Efeste’s Brennon Leighton: Feral and Unfiltered
August 11, 2009 by Doug Haugen
Winemakers come in all shapes and sizes, demonstrating as many styles of personality as there are styles of wine. What they all have in common, of course, is the transubstantiation of ostensibly ordinary grapes into that Dionysian elixir called wine, but each winemaker has his or her own approach to making the wines they love.
Brennon Leighton, winemaker for Efeste, has been making his mark on the Washington wine world, practicing a noninterventionist winemaking philosophy with a religious zeal. His hallmark methods, while not necessarily original, are certainly more uncommon that one might expect.
“I actually know some of the science of this,” he said with a laugh after giving us a crash course in the various methods of filtering and fining; and while he can speak about these practices with erudition, he doesn’t filter or fine his wines. As you’ll see below, Brennon feels that while removing particles and compounds, these processes also strip away some of the raw, inherent personality that he loves in wine.
Likewise, he prefers not to use commercial yeasts, but rather to let the wine do its own thing. While many clones of yeast have been developed for commercial use to provide predictable results in the winemaking process, yeast can be found everywhere, and fermentation will occur without intervention, as everyone knows who has left orange juice in the refrigerator too long. In fact, when winemakers use commercial yeasts, they begin by killing off the native yeasts with compounds like sulfur dioxide (SO2) so that only their added yeast is working on the wine during the fermentation stage. Brennon believes that native yeast—what winemakers have begun to colloquially call “feral yeast”—produces a more authentic wine, truer to the fruit and the terroir.
Allowing wine to make itself seems like a pretty ballsy maneuver, especially when there’s such a large financial stake to consider, and it does indeed require a high level of expertise to pull it off. The road Brennon has traveled to get where he is today has been intense and deliberate.
Working in restaurants in his early twenties, he was turned on to wine by a general manager. He started dabbling in wine, buying the things he could afford, and it grew into a hobby. “I bought my first Riedel, just totally geeking out,” he said. Over the next several years, he considered going the way of the somme, but decided instead that he really wanted to make wine, so he applied for a position at Chateau Ste. Michelle, hoping to begin his career. He interviewed with the assistant winemaker Eric Olsen, who told him “Look, I can give you a job being a cellar monkey, but if you want to be a winemaker, you’ll never be a winemaker working in the cellar. You need to go to school.”
Brennon took the advice to heart, enrolled at U.C. Davis, moved to California, and had the time of his life immersing himself in wine. Surrounded by passionate wine people, he learned as much outside of classroom as he did inside, and even became the president of the Department of Enology and Viticulture Organization—a student organization referred to as DEVO.
After graduating and passing around his résumé, he got a call from Chateau Ste. Michelle for a job interview, and walking through the door, was surprised to see Eric Olsen, now head winemaker, across the desk. “I think he just felt like, ‘Wow, here’s this guy that took my advice and did it and I owe him,’ so he gave me the job,” Brennon said. He stayed at Ste. Michelle for five years, and has a huge level of respect for the winery. “I learned a lot,” he said, “I had a good experience; I enjoyed my stay there. I was just looking for something where I could spread my wings a little more.”
In the meantime, a new winery was formed in Woodinville called Efeste, a wordplay involving the last initials of the three founders: Daniel Ferrelli, Patrick Smith and Kevin Taylor. Originally contracting Chris Upchurch and Jay Soloff of DeLille Cellars to consult on the wines, Brennon was brought on as head winemaker at Upchurch’s behest.
Brennon is happy to be at Efeste where he can make the wines he loves. Likewise, the principals of Efeste couldn’t be happier with the decision. According to Kevin Taylor, “When we were considering hiring Brennon, we knew he was a very talented winemaker. One of the most exciting things that he brought to the table was his vast knowledge of fermentation using different commercial yeasts as well as native fermentation. This is one dimension of his winemaking style that helps make our wines of the quality we are looking for.” Patrick Smith went on, “There is nobody better at presenting our wines than Brennon. Even though I’ve seen it a hundred times, I am impressed every time he gives a tour or works a dinner. He has a way of describing our wines that is completely unpretentious. Brennon has an enthusiasm that holds everybody’s attention and, most importantly, makes them want to grab a glass.”
