With the hustle and bustle of midday Milpas Street traffic providing an unexpected backdrop, 14 tons of syrah grapes arrived on Santa Barbara’s Eastside last week, their sweet, intoxicating aroma detectable from several blocks away. Grown in the sun-kissed climate of the Santa Ynez Valley and plucked fat from the vine just hours before, crate after crate of the deeply hued purple delights were being forklifted off a flat-bed truck parked on Montecito Street just outside Jaffurs Wine Cellars, which received the delivery into its state-of-the-art production facility for the next step in the fruit’s seasonal journey.
Directing traffic around the scene-but still sporting the telltale, grape-stained Australian leather boots of a winemaker-Jaffurs’s cellar master Matt Brady greeted me with a heartfelt “Welcome to harvest!” and gestured toward the towers of half-ton grape crates stacked in the driveway and spilling out of their building. Then, with a noted tone of giddiness, Brady added, “We’ve got a helluva lot of grapes and plenty more on the way.”
In a dance of production currently being carried out throughout the county by wineries big and small, owner Craig Jaffurs and crew are jigging their way through the 2007 harvest season, a small five-man crew de-stemming, fermenting, punching down, pressing, and barreling the way to their biggest year ever. When the flurry winds down later this month, the Rh’ne varietals specialist expects to have 5,000 cases of his celebrated syrah, petite sirah, grenache, viognier, and roussanne wines aging away in their cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow storage room, eagerly awaiting the bottle sometime next year.
When I arrived last week to be “wine slave for a day,” the boys were all business, surrounded by literally tons of grapes that desperately needed to lose their stems by sundown. After a brief pep talk from Craig, the classic rock tunes were cranked while the forklift and de-stemming machine got fired up. Within minutes, I was covered in sugary, pulpy streaks of ruby, crimson, and maroon. The slow, steady grind of the de-stemming machine whirled overhead, chewing up fruit and spitting out the bigger stems, while the actual grapes-plus undesired smaller bits of stem, leaf, and the occasional spider or earwig-rained down on me and the three other fast-purpling people stationed below.
Our task was simple: With juice flowing from above, we, in a human version of Hungry Hungry Hippos, raced to snatch up all the unwanted ingredients before the machine piled more and more grapes upon us. The work was fun and at times back-breaking, especially in the hot afternoon sun. After each half-ton crate, we’d break to rinse off because the sugars and acids of the grapes eat at your skin and threaten to stick your arms to your torso. Meanwhile, Craig would prep the grinder for the next batch and inspect the processed fruit.
Within a few hours, we had successfully de-stemmed some four tons of Verna’s Vineyard-grown syrah and loaded the spoils into a massive fermenting vat where it would spend the next two weeks developing its own flavor before being pressed and barreled. Displaying the brand of excitement and hope that’s a calling card of any harvest season, Craig looked at the vat full of fruit and said with a smile, “It’s really an experiment; chances are it will wind up in our Santa Barbara County syrah blend, but who knows-it could turn out to be something pretty special.”
Using grapes from nine different vineyards throughout Santa Ynez, Santa Maria, Santa Rita Hills, and Los Alamos, Jaffurs is part of a fast-growing urban wine scene in Santa Barbara. Instead of running a production facility out in the valley, Craig has been utilizing the consistent and comparatively cool coastal temperatures of a downtown Santa Barbara location since 2001, when he opened the uniquely designed tasting and processing space a half-block from Milpas Street. The unorthodox location has agreed with the family-oriented label, helping it earn regular ratings in the low 90s from the likes of Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator for its increasingly renowned small batches. Along the way, Jaffurs has grown from 2,000 cases in 2005 to 5,000 this year, a size Craig explained “is just about as big as I want to be.”
After a day of de-stemming, I returned the next afternoon for the stomping and barrel ing of Jaffurs Thompson Vineyard-grown grenache grapes. No longer the work of virgins or even the bare-footed, 21st-century crushing is a decidedly labor-less affair-a massive stainless steel beast called the EuroPress is brought in to do the dirty work. After two weeks of fermenting and twice a day “punch-downs”-a process in which the fermenting fruit is pressed down into its own juices with a long pole-the grapes are loaded into the EuroPress and squeezed by an inflatable, soft-skinned sack before being turned, squeezed again, and then gravity-drained into an awaiting tub. The sight of the freshly squeezed wine cascading out of the press is exhilarating: The sapphire-colored wave seems to flow endlessly, filling the room and tickling your senses with sound, scent, and-if you’re lucky-taste.
On the day of my visit, I lucked out and got to enjoy the latter. Matt dipped a glass under the wine waterfall and filled it. After sipping himself, he passed the glass around and-though the juice was cloudy with lie and about 18 months in a French oak barrel away from being ready-it was surprisingly drinkable and tasty. After watching me happily slurp it, Matt smiled a harvest season grin and said, “So that will be our 2007 grenache.”
Allowing the flavors to settle across my tongue, I reflected about what he just told me and time seemed to fold over itself for a brief moment as the newborn wine found its way into my stomach. With one sip, the beauty of harvest was revealed to me, the future and the past simultaneously becoming the present in one deliciously pregnant moment.
Jaffurs Wine Cellars holds wine tastings every Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment. Call 962-7003 or see jaffurswine.com for info.