EFESTĒ winemaker Brennon Leighton is a force of nature. As passionate and opinionated as he is talented, Leighton is poised to make a huge impression on the Washington wine scene in the decades to come. That time starts now.
A former punk rocker with the tattoos to prove it, Leighton first became interested in wine after his boss at a restaurant shared a bottle of 1985 Cheval Blanc. Inspired, he ultimately returned to school and earned a degree in viticulture and enology from UC Davis.
Before joining EFESTĒ (pronounced like the letters F, S, and T for the first initials of the last names of winery owners, Daniel Ferrelli, Patrick Smith, and Kevin Taylor) Leighton cut his teeth at Chateau Ste. Michelle. There he was responsible for the winery’s massive white wine program, including its flagship Eroica Riesling.
Leighton’s first full vintage at EFESTĒ, located in the former Januik Cellars facility in Woodinville’s Warehouse District, was 2007. Since that time he has worked to put his thumbprint on the wines – in many cases by keeping his hands as far away as possible.
As with the best wineries, it all starts in the vineyard. Here EFESTĒ sources fruit from top sites, including Boushey, Klipsun, Red Willow, and Evergreen. The winery has also planted two vineyards on Red Mountain and has a third near Boushey Vineyard. These vineyards bore their first fruit in 2010.
When the fruit arrives at the winery it is hand sorted, mostly Leighton says to remove raisined grapes. “I’m an anti-Dr. Pepper person,” he says. The grapes are then crushed directly into fermentation bins using a piece of custom-designed equipment. Throughout the winemaking process, Leighton is fanatical about cleanliness (ask him his feeling about fruit flies). While the grapes are fermenting, dry ice is applied two times per day to help avoid any contamination.
After hand sorting, Leighton tries to be hands-off. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned is, if you can do nothing, do nothing,” he says. This includes his use of native yeast, or yeast endemic to the grapes and the winery. Leighton refers to them as ‘feral’ as they are “domestic yeast gone wild.” Leighton first began using native yeast for fermentation at Chateau Ste. Michelle with the encouragement of head winemaker Bob Bertheau. The whole program at EFESTĒ now uses feral yeast, although he ferments a limited amount of juice with commercial yeast to show people the differences.
While Leighton has a (very) firm command of the science of winemaking, he is equally versed in its artistry, using a mixture of numbers, aromatics, and taste to inform his winemaking decisions. Leighton believes feral yeast building up over time, as opposed to the all-at-once addition of commercial yeast, plays an important role in the character that is conveyed in the EFESTĒ wines. “The natives don’t taste as hard. You get a more seductive character,” he says. Keeping a close eye on the fermentation kinetics – and a close nose on the smell of the wine – is key.
During fermentation, Leighton prefers punching down the cap of skins that accumulate in the fermentation bin instead of using pumpovers, the process of taking wine from the bottom of the tank and pumping it over the cap. “You’re more involved with the wine,” he says. “I just feel more connected with what I am extracting.”
For pressing the wine, EFESTĒ recently purchased a large bladder press system. This gigantic device allows digital setting of the pressure levels and provides for even pressing of the grapes. Leighton says, “I believe in getting the perfect press right off the bat. You can smell when you’re starting to press too hard.” Once in the barrel Leighton is oxygen averse, making sure that his barrels are topped off and occasionally stirring the lees.
EFESTĒ’s current lineup includes a dazzling selection of whites and reds. In terms of the whites, the most attention-getting is the chardonnay. Extraordinarily, this wine did not finish fermentation until the end of July the year after harvest. The 2009 Lola Chardonnay is an exultant expression of the varietal – the best I have had from Washington. It is a wine that will make you forget with a single glass everything that you dislike about Chardonnay.
While Leighton’s 2007 vintage red wines were impressive, the 2008 releases are something else entirely. They include three stunning Syrahs – one from Boushey Vineyard, one from Red Willow, and one from Red Mountain. All are further evidence, if any were needed, of Washington State Syrah exceptionalism. The Big Papa, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, is a big, brooding expression of this varietal.
