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Ancient Oak Cellars’ winemaker Greg La Follette’s enduring love affair with Chardonnay

I first started enjoying Chardonnay as a teenager because my dad was collecting a lot of wines and Chardonnay was essentially a brand-new varietal in California, only really being intensively worked on following the Judgment of Paris. My dad was actively seeking out all those guys like Randy Dunn, Jerry Luper, and Mike Grgich. So I had the opportunity to taste those wines at an early age and also see how they aged, because my dad laid down a lot of wine. What I saw there was that although they were beautiful early, many of them didn’t age so well. I knew from tasting classic Burgundian Chardonnays from my dad’s cellar that Chardonnay can be age-worthy, and that became a goal of mine. When I started thinking more seriously about winemaking, I thought of Chardonnay as being the perfect subject because it’s so much of a blank canvas on which you can paint your own creation.

I ended up doing a thesis that basically focused on Burgundian winemaking techniques such as bâttonage and sur lies aging. When I looked at California winemakers, one of the only people thinking this way was Dick Graff, who founded Chalone Vineyards. Dick gave me 64 barrels of Chardonnay to trial, and with that many individual trial points it was basically industrial scale — since at a time much of the work at UC Davis was being done in 5 gallon carboys. Another one of my research sites was at Simi with Zelma Long. And later I worked on with John Kongsgaard.

While doing my research, I got to meet Andre Tchelistcheff, and my life really was forever changed. So I continued my research into Chardonnay with Andre and some excellent vineyards he had planted early on in the Carneros region. Andre really wanted to learn a lot more about my baking and so I am embarked on a remarkable 3 years stint with Bealieu Vineyards to learn everything I would about the qualities of vineyards and what Andre call the Great Cabernet programs where we were really trying to do was tear apart what made great Cabernet and look at all the various different techniques that were being used around the world, which led me on an international west to look at both anaerobic and aerobic techniques in Chardonnay and Pinot noir as well as Cabernet wine making.  Pinot scared the hell out of me; of course the other of the twins of Burgundy is Chardonnay, and I really felt like I needed Chardonnay to help me to deal with Pinot because Pinot is very finicky and frustrating, while Chardonnay is like a Gumby doll — you can just stretch it pull it every witch way so it was very malleable and very satisfying to work with.

So I really was able to hone my thinking about how to make great wines under Andre at BV and pretty soon after his death I was able to help start a couple of wineries and facilities at Kendall Jackson, including Hartford Court and La Crema. This led me on an adventure to work with all of the KJ wineries as a kind of in-house trouble-shooter where my job was to learn the very best wine-growing and wine-making practices. I headed up the technical committee, doing projects and attending conferences and then writing up papers for these gatherings, and bringing all this information back to all of the KJs vineyards and wineries.

 

I then met Walt and Jean Flowers, and got to help design and build a ground-breaking gravity-flow, gas-assist winery, where I put everything I had learned into practice as the founding winemaker for Flowers Vineyard and Winery. My passion for family-farmed, single-vineyard, native-ferment Chardonnay and Pinot noir blossomed. It is a passion that has filled me ever since, and one that I am so happy to be able to fully realize here at Ancient Oak Cellars.


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