Oeno Files

The (Velvet) Devil Made Him Do It: Brennon Leighton Joins Charles Smith

Some of the state's top names in winemaking join forces to reinvent Washington chardonnay.

By Julie H. Case August 3, 2012


Andrew Latta, Charles Smith, Brennon Leighton

It’s official. Brennon Leighton has landed.

As we reported last week, Leighton was leaving Efeste for points unknown. Yesterday, Charles Smith Wines and sibling winery K Vintners announced the well-regarded winemaker will join their team, to oversee such wines as Kung Fu Girl riesling, the Velvet Devil merlot and Royal City syrah. Meanwhile, Smith’s current assistant winemaker, Andrew Latta, has been promoted to oversee the K Vinters lineup.

Hip, hip, hooray. 


Smith says he chose Leighton because he is thoughtful, kind, and has an intense passion for wine. Oh, and his skillset as a winemaker doesn't hurt either. "I think he brings something that no one else in Washington state brings.”


The wild-haired Smith, an icon in Washington's wine industry, also swears he hadn’t been shopping for a winemaker. "But when you have the opportunity to work with really talented people and increase the quality of your work, you do it."


This means Smith will also get to work with people he admires, who will strategize and argue winemaking philosophy with him. Yep, things could get interesting under the eaves at K Vintners this fall.


"It just rejuvenates everything I’m doing," says Smith. "It hits the refresh button. Here we go again. Here’s the next level.”


So why bring in a peer, someone likely to talk back, maybe even show you up?


The answer may be in large part one varietal in need of love. The three—Smith, Leighton and Latta—will launch a chardonnay project, well, immediately. In Smith's eyes, no winemaker has truly championed the state's old vines, high elevation, and cool climates for chardonnay. That's not to say other people aren’t making really nice chardonnay, he says, it’s just that no one has decided to fully embrace the varietal.


“Collectively, we should be able to make wine better than any one of us individually.”


Smith, Leighton and Latta have already contracted fruit from three distinctive vineyard sites. The trio went about selecting their grapes by first deciding what kind of wine they wanted to make—or, more specifically, by first sitting down with 40 bottles of chardonnay. (How I would have liked to be a fly on that wall.) They tasted through top wines from California, and from all the regions in of Burgundy, then asked themselves what they preferred (wines from France's Cote d’Or) and where in Washington state the soil types most lined up with those wines.


“If you know that chardonnay is great on limestone, why are you going to look for a vineyard site that has caliche?” Smith says of the vineyards they chose, which he hasn't named. “It just makes sense. You can’t plant in deep soils and pretend you’re going to get something spectacular."


Finding the perfect site and then discovering the vineyard owner didn’t just want to sell to big wineries, but wanted to work on an artisanal level was the next a-ha moment for the men. Meanwhile, said vineyards have been cropped to very low yields. The winemakers have ordered concrete fermenters and barrels and everything else they need to “communicate the vineyards into the bottle.”


Time will only tell if this chardonnay will live up to its hype. It will be at least two years before the wine will release, all dependent on whether the wine says "bottle me out" or "age me further" because, as Smith says, the wine's the master.


Meanwhile, Leighton's off to breathe some fresh life into Charles Smith Wines. 

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