Leighton says the 2008 vintage was his favorite from the past decade. While these wines are showing incredibly well now, all will only benefit from significant amounts of additional time in the bottle. Leighton says they typically start to express themselves about 18 months after bottling.
Brennon Leighton’s aspirations for EFESTĒ are high. “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. As the wines below show, words have meaning but especially when backed up by action. The results here speak for themselves.
EFESTĒ Feral Sauvignon Blanc Evergreen Vineyard Columbia Valley 2009 $18
Rating: + (Good) Among the most aromatically unique wines in Washington with onion peel, mineral, and citrus. Tart and austere on the palate with mouthwatering acidity. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Aged 3 months in neutral French oak. 13.34% alcohol. 600 cases produced.
EFESTĒ Lola Chardonnay Evergreen Vineyard Columbia Valley 2009 $30
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Compelling, complex aromatics of hay, spice, and toast. Incredible complexity and depth on the palate. A textured, seamless wine with a leesy feel. A long, spicy, mineral laden finish. A wine that makes you forget everything you dislike about Chardonnay.
EFESTĒ Riesling Evergreen Vineyard Columbia Valley 2009 $16
Rating: * (Excellent) The aromatics draw you in with mineral, citrus, and lime. Beautifully stitched together on the palate with a dry, textured feel with honeyed accents. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 11.52% alcohol. 1.51 g/100ml Residual Sugar. 1,200 cases produced.
EFESTĒ Jolie Bouche Syrah Yakima Valley 2008 $36
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Dark and rich in color. Outrageous aromatics of earth, bacon fat, blueberry, and mineral. Tart with savory flavors etched with acid on a palate that boasts a full feel. A wine that is simultaneously understated and big. 100% Syrah. Boushey Vineyard. Aged 15 months in 500L French puncheons (20% new). 14.68% alcohol. 385 cases produced.
EFESTĒ Eleni Syrah Red Willow Vineyard Yakima Valley 2008 $36
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Stains the glass. Abundant bright fruit aromatics along with mineral, earth, berries, and a light funkiness. A textured, rich feel with concentrated savory flavors. Seemingly endless length on the finish. Sampled at 60 degrees. 14.71% alcohol. 210 cases produced.
EFESTĒ Ceidleigh Syrah Red Mountain 2008 $36
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Dark in color. Intense mineral aromas along with blueberries, light bacon fat, and abundant savory notes. A big, hedonistic palate on this ripe, warm climate-style wine that sports a firm grip. 40% Klipsun, 34% Ceil du Cheval, and 26% Kiona Bottom of the Hill vineyards. Aged 15 months in French oak (22% new). 14.74% alcohol. 450 cases produced.
EFESTĒ Final Final Red Wine Columbia Valley 2007 $25
Rating: + (Good) Abundant brambly berries, blueberries, raspberries, and a whiff of licorice on an aromatically complex wine. Rich fruit flavors on the palate with a firm texture. A lot of wine for the money. 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Syrah, and 2% Mourvedre. Klipsun, End of the Road Ranch, Weinbau, Sagemoor, Bacchus, and Connor Lee vineyards. Aged 19 months in French oak (58% new). 13.35% alcohol. 3,000 cases produced.
EFESTĒ Big Papa Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2007 $47
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Incredibly dark in color. Stains the glass. A cabernet prototype of cherry, licorice, and light herbal notes on an aromatically intoxicating wine. A beautifully expressive palate with a velvety feel and a lingering finish. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 19 months in French oak (87% new). 14.46% alcohol. 700 cases produced.
Brennon does an amazing job, and we've been fans for a few years now. Great article about a great winery, all I ask is that we do a better job of keeping these wines secret!
Agree with Jscola1, can't we just keep this 'our' little secret?
drinking the 06 Bouche…awsome!