EFESTĒ: Sophisticated Wine From A Punk Rocker

Brennon Leighton of EFESTE. Photo by Christine Buffalow.

winemaker Brennon Leighton pushes the envelope of traditional viticulture.

It’s fitting that Feral, a rocking-good 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Woodinville-based winery EFESTĒ, is made from wild yeast. It was crafted by Brennon Leighton, a tattooed, goatee-sporting Seattleite who looks like he used to be in a bad-ass punk band. In fact, he was.

Pictured: Brennon Leighton/EFESTE. Photo: Christine Buffalow

Leighton is used to being called edgy, hip and rebellious — in other words, a rock ‘n’ roll winemaker. These labels are probably generated from his ink, his outspoken personality and the time he spent in the Santa Cruz punk scene. While he doesn’t mind if others categorize him in this manner, it’s not an image that he directly pursues.

“In some ways, I fight it; in some ways, I embrace it,” Leighton said recently, during an interview at EFESTĒ’s tasting room. “I think of myself as thoughtful. But I look bad-ass, and I’m very proud of my punk heritage.”

As hard-core as Leighton appears, he recognizes the winery that welcomed him under its banner.

“Mainly, I appreciate these labels if it helps EFESTĒ to grow,” he said. “Most important is that EFESTĒ is a family-owned winery and all about the family of the owners: Daniel and Helen Ferrelli, Patrick Smith and Kevin and Angela Taylor.” (EFESTĒ is pronounced like the letters “F, S, T” for the first initials of the last names of the winery owners.)

During the interview, Daniel Ferrelli joked about the first time he met Leighton. “I thought he was a little out there,” Ferrelli chuckled. “But now that I know him well, I think he’s way out there.”

“EFESTĒ is a family winery with a somewhat-eccentric winemaker,” Leighton responded with a laugh.

Photo: Efeste

Don’t let his eccentricities deceive you. Leighton’s not a party animal, although he loves to pour EFESTĒ wines and entertain people at dinners and tastings. When he’s not working events, he’s typically at home enjoying the evening with his wife, Paige, or reading – three-to-four books a week is not unusual. Perhaps that’s why he calls himself “quiet.”

However, when Leighton starts talking about wine, his passion takes over and “quiet” is the last word to describe him.

“Good winemaking is a combination of craft, art and science,” he said. “The craft is the day-to-day paying attention of doing it right; the science is the skills, the technique; the art is the passion, the excitement, the rawness, the purity.

“I love purity in wine, focus, structure and preciseness,” he added. “That’s why I love to use native yeast for fermentation – domestic yeast gone wild that I call feral.”

All his wines at EFESTĒ now use feral yeast, but the first was a 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, not surprisingly named “Feral.” His most recent vintage – EFESTĒ 2010 Feral Sauvignon Blanc – will  be released on April 30, along with the 2008 Big Papa, at a complimentary Open House at the Woodinville tasting room.

“Feral is raw and pure, it shows edges and its imperfections, which are exciting,” he said. “I love the idea that the best wines are perfectly flawed. It’s not always the prettiest girl that’s the best girl. Think about Marilyn Monroe or Cindy Crawford – their moles helped make them beautiful.”

He also dismissed the idea that “feral” is derogatory, noting the beauty in an untamed environment and the excellent taste of feral pig meat compared to domestic pork.

Another misconception he’d like cleared up are the name origins of certain EFESTĒ wines. “Tough Guy” and “Big Papa” are not in reference to Leighton, but to the families who own the winery. “Tough Guy” is named after Joe Taylor, Kevin and Angela’s 9-year-old son, who recently received a clean bill of health after being diagnosed with A.L.L. Leukemia in 2007. Big Papa Cabernet Sauvignon is named after Dan Ferrelli — as well as his father Joseph, the “original” Big Papa.

Big Papa and many of EFESTĒ wines have received numerous accolades, high scores and awards. “Wine Spectator” gave 95 points to EFESTĒ 2008 Jolie Bouche Syrah, 94 points to 2008 Eleni Red Willow Syrah and 93 points to 2008 Ceidleigh Red Mountain Syrah. “Wine Enthusiast” also touted EFESTĒ, rating their 2007 Big Papa Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon at 94 and selecting their 2007 Final-Final Cabernet-Syrah blend as an Editor’s Choice. In addition, Seattle wine expert Paul Gregutt named EFESTĒ’s Lola 2009 Chardonnay as the #1 wine in January 2011.

“As much as it means to win awards, it also means a lot to hear from people who love our wines,” Leighton said. “Ultimately, wine is a beverage. It’s meant to be enjoyed. Once you learn that, you can enjoy wine as an experience, however you like. Your individual relation to wine is what makes it special.”

You can share your thoughts about EFESTĒ wines with Brennon Leighton on Twitter @feralwine. For more information about upcoming tastings, in-stock selections and the individuals behind this exquisite wine, please visit EFESTĒ online.

EFESTĒ Winery | 19730 144th Ave. N.E., Woodinville | (425) 398-7200