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if you want your son to be a winemaker, name him greg

by Monty and Sara Preiser

It is understandable that winemakers who toil for years in the vineyards, labs, and wineries as employees of a high powered vintner long to not only have their own name on a label, but to work for themselves. It is the American way. On the other hand, while most often (but not always) vintners will allow a well known winemaker to produce a competing label under the winemaker’s name, the economics of opening one’s own business hinder a winemaker leaving the security of his or her job and starting anew and alone.

It seems that when winemakers are able to take this significant leap in their life toward total independence, they have one of two arrows in their quiver that allows them to do so – a terrific relationship with their grape growers, or their own estate. For without a source (or two or three) from which to ultimately harvest fruit, the world’s greatest crafter of wines would be without materials to mold.

Two winemakers who have made the jump to sole proprietorship after many years of honing their reputations primarily working for others are Greg Graham and Greg La Follette, the former having left Rombauer a few years ago to establish a gorgeous winery and vineyard in the Red Hills appellation of Lake County, and the latter having just recently given notice at De Loach to begin his own label using the fruit picked from long time grower friends. Graham’s story is rarer insofar as he is using mostly his own estate grapes, while La Follette will continue to purchase stellar grapes from others. But both are producing their usual outstanding wines.

Two weeks ago we had the honor of being among the ten judges for the Lake County People’s Choice Awards (this has been a busy judging month as Sara also judged the greens cook-off at Vision Cellars in Sonoma, but that is a different story waiting to be told). Following two days of surprises at how delicious the Sauvignon Blancs, Rhone Varietals, and some Bordeaux wines growing in Lake County can be (we think they need to re-evaluate the wisdom of growing Chard and Pinot Noir), we took a drive out to the spectacular Clear Lake area where Greg Graham has his home and vineyard at an elevation overlooking the lake and countryside.

Graham also has a charming tasting room separate from, yet within, his barrel room. There we were treated to the Graham style, which produces wines that are clean, bright, not overly fruit driven yet possessive of bold flavors, complex when needed, and subtle when required. We will evaluate them for you below, and you will be floored by one aspect of what you see – the low price points. As they say, “trust us” when we tell you that almost every wine is seriously undervalued as it relates to its competitors statewide.

Yet before we speak specifically to Graham’s wines, let us share our yesterday with you. A simply gorgeous, sunny August day in both Napa and Sonoma with temperatures in the mid 70’s (feeling hotter in the sun and cooler in the shade). This was a day loved by both humans and grapes (the latter being just as important to please in wine country as the former).

We were honored to be invited as two of only three press people to Greg La Follette’s official kick off of his own label, with an early evening dinner and tasting affair being held high up Sonoma Mountain at the breath-taking Van der Kamp Vineyard. In attendance primarily were Greg’s close friends, growers, and wine club members. It was a relatively intimate celebration of the moment accompanied by, of course, a tasting of all the new wines, including some that have not yet been released to the public.

Not so surprisingly, almost everything we sampled from La Follette is highly recommended, and we will evaluate them below for you, just as we will the also recommended wines of Greg Graham. As you will see, the addition of these two new California labels helps continue the transformation of California wines from “some of the best in the world” to the “definitive best.” We believe it, and as the cream of the crop move on from winemaking job to winemaker/owner (thereby allowing the next future great to step up to the vacant job), California wines will continue their ascendancy to even greater heights.

Greg Graham Wines (www.ggwines.com)
-2008 Dry Riesling, Roumiquiere Vineyard ($15): Flavorful and an award winner, this wine exhibits apples and citrus. Perfect for salads, an aperitif, with foods of light spice, or on its own.

-2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Rolling Knolls Vineyard ($16): Bright, lively, and crisp, this S.B. shows off the Lake County region as well as the winemaker’s skill. Drink with almost any seafood that is not immersed in a rich sauce.

-2006 Syrah, Crimson Hill Vineyard ($20): A first vintage from Greg’s new estate winery, you find in this wine some sweet purple fruit, a velvety mouth-feel, and good structure. Drink with ribs or BBQ pork.

-2009 Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyard ($26): We have to say that Greg created the famed Rombauer Chardonnay, which has been named the country’s best many times. Thus it is no disappointment to say that this one is reminiscent of its cousin across the mountain, showing off the integration of fruit and oak, while giving you a pleasantly buttery finish.
Note: The Sangiacomo vineyard is on the Sonoma Coast, not in Lake County.

-2007 Grenache, Red Hills ($20): Beautiful fruit and a long finish surround a wisp of smoke. As we said, Rhone wines are growing beautifully in Lake County. This is one of those wines.

-2008 Viognier, Bartolucci Vineyard ($20): Florals and honeysuckle make this a terrific alternative varietal for light seafood dishes and some frozen desserts.

La Follette Wines (www.lafollettewines.com)
-2008 Chardonnay Manchester Ridge, Mendocino County ($48): Surprise. Mendocino Ridge Chard. Who knew? But beautiful apples and figs jumped right out at us, and a bright vanilla finish left us thinking this was an excellent mid day wine.

-2008 Chardonnay Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($30): Old Wente clones grown in a cool area and left on the lees for about a year produce a creamy, citrusy, beautifully balanced wine that will accompany seafood or light meat dishes.

-2008 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($30): Not quite an entry level price, and far better than most entry level Pinots, this does serve as lowest rung of Greg’s Pinot Noirs. It is flavorful and without any large problems, but for $10 more, go to his other brilliant offerings.

-2008 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($40): One Pinot Noir is better than the next with Greg, and this one evidences bright strawberry/cherry fruit up front followed by darker red nuances. We could taste a medium rare wild Pacific salmon on first sip, and then enjoyed it with dinner – roasted pig.

-2008 Pinot Noir Van der Kamp Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain ($40): A combination of six clones (“clones” are the in thing to talk about when discussing Pinots), this is a wine with distinctive tannins and flavors. Deep black fruit and such structure allow it to be paired with red sauced dishes, salmon, tuna, and even a filet mignon.

-2008 Pinot Noir Manchester Ridge, Mendocino Ridge ($50): We both tasted bacon fat, biscuits, and smoke – a nice combination. A huge Pinot Noir with discernable layers, this shows what is being grown successfully in Mendocino.

-2009 Pinot Noir Dunah Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($40): A personal favorite of ours (perhaps because we also love Rick and Dianne’s own DuNah Pinots), this shows a brilliant integration of barrel, fruit, and Russian River terroir. This may be the best buy in the La Follette portfolio. It is not yet released so watch for it.

Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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