Brennon Leighton, Woodinville's former"Big Papa", recently relocated to Walla Walla to add some muscle to Charles Smith's exciting new Chardonnay program. A veteran of the "westside" wine world, having also worked on Ste. Michelle's Eroica label, Leighton brings renewed energy to a wine many imbibers "pooh-pooh" in favor of Washington state's bigger, badder, fruits. But Leighton and Smith see something special in Chardonnay -- and even more so, in the terroir of Washington -- and they believe this delicate lady has some knockout punches yet to throw. Along with winemaker Andrew Latta, these three gents are poised to inspire a white wine revolution.
Me: "You look tough." Him: "I'm not trying to look tough, I'm trying to look adorable."
You've been in the wine industry in Seattle for a long time. How does it feel to go from the west side to the east side -- is there a big difference?
Well Walla Walla is certainly its own world -- just because the viticulture world is so different here than in the rest of the state, certainly different than say, Yakima Valley or Red Mountain. Typically, not to say there aren't people in Woodinville that do stuff out of Walla Walla, but it's pretty big jaunt. I mean a 4.5 hour drive makes it hard to really keep in touch with it so most winemakers in Woodinville are working out of Yakima Valley and closer. It seems to be that, even though there are some winemakers that work outside of here, the focus here is mostly what's around Walla Walla. So, that part's different. I think in Walla Walla -- wow, this is going to be trouble -- there seems to be more of a camaraderie, where in Seattle you're so close to everything it feels more competitive, even though it's probably not. It just seems more competitive.
How's life in a small town treating you?
It's good, my wife's had a couple of freak outs but I like Walla Walla. I'm adjusting. We're doing good -- I mean we're still calling Seattle "home" -- but it's good.
Did you experience any culture shock? Are there things you're really missing?
Oh man, that's a loaded question. Why don't we talk about the things I don't miss? I don't miss the traffic. I don't miss the kinda underlying rudeness about people there. I'm hoping that I'm not going to miss the weather, that the weather's going to be so much better here -- but everyone keeps telling me the Winter is so bad and I'm like, it can't be worse than Seattle.
The wide array of restaurants and bars, I miss that. And just the intense creativity that's happening in Seattle. There are so many people trying to do something exceedingly exceptional and reaching for the stars. It's fun to see people do that kind of stuff but with that comes this kind of fervor of desperate, anxiety-driven, grrrr-feeling. Because people seem to be feeling content in Walla Walla, there seems to be more a relaxed, feel-good kind of thing going and I think, for this time in my life, to feel that is really nice. At first it was difficult to acclimatize because I was like, "Goooooo!!!", but now I'm like, "Alriiiight".
It's like being on "Island Time".
Yeah, and I'm into it. Every time you get in the car in Seattle you have to think about where you're going to go and how long it's going to take you to get there with traffic. When you get in a car here you just get in and go. What, there's like 3 minutes at 8am and 3 minutes at 5pm where it seems like there really traffic? For a person from Seattle, it's not traffic at all.
I think the other thing that's different -- and I hope this doesn't go over badly -- is this lack of culture? I think it's freaking me out walking into a room and all there are are white people. Not to say there aren't people of color but really, maybe one or two in a room, when I'm used to 50 percent or more. You know, that part is strange. And not having really good Asian food is difficult. I really miss my Asian food a lot.
Well, there is a big difference in the comparable cultural makeup of a large city on the coast versus a small, inland farming town so that's understandable. I miss really good Asian food too -- can we talk about your favorites?
I typically spent most of my dinner money going out for Asian food. I miss Facing East. I miss Spicy Talk a lot. I miss a couple places down in the International District including the Tamarind Tree. I miss Shiro's -- deeply deeply miss Shiro's. I miss going to Blueacre and just having a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a shitpile of oysters. Whenever I feel like it, right? Not to say that they don't have good oysters in Walla Walla, they're just not as fresh. To me fresh is like you open them up and they still have that really salty, briny, water -- like they just came out of the water. A fresh oyster comes with its own nectar -- you don't have to put on mignonette, you don't have to squeeze a lemon -- it's all already there and it's perfect just the way it is. It's God's perfect food.
So that's stuff I miss a lot. Oh I miss Black Raven beer too.
I'm getting hungry. Let's change the subject -- let's talk about Chardonnay!
I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you. I love Chardonnay! I've been making Chardonnay in Washington since the early 2000's.
And you're known for your Chardonnay's right?
I guess! That's what people keep telling me. I think I make pretty good reds too. I do love white wines and I certainly have an affinity for them, which I think is different than most people. Most people that I hang out with in Walla Walla drink a lot of red wine and the group of friends I used to hang out with in Seattle, we'd drink a lot of white wine. I would say before I moved here I probably drank white wines 80/20 to red wine. Since I moved here it's probably more like 80 red to 20 white just because that's what people tend to drink more of here.
But yeah, I love white wine. First of all, you can drink a lot more of it without getting so drunk or your palate getting completely killed. Second, it tends to go better with a lot more foods than red wine which, I think, is pretty limited with the foods it can go with. And also, I just love acidity. I really love acidity. I am the type of person whose cocktails tend to have a lot of acid in them. My good friend Andrew, who is a bartender, invented a drink for me because I love acidity so much. It's like lemon juice and champagne and pastis and all these crazy things. If I feel like somebody can make a really good margarita I'd rather have a margarita because I just love that citrus and acidity. So, I definitely have an affinity for white wines.
That being said, how awesome is it to have this sort of white wine "blank slate" opportunity?
