Brennon Leighton’s Modest Goal of Being the World’s Best Winemaker
BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
PHOTO BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
From bus boy to punk rocker to one of Washington’s top winemakers, Brennon Leighton’s path has been a winding one. Equal parts passionate, outspoken, and honest, Leighton is poised to make a large impression on the Washington wine industry. Ironically, he is doing it by trying to leave as little impression on his wines as possible.
Leighton grew up in Santa Cruz, a town a little over an hour south of San Francisco. He moved to Seattle in 1990, as the city was on the cusp of its grunge heyday. But he wasn’t out there wearing his flannel shirts and knit caps. “I was a punk rocker living on Capitol Hill,” he says. Fitting right in with his heavily tattooed arms, he played guitar and sang in the bands Ruination and Roswell Crash (“I just want it to be known that I suck and always sucked,” he says of his musician days). He was living the Capitol Hill life, working at Piecora’s Pizza and hanging out at Linda’s Tavern and The Comet.
His life took a turn when the general manager at a downtown restaurant—“I’m too embarrassed to say which,” he says—turned him on to wine one day after work. The wine, a 1985 Cheval Blanc, would change the course of his life. “I went from drinking 40-ouncers and Jameson to being like, what is this stuff?” Leighton says.
Living in Washington, Leighton decided to contact the biggest player in the state, Chateau Ste. Michelle, about his newfound interest. He received an interview with assistant winemaker Erik Olsen. Olsen told him that if he was serious about his interest in wine, he should go to U.C. Davis, the nation’s top wine program.
Getting accepted to the U.C.-Davis Viticulture & Enology program is no easy feat. Applicants are required to have taken courses in organic chemistry, biochemistry, calculus, and statistics. The program accepts a mere 20 students per year. That year, Leighton was one of them. “I don’t know how I got in,” he says modestly.
After graduating, Leighton was head hunted by none other than Chateau Ste. Michelle. One of his interviews was with Erik Olsen, the same man whom he had spoken with a few years earlier. He said to Olsen, “Hey, I was that guy who came by and you told to go to Davis. Well I went to Davis.” He got the job.
Leighton spent six years at Chateau Ste. Michelle, overseeing the company’s massive white wine program. As head white wine maker, he made over 1,000,000 cases of wine annually in as many as 20 different bottlings, including the winery’s flagship Eroica Riesling. “The learning experience was tremendous,” he says of his time at Washington’s founding winery.
While Leighton was at Ste. Michelle, his friend Chris Upchurch of DeLille Cellars was serving as consulting winemaker for a new Woodinville winery called Efesté (pronounced like the letters F-S-T). When the owners asked Upchurch for a recommendation for a head winemaker, Upchurch gave them Leighton’s name. His first full vintage at the winery was 2007.
At Efesté, Leighton strives to be as hands off as possible with his wines. “In winemaking, people often do too much instead of letting things happen,” he says. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is, if you can do nothing, do nothing.”
Perhaps the most intriguing way this winemaker looks to minimize his impact is by using native yeast to ferment his grapes. Most wineries purchase commercial yeast from product catalogues. One can buy yeasts that like high temperatures and yeasts that like low temperatures, yeast that makes the wine taste more chocolaty and yeast that imparts more cherry flavors. Instead, Leighton uses yeasts that are endemic in the vineyard and the winery. He refers to the yeast as ‘feral’—domestic gone wild.
Leighton first began experimenting with native yeast at Chateau Ste. Michelle with the encouragement of head winemaker Bob Bertheau. At Efesté, Leighton ferments almost all of the wine with native yeast, using a small amount of commercial yeast to show people the difference—which is profound.
“Wine fermented with native yeast doesn’t taste as hard,” he explains. “You get a more seductive character.” Leighton attributes this to a difference in fermentation kinetics, with native yeast building up slowly instead of being added all at once.
He also takes a minimalist approach at the end of the winemaking process. Many wineries use a method called fining to remove soluble substances such as tannins, proteins, and color compounds. This is followed by filtration to remove large particles. In contrast, Efesté wines are unfined and unfiltered, as he believes these techniques strip the wine of texture and flavor.
“I want to make wines that have a sense of integrity, a sense of genuineness to them,” Leighton says of his approach. “Not only do they reflect the place that they come from but also the variety that they are and the vintage they come from. That, to me, is what’s exciting about winemaking. I want my 2008 Cabernet to taste like Washington Cabernet from that vintage.”
Efesté uses fruit from some of Washington’s best sites, including Evergreen, Boushey, Klipsun, and Red Willow. The winery also has three estate vineyards, which bore their first fruit in 2010.
The winery makes a broad lineup, each with colorful names that have personal meanings. The wines are simultaneously bold and elegant, brawny and nuanced. They can stand up to the biggest cut of steak while also being balanced enough to be enjoyed on their own.
Perhaps the biggest standouts of an extremely impressive lineup are three stunning syrahs, one from Boushey Vineyard called ‘Jolie Bouche,’ one from Red Mountain called ‘Ceidleigh,’ and one from Red Willow called ‘Emmy.’ Each shows the unique intersection of varietal and vineyard site, each another example of Washington Syrah exceptionalism. And each show why Brennon Leighton is poised to leave a large imprint on the Washington wine industry in the coming years.
Leighton, however, has set his sights higher. “I’m not just trying to make the best wine in Washington. I’m trying to make the best wine in the world,” he says. His training has given him the skill to get there, his experience the palate to know what it will taste like when he does. After winding his way to the world of Washington wine, this is one winemaker going nowhere but up.
Sean P. Sullivan is editor of Washington Wine Report—an independent blog focused exclusively on the wines of Washington State. He has written for Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, Washington State Wine Touring Guide, and Wine & Jazz. Sullivan resides in Seattle, Washington.