caused about 15% rot in this vineyard; and La Follette tells the story of Sangiacomo harvest crews picking with an assortment of rain covers and sorting tables jimmy-rigged right in the field; followed by more hours of sorting at the winery done by Greg, his wife Mara and their kids. Despite the labor, perfectly presentable, honeyed tropical fruit notes (wrapped in mildly toasted oak) of “noble rot” show up in the nose; and on the palate, the touch of botrytis seems to have also added an even more viscous texture to bright, citrusy crisp, tropical flavors (sweet apple tilted towards pineapple and passionfruit), and the wine finishes with the classic Tandem touch of silk draped over steel beams.

2006 Tandem, Auction Block Sonoma Pinot Noir – Although this Pinot is dominated by Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain and Russian River components, the icy-climatic Manchester Ridge Vineyard probably adds to the wildly uncouth, dancing, ringing perfume of this multi-source cuvée. And boy, does it hop. Two weeks after my visit with La Follette, I placed this in a double-blind tasting with a group of seasoned Denver oenophiles, and the contrast with Pinots from Oregon (including a sumptuous 2005 Domaine Serene Two Barns from Dundee Hills, and a remarkably finesseful 2005 Cristom Louise Vineyard from Eola-Amity Hills), California (a typically aggressive, big, meaty 2003 Peter Michael Pisoni Vineyard from Santa Lucia Highlands), and France (wines, complete with Burgundian tar, smoke and rubber boots, such as a 1994 Pierre Damoy Clos de Bèze and 1998 Robert Arnaux Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Poisets) couldn’t have been more dramatic. Even the drapery gives you warning: deep purplish center transitioning to glistening crimsom and brick at the rim. As if the Auction Block’s color and fragrance aren’t exotic enough; its juxtaposition of the softest silk and zesty, mouthwatering acidity (La Follette calls this textural contrasting “levitating”) also puts it on a totally different footing (or should I say planet?) from the eleven other wines we was compared it to. However which way you look at it, this isn’t just pushing envelopes; it’s reading and eating it, too!

2006 Tandem, Silver Pines Vineyard Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir – On a northwest facing, 1,000 foot slope exposed to a wind gap shooting up from the Petaluma Gap, this clay encrusted vineyard has been producing dense, broad, almost brooding styles of Pinot Noir; its fruit quality veering towards black plums (away from red berry perfumes) with smoky, woodsy, slightly resiny, feral notes (La Follette calls the nose “slutty”); but all of this mitigated by a slipping, sliding, fleshy pliant feel – pure pleasure on the palate. Given La Follette’s procedurals, a stunning explication of terroir and grape siting.

2006 Tandem, Van der Kamp Vineyard Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir – This 1,400 elevation site (highest in the AVA) is, evidently, the source of the oldest plantings of Pinot Noir in Sonoma County, continuously farmed by the Van der Kamp Vineyard for over forty years. Like the Silver Pines, it also offers dramatic distinctions of terroir: beginning with sweet, dark berry fragrances tinged with scrubby, herby aromas hinting at French roasted coffee; and going further with a round, beefy mouth-feel combining sinewy muscle and a lush, velvet texture, filled out by dense tannin and punctuated by snappy acidity. Everything we like about the grape firmly in place, but within the unique context of a place.

2006 Tandem, Sangiacomo Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot NoirNota bene, although Sangiacomo is known mostly as a Carneros AVA, La Follette’s source is from a newer parcel located well west of Carneros, exposed to bone chilling winds charging through the Petaluma Gap. Very much identifiable with Sonoma Coast and the restrained yet penetrating style of Pinot Noir associated with it. Here, I also think La Follette puts it all together: exotic Pinot spice (cracked peppercorn and cardamom) mixed with wild berry, plum and caramelized fig; and a permissively sleek, sexy, vibrating mouthful of lush, almost sweet flavors bolstered by firm yet perfectly rounded tannin. Ah, this is what Teichgraeber means by “molecule man.” Indubitably not Pinot Noir for the timid, much less the mainstream. But once you’ve come to terms with La Follette’s world, how can you resist?

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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.