We spent some time with Brennon at his swank, state-of-the-art tasting room and facility in Woodinville. His enthusiasm for his wines rates up there with new parents showing off baby pictures to everyone they encounter, and while his banner-waving idealism is chock-full of excitement, thrill and love, it is built on a foundation of study, experimentation and research.
So, who is this Brennon Leighton really, and what makes his clock tick? We couldn’t explain it any better than the man himself, so here is Brennon Leighton on Brennon Leighton.
WINO: The unfiltered thing, is this a stance that you’ve had from the beginning, or is this something that you’ve fallen into?
Brennon: It’s a progression for me. Let me say this, I think that anyone can come into making wine and have these really idealistic ideas, and I think those are all fine, and every year I gain something new, learn something new and question myself, question why I’m doing certain things, but I think the reality is, I came to that unfiltered , unfined place from working at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and understanding what filtering and fining did to wine. Like knowing the taste of doing trials and tasting wines that were standards that were not filtered or fined against ones that were. I see what it takes out. Now, that’s not to say that filtering and fining is bad. I’ve never said that. I’ve never said that someone that filters and fines is a total idiot, because I don’t believe that at all. I think that that adds different dimensions to wine than not [doing it]. To me, when you don’t filter and fine, you get kind of an organic rawness to wine, and to me, one of the exciting things about wine is that rawness. Like the grittiness of Charles Bukowski. Is he great? I don’t know, but Charles Bukowski is pretty fucking interesting. That’s kind of where I am with wine. I want the wines that might be gritty and there might be a rawness to them, but there’s a realness to them. It’s not polished edges. Like the Sauvignon Blanc. People either hate it or love it. I’m looking for that. I want people to go, “Oh my god.” I don’t want just, “Oh, this is good.” That bothers me. I’m not looking for good. I’d rather be bad. I want to be something unique. And I think that wines are like people—that rawness—they’re living things, they should be interesting.
WINO: When you were brought on at Efeste, did you know you wanted to make these kinds of wine?
Brennon: Kind of. My favorite wines are French wines from Chataneuf du Pape, Cornasse, St. Josef, Hermitage, Burgundy and you know, those are my wines, and usually those wines are unfiltered, unfined and native fermentation. That’s what they are. They’re raw. I mean, that’s what’s exciting about them. Do they always make these little, pristine wines? No. They don’t. But I don’t care; I don’t like pristine wines. Pristine wines to me—when you make wines like that, you make wines more homogeneous. And I don’t want to make homogeneous wines. I want to make wines that are exciting, and push people to think differently about wine. And food. I also make wines for food. I don’t make wines for a cocktail party. I make wines because I think, “wouldn’t this be good with this?” and “isn’t this exciting?” That’s not to say that I don’t filter wines. If it needs it, it needs it. I’m not going to make a wine that’s going to be faulty either. I’m not stupid. But, this is what I’m trying to do, and sometimes I’m forced to do something else.
At this point, Brennon launched into a tutorial about the various methods of filtering, fining and fermenting wine, listing of the types of filters and how they’re used, the compounds used for fining and how they work, and the difference between native and commercial yeasts. It was clear that he could spend the rest of the afternoon explaining it all to us in scientific detail, but we decided to move on.
WINO: You sound like you went to Davis or something.
Brennon: I did. I actually know some of the science of this. Unlike some other winemakers… [Laughs]
WINO: Do you think more and more people are going to start doing things this way?
Brennon: I don’t think so.
WINO: Are you on the cutting edge, or are you a total renegade.
Brennon: I’d rather see myself as a renegade than the cutting edge. I love being a renegade or irreverent. I love the idea of being totally irreverent. But, I don’t know what it is—I mean, that’s for other people to say, isn’t it? Not for me.
WINO: I said it. [Laughs]
Brennon: [Laughs] You said it. I think the first thing is that it’s not as easy as people think it is to do what I’m doing, because there’s a lot of chances that you’re taking. I mean, it’s a risk-and-reward kind of thing, and there’s a lot of mistakes that can happen that if you’re not really aware or familiar with them, bad things can happen—and believe me, I’ve done that. I just did them on a scale of Ste. Michelle where I was able to bury wine and didn’t make a big deal of it; but in a small winery like this, if I make those mistakes, it can be huge, and so I know certain tricks of how not to go down a path where there’s no return. I have an understanding of the microbiology and the chemistry where I don’t make my risk too big, where I think that for winemakers that don’t have that understanding, it can be really risky. It can kill their whole business, so I wouldn’t say that it’s for everyone.
