In the winemaking scene, “getting around” is all part of the gig. The best winemakers handle the grapes at various wineries throughout their career, and often more than one winery at a time, before they find “the one.” For Greg La Follette, releasing Pinot under his namesake Healdsburg-based winery has been a multi-decades process that came to fruition last fall with his first La Follette Wines release (four cool-climate Pinot Noirs and two Chardonnays).
Though perhaps best known as the man behind the Pinot Noir at Flowers (La Follette was the winemaker there from 1996 until 2001), La Follette is a chatty science geek who says even when he was the winemaker at Tandem, which dissolved last year to became La Follette, he was too involved with international consulting gigs on the side to spend enough quality time on his own label (many winemakers either supplement their income by working for various wineries, or are forced to wear multiple hats at a winery – from business manager to publicist and winemaker).
And so he says getting back to making wine for one winery — and finally his own — is the job of his dreams. Well, other than perhaps playing the bagpipes. More on the winemaker's teenage days as a piper, the difference between the mouth feel of milk versus wine, and his coming of age experience with Pinot Noir after the jump.
Squid Ink: You played the bagpipes?
Greg La Follette: [laughs] No one ever asks me that. Yes, it was my intention when I was a teenager to play the bagpipes. I ended up being a ship's piper on the Queen Mary, and I won a contest to play with the Scots Guards. My dad recently passed away and we actually found the newspaper clippings from all of those days when we were sorting through things.
SI: So are you Scottish?
GLF: Partly Scottish. Most of my elementary years were spent in Germany. Then I saw the military tattoos [military drum and music performances] with the bagpipes. That did it. So when my fingers got long enough and big enough, I started taking it up. My parents were very much against it. Bagpipes are noisy and obnoxious, they said, so they offered to buy me a drum set instead [laughs]. I used my milk money to pay for lessons secretly.
SI: That's pretty funny. Maybe this is a stretch, but playing bagpipes seems not all that dissimilar to winemaking, or at least that aspect of wanting to use your hands to “make” something, music or otherwise.
GLF: Oh definitely. There's a left brain-right brain side, an artistic side, to both. My first major was actually music, then I switched and got undergrad degrees in chemistry and plant biology before the Masters in Food Science program at UC Davis. I think winemaking follows that path, the art side and the science side. Winemaking is a lot like creating music. When you learn music, you learn the language of the science of music. Pitch, all of that. That's what goes into you. What comes out is the art. It's up to the musician or winemaker to assemble that inside aspect, to make this product that's called music or wine. Then when you're sitting down listening to great music, you're not analyzing it at that point, you're just enjoying it. That's wine.
SI: You've said before that you are also fascinated with “scientific components of mouth feel.” What exactly does the science side of mouth feel mean for those of us who may not be so science oriented?
GLF: Well, basically, no one had defined a “mouth feel” in wine. It had been done in beer and milk, but not wine. So it's what I focused on while I was getting my masters degree. My job as a winemaker is basically to deal with how you get yeast to produce more polysaccharides. They even sound mouth feel-y — polysaccharides. Don't they? Like what an engineer would do with rebar in an earthquake zone. The consumer doesn't need to know all that, though.
SI: So what should we know?
GLF : In layman's terms, mouth feel is what brings pleasure and harmony in your mouth. The main thing about wine is if you just let it caress your tongue, that's all you need to know. That's my job, as winemaker. Pinot Noir can do that like no other varietal.
Pinot Noir actually caresses your tongue — it loves your tongue. It has weight, but also lightness. It defies gravity, yet it is a wine that is still able to bring great pleasure. When all three of those intersect, that is great mouth feel. It's all about loving your tongue. My UC Davis professors would hate me saying that, but it's true, really. Nothing more than that, really.
Check back tomorrow for more with Greg La Follette, including how he wound up with his own wine label after all these years (a kick in the pants from his wife startd the ball rolling).