When you first meet Greg LaFollette, he'll probably be wearing overalls and won't say much.
More taciturn than most winemakers, Greg is an unassuming man whose biography begins by saying that he realized his first love, playing the bagpipes, wasn't a practical career path -#8212; though he did perform on the Queen Mary, docked in Long Beach.
The main reason his name is not as widely known as a brilliant winemaker may be due, in part, to his own quiet manner, and the fact that his prior vinous ventures were for some of the largest and best-known wine brands (where it's hard to become a star).
Then he developed a small brand called Tandem that flew well below anyone's radar, was known only to buyers who loved the wines' delicate textures more than the overt "power and oak" impact wines that became popular in the late 1990s.
If anything, LaFollette's wines were the antithesis of big. Their greatest attribute was a textural richness along with excellent acidity that made them high on collectors' wish lists. As a result many of the wines, scarce as they were, sold for a lot of money.
What sets Greg apart from many winemakers is his remarkable technical skill. He has degrees in physical chemistry and food science, and has consulted for some of the most prestigious wineries in California and Australia.
He has worked at Beaulieu and Jarvis (both in the Napa Valley), for the Kendall-Jackson wine group, and De Loach.
He was the first general manager and winemaker at famed Flowers Vineyard and Winery, high on a ridge in the far north of the Sonoma Coast. And he has consulted with many wineries, including donating time to the Santa Rosa Junior College wine program.
What drove LaFollette to involve himself in so many consulting projects was his insatiable curiosity and the fact that he loves problem-solving.
I've known Greg for years, but in the late 2000s I sort of lost track of him. We chatted over lunch the other day and I learned that Tandem went through a series of problems associated with the nation's financial woes, when banks declined loans to all manner of businesses.
Moreover, Greg's parents grew ill, and on a weekly basis he drove back and forth to the San Fernando Valley, where he'd attended school, to assist them. As a result, the winery project took a back seat.
Though it produced some stellar wines, the Tandem project was in need of a partner, and in 2009 LaFollette merged with Quivira, a wonderful Dry Creek project, that was owned by Florida native Pete Kight, founder of CheckFree Corp., which was sold in 2007 for more than $4 billion.
Today, LaFollette makes top-rate chardonnays and pinot noirs under the LaFollette Wines brand, and has opened a tasting room in The Barlow, the upscale community shopping district in Sebastopol.
Most LaFollette wines are truly artisan works, with chardonnays selling in high $30s and the pinots between $40 and $58.
A startling value in the line is a 2012 Pinot Meunier ($37) that's available only at the tasting room.
Wine of the Week: 2012 McManis Pinot Noir, California ($11) -#8212; It's hard to find a bargain-priced Pinot Noir that delivers any sort of varietal character, but this one does, and at a very fair price. The aroma is lightly cherry-like, and there is a silkiness to the mid-palate fruit. Not a great wine, but one very fairly priced.