Through the Years: Jaffurs Tastes through 15 Vintages of Syrah

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 8/11/16

“Thinking of ageability is a more recent worry,” winemaker Craig Jaffurs tells the small group of friends sitting amidst a cavalcade of wine bottles.  “When we started, we just wanted to make a wine that was clean, palatable, immediately accessible and a little bit powerful.”

This special gathering of about 15 people at Jaffurs Wine Cellars last week is certainly a time to reminisce.  Jaffurs Winery GM Dave Yates is here – the two left the aerospace industry together to embark in the wine industry in 1994.  So is co-winemaker Matt Brady, who joined Jaffurs in 2005, and assistant winemaker Stephen Searle.  Antonio Gardella, credited with selling more Jaffurs wine during his tenure at distributor Henry Wine Group, is in attendance, along with a handful of longtime wine club members, wine aficionados and local wine writers, like me and Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann, who’ve been tracking the Jaffurs effect for many years.

Thompson Vineyard is here, too, in more ways than one.  New owner Noah Rowles is tasting with us, along with vineyard manager Jason Grupp.  But this special spot – a rambling 42-acre estate along Alisos Canyon in the Los Alamos Valley – is also inside each of the bottles that have been popped open this afternoon.  Thompson bore its first fruit harvest in 1994, the same years Jaffurs started making wine.  And the newness that brought these two together 22 years ago would turn out to be shared promise, in the form of a Thompson Vineyard-designate syrah – and fruit soured from the very same block – made under the Jaffurs label every year since.

Today, Jaffurs makes several vineyard-specific syrahs every year – his current releases feature Bien Nacido, Kimsey and Larner, along with Thompson – as well as a blended entry-level Santa Barbara County syrah and a super-premium selection of each year’s six best barrels, dubbed Upslope.  But his relationship with Thompson is important.  “I was making wine at night back then, and on weekends,” he tells us, “and sourcing from Thompson from the very start certainly helped push my winemaking along.”

The lineup
The tasting
The aftermath
The winemaker
The original
The cork was pulled slowly from the unlabeled bottle of 1994 Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard syrah that we were about to share.  This was a special treat: once we emptied it, only three bottles of Jaffurs’ very first creation would remain.  As expected, lots of sediment in the glass.  But the racy acidity, the juiciness, and the red licorice flavors in the wine are remarkable.  “I was tickled,” Jaffurs would later tell me.  “It’s still holding up – enchanting, nice flavors, still lighter in color and aromas you don’t usually get.”

The impetus for our gathering, though, is to witness how Jaffurs’ Thompson Vineyard syrahs have grown and developed in the years since.   We’re gathered inside the eastside Santa Barbara facility that Jaffurs opened in 2000, where, all along, a philosophy of limited intervention – minimal handling or pumping, no filtering or fining – has prevailed.  But the Jaffurs team has never before done a comprehensive 15-year analytical tasting like this – a side-by-side comparison of the 15 vintages from 1998 to 2013.    The nuances we’re about to find will, most likely, be snapshots of year-over-year variations in weather.  And whatever common thread emerges will show us what happens when sense of place and winemaking knack coalesce.

While all wines impress, several vintages shine for me.  The ’99 showcases a liqueur nose, velvety mouth feel and solid tanning structure; it tastes surprisingly young.  The 2001 is balanced and structured, with lively flavors and a grippy texture.  The perfume on the 2005 is lovely, and there are caramel notes and supple tannins.  The 2007 is downright beautiful, with an intense black cherry nose and a lively bounce in the mouth.  The mint and tobacco profile on the 2008 is fascinating.  The 2010 and 2011 syrahs, both products of a soggy growing season, are remarkably spicy, earthy and tangy.  And the newest wines, the 2012 and the yet-to-be-released 2013, impress with red fruit character, springy acidity and clean finish.

Jaffurs would later tell me that he’s especially impressed by the 2007 – a vintage he had previously underestimated – and the 2012, which, with age, “is going to be a dynamite wine,” he said.  But the entire lineup pleases him, actually, “because there is a lot of uniformity.”  Indeed, if there is a common thread here, it’s purity and balance and a drinking experience driven by red fruit flavors, spice edges and elegant finishes.  A clear dependability to Jaffurs’ syrahs, year after year, is what’s helped him develop a successful brand.

“That’s what I want for the consumer,” he’d later tell me.  “That when you see a Jaffurs wine on a list, you can order it blindly and know that there’s quality there and that you’re going to get a nice glass of wine.”

The 15 vintages I tasted are certainly proof of that.

Many of the notes gathered last week will be part of an upcoming Jaffurs wine club newsletter.  You can taste Jaffurs’ latest releases, which also include viognier, grenache and pinot noir, at the winery, 819 E. Montecito Street in Santa Barbara.  You can also shop for wine on the website,


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