WINO: How do you sleep at night? Now that you’ve been rolling along for a while now and you’re doing well, how much stress do you have every vintage?
Brennon: Oh, tons. I think that it’s more so. You know, it’s funny, you ask about the stress at night during harvest—I remember when I was at Ste. Michelle, it would be like super high when I was doing these experiments, and now it might not be as high, but I have worse and bigger panic attacks. So, it’s like I might not be stressed for several days, and then there’s this moment when I’m like [gasp]! And then I run in here and yell at everyone. So, it’s a different kind of stress, but it’s huge.
You know, it’s funny. I think everyone wants to be a winemaker. I think it’s starting to come to the point where that’s not going to work so much anymore in Washington State, but it seems to me that everyone wants to be a winemaker. You know, it’s like the coolest thing since sliced bread to be a winemaker, and it’s like this kind of “rock star status” kind of bullshit, and I think it’s hilarious. I really do.
WINO: When do you think it’s going to top out? There’s over six hundred now, so…
Brennon: I don’t think it’s going to top out; I just think it’s going to become more professional. There’s always going to be those strange wineries that are doing something out of habitation—just like in California, that’ll never end—but you’re going to see far more professional wineries than just the Hogues and the Hedges and the Ste. Michelles. You’re going to see this sort of thing where people realize that it’s a difficult business, and it’s competitive, and we have to be outside of Seattle to make money, because Seattle is saturated with Washington wine. It’s just saturated. For a new winery to break into a restaurant in Seattle, it’s almost impossible, where ten years ago, not at all. People were hungry for it.
WINO: When you say there will be more professional wineries, do you mean more large production?
Brennon: No, I don’t mean large production. I just think it’s going to be less mom-and-pop and more people with money hiring professionals. Sort of like at Efeste where three owners go, “Look, we don’t know how to make wine, this isn’t for us, but we know how to hire the best people, and we’re going to be successful because we know how to put the best people around us.”
WINO: Do you consult on other wines?
Brennon: I’m not really into consulting so much. I would consult for my friends, but I don’t like that idea of going in and putting my name on something, but not having control over it. That just scares the shit out of me.
WINO: So, what does it really take to be a bona fide winemaker?
Brennon: First of all, it’s not a glamorous business. It sucks. I mean, getting up at six in the morning to do punch-downs, being dirty and wet all day long, and being tired, and then having to sell the shit—I mean everyone thinks it’s this romantic thing. Well, come over and I’ll let you help me clean a press, and you’ll see how romantic it is. It’s not. It’s hard work. It’s a tough job. And you have to love wine. Winemaking has less to do with filling barrels, and doing the press and cleaning; it has more to do with these conceptual ideas, but I think you have to gain that first. You have to taste a lot of wine. I don’t think the best winemakers come from U.C. Davis. I think the best winemakers come from people who have good palates, and then learn the science through that, because you don’t need that much science. I don’t think you need as much science as I have. I just think that you need to have some amount of science, because it’s a good foundation, but the real winemaking comes from the craft, the perspective on wine, having a perspective. Coming to winemaking with a perspective is what’s important, and understanding what that perspective is.
WINO: Are you in a nice groove now? Where do you see yourself down the road?
Brennon: Yeah, “groove” is the nice way to say it, not “rut.” I mean, they’re both something that has sort of been dug out. [Laughs] I think there are certain little things that I’d like to try, and you know, obviously I love to experiment and find different things. There are certain things I’d like to experiment with. I’d like to experiment with using the stems in Syrah and doing whole-cluster fermentation with Syrah. I think, to me, growing as a winemaker though, other than that—I mean that’s just really minimal. The big thing for me is growing with the vineyard. Where I see myself in twenty-five or thirty years is walking out to the vineyard and I have it totally friggin’ sealed off with tape and knowing that I picked these three rows at this time, that I have a total understanding of the vineyard, and just become one with the whole process. That, to me, is more exciting than what I can do with wine. I think that if you really understand me as a winemaker, I’m less about manipulation and more about becoming one with–or synonymous with—what mother nature is giving me. I mean, I want to express the fruit to the purest form that I possibly can, whether that’s good or bad. I mean, that’s more exciting to me than how I can put my mark on the world. So, what excites me is walking around here and tasting different Syrahs and going, “This is totally different than this, and this is so cool.” I blend it together in the Big Papa, and the Big Papa is probably the better wine in the sense of society, but it’s not the most exciting to me as a winemaker. The most exciting wine to me is all these little individual wines expressing themselves with their good, bad and ugly. Just like any human being, there isn’t a human being that doesn’t have a bad side. When you blend, you’re blending things together to eliminate something bad or expand on something good. That’s what blending is all about.
