When we first spoke with Greg La Follette, winemaker at his namesake La Follette Wines, he was telling us how making wine isn't all that different from playing the bagpipes. And why getting to know Pinot Noir isn't all that different from taking on a new lover (“Pinot Noir actually caresses your tongue — it loves your tongue”). Turn the page for part two of our interview, where La Follette shares why going Tandem isn't always the best decision on the winemaking trail, and how his wife convinced him to focus solely on his own path.
Squid Ink: You were telling us about the mouth feel of Pinot Noir, a wine you clearly love making. After you left Flowers in 2001, you were making wine under the Tandem label, as a partial owner, until it dissolved last year. Let's back up and talk about Tandem.
Greg La Follette: Well, I had made wine for other people for years. Then Tandem came along. Tandem appeared to be kind of a one horse deal, just myself and [Linda] Villagomez making the wine, but I still wasn't exactly getting paid to just make my own wine. I was getting paid to make someone else's wine during the day, then I'd make my own wine [at Tandem] when I could fit it in.
SI: Because you were still consulting on other wineries at the time.
GLF: Yes. I was working evening and weekends, all the time. It was killing me. I'd work for 14 or 16 hours during harvest making other people's wine, then spend most of the rest of the hours making mine [for Tandem], and see my wife and kids for a brief moment in the evening. Plus I was kind of doing everything at Tandem, wearing all hats — the business side, marketing, accounting. That's time consuming.
And there was another big problem. My wife and I have six kids. There's a saying, bigger kids equal bigger problems, and most of my kids were teenagers at the time. So you can imagine. My kids starting calling me Uncle Dad. My wife put them up to it. But I got the message.
SI: So now you are focused on just one thing — making the wines at La Follette.
GLF: Yes, isn't that great? I've never known that feeling until now. How to just be a winemaker. Tandem was really built on the back of my wife and children. Free spousal and child labor [laughs]. Now, I've got real professional crush help, a fabulous crew who does sales and marketing. I mean, there are actually people who handle things like accounting? For finance, I've actually got a CFO. Can you imagine? I don't have to worry about making calls begging for money. I can just make wine.
SI Note: Pete Kight, owner of Quivira Vineyards, purchased Greg La Follette's shares of Tandem Winery early last year, in essence making Greg simply the winemaker, no longer part-owner of the winery.
SI: You think it will be different this time?
GLF: Absolutely. Part of the problem was at Tandem, we just didn't have the focus. I was making Zinfadel, Carignan, all manner of wines, eight varietals. People didn't understand what it was all about. It also turned out that my name was more recognized than the label Tandem, for all the work I'd done for other people. So we started this new brand [La Follette], a new partnership. Pete [Kight] says to me, “You can just focus on Pinot and Chardonnay, your very best vineyards, and we'll price it at a point that makes a sense in today's market.”
Tandem was also too high priced for the market. Then the bottom dropped out of the wine market [two years ago]. We were in real financial trouble, my wife and I almost lost our house. Actually the [recession] and nearly losing our house is the reason I was able to finally focus on just a few vineyards, just a few varietals, and really put my money where my mouth is for the first time, focus on what I love.
SI: You had to get to the bottom to do what you really wanted to be doing.
SI: And your first wines under the new label, the 2008, were recently released.
GLF: Yes, the 2008s are the first releases, but really these are the same vineyards that I've been working with over many years. So to me they don't feel that new. For 25 years, I've been working with these growers and vineyards. I just had dinner with two of my growers, I was just over delivering an old wine barrel to another so he could make a wheelbarrow out of it.
SI: How about your six kids. Any interested in winemaking?
GF: No, thank God I've broken them of that nasty habit. They've all had to work at the winery with me over the years, they know it's hard work and they don't want to do it. They're more into LAPD bomb squad demolition and things like that. Several of them are in college various places, two locally, so they actually do part-time winemaking at other wineries. But that's because they can get higher paying part time jobs. All of my kids grew up learning to do everything, so they're very useful to other wineries. We basically went from a full house down to almost empty nesters.
SI: More time for wine.
GLF: Yes. When you've got so many kids, the only way to keep in touch with them is to break bread with them. They start coming around for dinner. That's when we spend time together now.
On that note, we will leave you with this dinner toast courtesy of La Follette's blog: “Happy New Year… May all of your Rieslings be white.”