BRENNON LEIGHTON IS SMILING. The 41-year-old California native has never taken Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines seriously before, he admits, but it sure feels good to be on it. It must. His 2006 Efesté Ceidleigh syrah—which the magazine recently ranked 36th—came from the Woodinville startup winery’s second vintage, after all. And Leighton is not shy about celebrating his talents. A twinkly-eyed libertine who grew up surfing in Santa Cruz, he has been obsessed with viticulture since his early 20s, when he hid fine wines and Riedel tasting glasses in a closet—away from his hard-partying roommates. “It takes a certain arrogance to become a winemaker,” says Leighton. “I always had that.”
Here’s what else he has: total impatience with the oligarchy of oenophilia. As a student at UC Davis’s viticulture and enology program, Leighton once stood up in a class taught by renowned “sensory scientist” Ann Nobel to defend the down-to-earth descriptors of a fellow student over Nobel’s celebrated Wine Aroma Wheel system. He still managed to graduate in 2001, then returned to Washington to make whites for Woodinville megawinery Chateau Ste. Michelle. In 2007, on the recommendation of Delille Cellars’ Chris Upchurch, Leighton signed on at Efesté, where he has distinguished himself by using only natural (or “feral”) yeasts, practicing minimal intervention in the blending process.
Leighton thinks of his own creations as people. The grassy 2006 Feral sauvignon blanc he likens to a woman in her 20s. “When she walks down the street she wouldn’t turn heads, but if someone stared at her they would say, ‘Oh my God, she’s really gorgeous.’ ” The similarly subtle Big Papa cabernet sauvignon, meanwhile, is rambunctious and “has a certain power,” says Leighton, “and he’s smart. But his intelligence isn’t always apparent until you sit back and get to know him.”