Winemaker's Milestone: Jaffurs Wine Cellars Celebrates 20 Years

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 11/6/14

When Craig Jaffurs pressed off the final grapes of the 2014 harvest this week, it marked a special milestone: 20 years of making wine (really good wine, actually) in Santa Barbara County.
Craig Jaffurs at the winery
Today, industry insiders and consumers alike will agree that Jaffurs is one of the premier producers of Rhone wines –syrah, especially – in Santa Barbara County.  But his road here was far from conventional.
It’s true that one of his first jobs, in the late 1970s, was in the tasting room, at Santa Barbara Winery.  “A fun, really cool gig,” he recalls, but one that only lasted a few months.  Jaffurs would go on, actually, to crunch numbers for the U.S. government, at Goleta-based Tecolote Research, where “we did cost analysis for several branches of the Department of Defense.”  It was a very successful career.
But, sometimes, Bacchus has a way of bringing some of his star acolytes back into the fold.
More than a decade later, through mutual friends, Jaffurs befriended Bruce McGuire who, coincidentally, had since become head winemaker at Santa Barbara Winery.  During backpacking treks into the High Sierras, the conversation naturally turned to wine.  He also helped McGuire with harvest a few years in a row, just for fun.  And then, one fateful vintage, he asked to take a few grapes home, just to dabble.

Jaffurs, right, with friend and Jaffurs Cellars GM Dave Yates: their first harvest, 1994
For four years, Jaffurs was high-stakes analyst by day and burgeoning winemaker by night.  The stuff he was making, though, was getting high marks.  And industry insiders, like wine distributor and fellow home winemaker (of Companeros fame) Antonio Gardella, were encouraging him to make the leap.
In 1994, Jaffurs got bonded and made 400 cases of wine – syrah, mostly, and a little chardonnay – at co-op winery Central Coast Wine Services, in Santa Maria.  “I was in my mid-30s and my wife had just given birth to our son.  What better time to totally change your life?” he jokes.
If one were to break down Jaffurs’ formula for success ever since, it might go something like this:
For one, it's been his focus on syrah.  “Being a cost analyst, I had to analyze this whole project to death and come up with a plan, of course,” he told me.  “I looked around and saw great winemakers making a lot of great pinot noir and chardonnay.  But there was virtually no syrah.  It was different, a really cool thing, an up and coming grape.”  It was a calculated move that paid off.  Today, syrah accounts for most of the 5000 cases Jaffurs produces each year, along with other Rhone varieties like grenache, viognier, roussanne and a mourvedre-based blend called High Tide (a nod to his passion for surfing spots like Rincon and Gaviota).
Like other wine folks, Jaffurs admits that syrah has yet to become a breakout star in the marketplace.  “Syrah is a chameleon.  It makes good wine in a variety of different ways.  But I don’t think people know what syrah is supposed to taste like and maybe that hurts peoples’ understanding of it,” he says.  “But they like ours!”
Indeed, through wide domestic distribution and brisk sales through the tasting room and wine club, Jaffurs’ wines sell out regularly.

Thompson Vineyard
The second element to Jaffurs’ success has been his focus on fruit.  He made the call early on not to own his own vineyard, so sourcing grapes from quality vineyards has always been a priority.  “You can’t make great syrah unless you have great grapes,” he insists.  “A great vineyard that’s farmed well – that determines everything.”  This year, he’s making four vineyard-designate syrahs: Thompson, Bien Nacido, Larner and Kimsey.  The vintage’s best six barrels will go into his premium Upslope Syrah while a larger-scale blend will become his more affordable Santa Barbara County syrah.
Bien Nacido Vineyard
Grapes aside, success has also hinged on Jaffurs’ own winemaking techniques – what he calls “an insurance policy that helps you reach that high bar.”  He admits to being “very fastidious” and to having “high standards in the winery.”  Sanitation and hygiene reign supreme.  And then, it’s all about “minimally handling grapes” – no crushing and nominal pumping.  “We just coddle them along,” he says, “because that preserves the freshness of the wine and makes it last a long time.”
The Jaffurs Wine Cellars brand is no one-man-band, of course.  Longtime friend Dave Yates, who also left Tecolote 20 years ago to help launch the label, manages the business and spearheads marketing.  And Matt Brady, a talent-to-watch who joined Jaffurs right after he graduated from UCSB in 2005, holds the title of co-winemaker.  The team works out of a working winery on E. Montecito Street in Santa Barbara; opened in 2001, it was one of the very first stops in the now-buzzing Urban Wine Trail.  “The real deal,” Jaffurs calls it, where “we like meeting people, talking to them and showing them how we make our wine.”
And what about the next 20 years?  “I’m struggling with that now,” admits Jaffurs, now 58.  His son, Patterson, just left for college and he and his wife of 31 years, Lee, are contending with that rather ubiquitous empty nest syndrome.  “Continue making better wine, that’s one thing,” he says.  But while the temptation to open another tasting room does exist, there’s one thing that this winemaker has learned after two decades in the business: “Being bigger is not necessarily the answer to everything."
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A few other anniversaries of note this year: Bryan Babcock, maker of some of the best estate pinot noir in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, hosted a party last month to celebrate 30 years in the biz.  Ryan Carr, with tasting rooms in both Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez, celebrates 15 years of making wine this year.  And Blair and Sarah Fox launched their second label, a joint project dubbed Fox Wine Co., one year ago this month; they’re throwing an anniversary bash at their Funk Zone tasting room on November 28th.

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