The view to the Pacific from the vineyard

The Profound and the Profane: Winemaking on the Edge of What’s Possible

Greg LaFollette can remember wanting to be a winemaker since he was 17-years-old. But it didn’t seem practical, so… he became a professional bagpipe player instead. And while he still carries his bagpipes in the back seat of his Dodge pickup truck, having worked harvest for 60 vintages from Australia to Chile to Sonoma, it seems that winemaking is the career that stuck.

We’re somewhere in the middle of Mendocino County, between the town of Boonville and the rugged North Coast. The road up to Manchester Ridge Vineyard is steep and rocky, the drop-off vertigo inducing. We’re here because one week earlier I had tasted LaFollette’s Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir, a wine so captivating, a wine that spoke so clearly of place that I simply had to see where it came from. Nauseating three-hour drive be damned.

The wine, you might say, is a vin de terroir, but you won’t hear LaFollette wax on about how wine is made in the vineyard. LaFollette, who has a double BA in Plant Biology and Chemistry from California State University–Northridge, a Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology from UC Davis and has worked as a staff chemist at UCSF, takes anything but a passive approach to making wine. “We’re right on the edge of where it is possible to grow grapes. We’re working with the newest, hottest genetic material. Why shouldn’t we as winemakers be pushing ourselves to discover new techniques?” says LaFollete. “A lot of winemakers say ‘I just stay out of the way.’ But this just isn’t possible.”

He compares winemaking to raising children (and he should know, he has seven): “You have to let your wines grow up; you can’t sit on them too hard, but you can’t be an arm chair winemaker either.” Particularly when you are making wine in a marginal climate like this one — where grapes, shivering in the stiff coastal breeze, struggle to ripen each year. So LaFollette intervenes when and how the situation dictates: “I’m not a luddite. I’ll give my kids penicillin if they need it.” Making wine at the molecular level, as he does, means experimenting with how different kinds of yeast, length of lees contact and the wines interaction with oxygen, among many, many other things, affect mouthfeel, aromas and age-ability.

Manchester Ridge Vineyard is part of Mendocino Ridge, a non-contiguous AVA that is sometimes referred to as the “Islands in the Sky” because of its determining factors: not soil type and climate, but rather elevation (above 1,200 feet) and proximity to the ocean. Planted in 2001 by Martin Mochizuki who LaFollette calls “the wizard of wine,” Manchester Ridge is home to 30 acres of pinot noir (primarily the resilient and open-cluster Dijon 114 clone as well as Dijons 777 and 115), chardonnay (both the traditonal Wente, which is prone to millerandage or “hens and chickens” and the chardonnay Musque clone Dijon 809 known for its intense apricot-like aromas) and, for good measure, 10 acres of chestnut trees (which were originally planted to provide a wind break for the vines, but are also their own cash crop). When LaFollette started making wine from the vineyard in 2004, he upset the long-time vineyard manager by suggesting that the vines to be re-trained and instituting his own leafing regimen which includes leaving the laterals (a strategy that is a part of what he calls carbohydrate repartitioning).

The pinot noir vines are trained into modified double Guyot system whereby two canes are arched each year, which looks lovely and, according to LaFollette, tricks the vine into thinking the center, which is now the highest part, is the end (since vines are climbing animals, the end tends to get all the strength robbing the center of the energy it needs to ripen fruit). The Dijon 809 chardonnay vines look even more outlandish: A unilateral cordon (not the most obvious choice for vines that are already low-yielding) was modified to accomodate two new canes each year. The cordon does an excellent job of storing carbohydrates (energy), while the youthful vigor of new canes produces more fruit.

The forces that create the biodiversity are part of what makes the grapes from Manchester Ridge so special. The prospect of making wine from Manchester Ridge is enticing (one UC Davis test revealed the grapes had the highest phenolics of a large batch of Sonoma and Mendocino pinot noir grapes being tested) but it is also incredibly challenging. “This road is littered with the bodies of winemakers who tried to make wine here,” says LaFollette as we make our way upwards. Besides being a difficult place to grow grapes, managing the vineyards and harvesting the fruit is exhausting and time-consuming (grapes are harvested at night and brought down two tons at a time in the back of a 4×4, which, if it has started raining, risks sliding right off the muddy embankment).

The cliff on which Manchester Ridge is perched is part of the Franciscan Formation, a soil series originating from the ocean floor (meaning there is soil 2,100 feet above sea level that was once thousands of feet below the ocean — a thrilling notion) and LaFollete describes it as a “transition zone.” It’s also bounded by the San Andreas Fault. As we drive, the plant biologist in him comes out. Because it is early spring, the wildflowers that Mendocino is famous for are blooming everywhere and he seems to know them all by name. Asked if the variety of plant and wildlife affects the terroir and ultimately the complexity of the wine, and he says, no, not exactly. Rather, “It’s the forces that create the biodiversity that makes the grapes so interesting.” It’s the diversity of soil types, the extremity of the climate and the complex geological history of the region that has caused manzanilla bushes, Douglas firs, blue oaks, persimmon trees and white tail deer to co-habitate that makes for such intense and unique wine. That, and a winemaker who isn’t afraid to take risks.

‘If you want profound flavors and textures,” says LaFollette, you have to work at it.” His techniques, which include actively oxygenating chardonnay at the juice stage “until it looks like day-old coffee,” allowing full or partial carbonic maceration, experimenting with and stressing different strands of yeast, intentionally reducing the wine and extending the sur lie beyond what is considered normal, creating tension, and to hear LaFollette describe it: “a fine balance, a visceral harmony between the profound and the profane; the floral and the ferrel; the tannins, the acidity, the mouthfeel. It’s a Jimmi Hendrix electric guitar riff. It’s Bach on the pipe organ.

LaFollette opens a bottle of 2006 Tandem chardonnay using a Swiss army knife he he pulls from a pocket of his Carhartt overalls. It was the first wine he ever made from the vineyard, before he started his own label, and it’s intense. It boasts the animal (say it with a French accent) he spoke of earlier — that allusive ferrel character that blows eventually leaving us with aromas of baked apples and almond skins. “I’m not into making fruity wines,” he says. “I’m into making complex wines.”

When you are standing on the edge of the world, watching the waves crash into the shore far below, his philosophy starts to make sense. When LaFollette says that something is “not safe winemaking” that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do it. It’s not just always about making wine that tastes good or is enjoyable with dinner (though his unquestionably are). It’s about exploring new possibilities, taking risks, doing things that are provocative or not considered playing it safe, making mistakes, learning and giving that knowledge back to the community. And along the way, well, there’s a ball to be had. “Fun is good,” says LaFollette, surveying a 50-foot-high swing someone had installed on the the far side of the vineyard, facing the ocean below and quoting the very wise Dr. Suess.