At this point, Brennon started letting us taste from barrels of the “little individual wines” that he was talking about, each from a different vineyard. We started with a “full-blown” buttery Chardonnay that he was overseeing for another winery before moving on to Cabernet Sauvignons and a few Syrahs.
Brennon: Here’s the whole thing—when did we become such snobs that we couldn’t like California Chardonnay? You know what, I’ve never been a California Chardonnay fan, but I’ve never been someone to say to someone, “You’re an idiot, you don’t know anything about wine.” Are you kidding me? Why would you say that to someone? If they like California Chard, they like California Chard. Good for them. That’s why they make it. Good for them. I mean, I just want them to like wine. I mean, I just get so upset with that snob stuff. That’s just over the top.
People progress in and out of things all the time. Like, right now, I’m not drinking a lot of reds. I just haven’t been into them. I’m just really enjoying whites. Four years ago, you’d never catch me drinking whites. I was always drinking reds, and I was always drinking Syrah and Mourveds, and I was such a fucking Southern Rhone snob—you know Grenache—and now I’m like, “I just want some Sauv Blanc from Loire. That $12.99 bottle is really good, I’ll have that.” Sometimes I think that we forget that wine is just supposed to be pleasurable. I don’t think it needs to be that way. I think you can go out and have a twelve-dollar bottle of over-oaked chard, and enjoy it, and that’s okay. You can love a wine for what it is. Sometimes I think it gets so bad that we get so caught up in this wine thing that we start liking wines that aren’t even that good. Like, “It got a ninety-eight, it’s so good,” and you go to taste it and you’re like, “No, not for me, this is not good.”
Brennon let us try the same Cabernet from two identical barrels. One was fermented with native yeast, and the other with commercial yeast.
WINO: There’s no comparison.
Brennon: I know! It’s softer, it’s more complex. It has kind of this richer warmer character to it. Yeah!
WINO: So, what’s the next big thing in Washington?
Brennon: Here’s the thing about the “next big thing.” Is it really ever the next big thing? No. Cab is king. Chardonnay is queen. That’s the reality. We have five million people in the State of Washington. There’s 300 million in the country. We’re less than, what, one percent of the population of America? So, our perspective, even though it sometimes works, is so skewed. People are just starting to discover Washington wines. So, are we known for anything? No, we’re not. And so, we can create these marketing ideas, but I still think the perspective is skewed. Washington as a whole, I don’t think has discovered itself, which is great and bad at the same time. You know the thing about Washington State is that it’s still a really young industry; it’s really exciting. If you ask me what I think is going to come out of it all? I think it’s going to be Syrah. It’s such a good varietal here. I think that Syrah is phenomenal. To me, it’s the best here.
You know, the thing I’m liking about Washington wines is that there are some winemakers that are starting to scale it back a little bit. It seemed like there was this period where all these winemakers were trying to make the biggest most huge wine they could possibly make, and I’m starting to see some wines that are just more subtle and elegant. You know, I think the older I get, the more I just want to drink wine to drink wine. You know, I don’t have to be like hit over the head with a two-by-four to enjoy a wine. So there’s some other wines where I’m like, “Wow, I can drink this.”
WINO: So, are you making the wines you like to drink?
Brennon: I believe passionately in what I’m doing, I totally think what I’m doing is the right thing to do—it makes the best wines. Now, if the rest of the world or someone else doesn’t think that, I understand that. I’m not so myopic in my belief that I think someone will always appreciate what I’m doing. But, I truly believe that I’m making the best wines. And, I certainly do like the people that believe it as well as I do more than the people I don’t, but you can’t like everyone [Laughs], and not everyone is going to like me—it goes both ways. I mean, I hope that what I’m doing is right. I think what I’m doing is right.