The exciting thing for me is that it feels more like a collaboration than it feels like an individual effort and I am enjoying that a lot -- the collaborative creativity. Not to say that it hasn't had its difficulties but, in general, I really find it appealing and challenging and exciting. For me, and where I'm at as an artist, I'm really enjoying learning more and also learning from others. That's really exciting for me. My experiences at Efeste were great but I felt like I was an island. I felt like I didn't have a lot of collaboration or these learning challenges that were super, super intriguing and soul-lifting so and working here with Charles and Andrew has been really great.
The whole Chardonnay program thing that I find most exciting is that we're king of reaching for the stars, you know. We're not like, "Hey, let's just make some Chardonnay!", we're like, "How can we make the best Chardonnay that Washington can produce? What does that look like to us and how do make it happen? What can we learn from the places that have these incredible world-class white wines, how does it translate to Washington, and how can those inspire us to do something greater?" Some of the things we felt were really important were grapes that ripen later in the season, hold on to their acidity, and don't get a lot of sugar accumulation. So we went out to sites that were higher elevation and we even looked at places with Northern or Eastern-facing slopes so we can get not a lot of ripeness and a longer hang period of time to get some of those flavor maturities. And then the other thing we were looking for was soils that had a really distinct character to them -- and had a lot of caliche and basalt and soils that would add a lot of minerality to the wines. So we were looking for land with a lot of these chalk or calcium deposits left around and we think we found those as well. Lastly, we also felt that if we get these cooler sites we can get lower yields and really push that concentration without the sugars jumping out -- so we're aiming for about 2.5 tons per acre and really trying to get this intensity in the wine without losing a lot through too much alcohol, not enough acid, or having to manipulate things.
We're really excited. I mean, there's some stuff that we're making that's really cool. And it's fun. For me, it was fun to have this approach and then go out and think about what site would work best. I think in some ways we succeeded and in some ways we didn't succeed as well as we'd hoped but we're on the right path and there's some really exceptional successes in barrel right now.
There has been a lot of talk about 2012 as a banner harvest. Do you agree?
Don't they always say that right after harvest though? Everyone always says how great a vintage is after a vintage -- that's just what you're supposed to do. I'm going to get scolded for being such an asshole, but you're the one who keeps asking me these questions! I don't like to think about a harvest until usually the Spring or the Summer and the reason why is I feel like it's like judging a person before they're really a person. Like, "Oh my God, you are going the best the best football player ever!" and the kid is like, three. How do you even know? They haven't developed yet!
So with vintages, I think 2011 is a perfect example of a vintage that people weren't all that sure about but I feel like in 2011 I made some of the best wines I've ever made. But if I had told you in December how I felt about those wines it was completely different than the way I felt in July. In July I felt like they really came out of their shell, it just took them longer to come out of that shell -- they were shy. You know, they were like that awkward girl who wore glasses and had ponytails and didn't know how to dress and then she turns like 16, grows two feet ,and all of the sudden you're like, "Holy shit!" Or, like some kid who tripped over his own feet but loved basketball, then all the sudden he's like 17, grew four feet, and is dunking on everyone and no one can control him. Things go through awkward periods and what I loved about the 2011's was how low the sugars and alcohols were, how high the acids were, and how long it took for those wines to come around. I mean, 2007 was considered one of the best vintages ever, right? But it was one of my least favorites because it was too powerful. It's just like -- how do I get myself in these situations saying this stuff? -- like a girl with really big boobs and all you can see is the really big boobs because there's not really a lot else going on.
Your analogies are masterful. It's like the amazing soprano wonderkid who no one wants to go through puberty.
Right! You lose the whole aspect of what that child could have been because you put too much emphasis on one thing that maybe they weren't so great at after all. For me, the beauty of wine is watching them grow. Falling in love with wines not for what you perceive them to be, but for what they are becoming. And I've made so many mistakes where I've blended away things because I had this perception of it only to later find out how good they would have been -- but it was too late and I didn't make a home for them, I didn't develop them. But, you know, that happens -- that's the wine industry. I fall in love with wines all the time that other people have written off.
Is there a benchmark wine for you?
Like an epiphany wine? Like something that someone else made? Sure. Yeah, there've been tons. I mean, hopefully every year I have some of those. I live for those moments and they are why I'm in this industry. Those wines are the wines that make me want to get up and get out of bed and go and do this job. I love falling in love with wines. I think the problem with being a winemaker though is you often find yourself falling in love with very young wines because you don't get to see a lot of your wines mature. You're being so critical of them for what you did back then and once it goes in a bottle I get far more critical of myself. Maybe it's the hope -- that hopefulness that something's going to grow and be something like the ugly duckling that turned into a swan is going to continue to be a swan forever. I've certainly had wines go in the bottle where later I'm like, "This is so wonderful! This is so great!' but most of the time I'm just like, "Fuck. I really fucked that up." You know, the funny thing is it's usually some wine that gets some big score that everyone thinks is so fucking great and I'm like, "God, I hate this wine!" Then there's just some wine like the 2008 Feral Sauvignon Blanc that everyone hated and I'm just like, "No -- this is so good!" I tasted it like two or three years after it got released and I was just like, "OH MY GOD, this is so amazing." I just felt really good about it
It seems like part of the beauty of wine is you can't really judge any of it because nothing is ever the same
It's a living, changing thing. That's the whole thing about wine and that's why people fall in love with wine with every experience. You can get the same exact bottle of wine and you're going to have a different experience with it every single time. Not only have you changed, but the bottle has changed as well.
Is there anything we haven't talked about that you really want people to know?
Just that I'm excited about living in Walla Walla. I'm excited about the adventure I get to go on with Charles Smith and Andrew Latta. Hopefully, it's exciting for them as well. And I hope that it turns out extremely positive for everyone. It's fun to look towards the future and, as a very wise woman once told me, it's really nice to be grateful. It's good to be grateful.