Craig Jaffurs loves Santa Barbara. So much so, he’s found a way to make some of the region’s most famous Rhone wines without having to travel past Milpas Street. And while he keeps close tabs on the vineyards that foster his grapes, Jaffurs puts his fruit where his true home lies — in the heart of the city.
Originally an East Coast kid, Jaffurs converted to the California lifestyle at college in San Francisco amidst a booming wine industry. When he moved to Santa Barbara shortly after to work in the aerospace industry, he knew he had arrived home.
“Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get here,” he explained. “When I rolled into town, I felt like I was born here.”
As he worked in the cellars and tasting room of Santa Barbara Winery in 1989, winemaking slowly morphed from a fun side job to something he aspired to do full-time. In 1994, he began making his first wines in Santa Maria with the then-brand new co-op Central Coast Wine Services, with the likes of industry bigwigs Chris Whitcraft, Lane Tanner, Steve Dooley, Rick Longoria, and Joe Davis (of Whitcraft Winery, Lane Tanner Wines, Ross Wine Cellars, Longoria Wines, and Arcadian Winery, respectively).
“It was kind of like being in college for winemaking, where people are raiding your refrigerator and stealing your stuff. It’s all great fun,” he said. “I saw things I wanted to emulate and things that I didn’t. I don’t know that my basic approach has changed much since then.”
Jaffurs’ production reached his five-year, 3,000-case goal in only three — allowing him to quit his cost analyst career and consider himself a bona fide winemaker. Jaffurs immediately became one of the region’s go-to wineries for Rhone varietals, offering outstandingly-scored syrahs and grenaches, and one of the only 100 percent mourvedres in Santa Barbara County. He advocates syrah with utmost sincerity, pointing out the varietal’s extraordinary value, power, and friendliness.
“It speaks to the whole region,” he explained, comparing the Santa Barbara lifestyle to that of the Rhone Valley. “The people are down-to-earth and the food they eat is really fresh and simple, and the wine really pairs with that approach to life. It’s not overly intellectual, but it’s really appealing on sort of a native level.”
Still, though, he felt uncomfortable leaving his young family back in the city everyday, only getting to see his infant son for a few hours every night before heading back out to Santa Maria. “I was always afraid I was going to die in a car wreck and miss my family growing up,” he admitted, finally in 2001 purchasing the lower Eastside building that now houses his winery.
Though he wishes he could be closer to the vineyards everyday, getting to be with family, surf, and hang out in the cellar all in one day more than makes up for that. In fact, Jaffurs invests so much of himself into his winery that it’s a critical part of his identity. Likewise, the old surfboards, oil paintings, and personal photographs strewn about the winery show that Jaffurs’ identity has become the winery’s constitution. The Jaffurs crew frequently enjoys the local Mexican fare of Milpas street, proudly referring tourists and tasters to the hole-in-the-wall gems they feel reflect the winery’s authenticity in comparison to the fancy eateries that often surround wineries.
“We have a different vibe here,” he said of his “funky” winery. “Some people want Falcon Crest. They want a beautiful, opulent tasting room, but that’s not what they’re gonna get here.”
Added tasting room manager Matt Brady, “People wander in to taste and see us crushing grapes and sorting fruit….Even out in [wine country], most of that stuff takes place out of the public eye.”
With only three main employees — Jaffurs, Brady, and assistant winemaker Dave Yates— the winery maintains integrity, not to mention an ideal balance; while Brady treasures days of “honest work” deep in the barrels, Yates prefers spending time in the vineyards and selling bottles.
“There’s a culture here, there’s a ‘Jaffurs’ way to do stuff,” Jaffurs explained, admitting he has a hard time letting go of control over his fruit. However, he finally trusts Yates and Brady enough to believe that his wines would not suffer without his presence. Jaffurs also extends a similar sense of faith to the region in general in confidence that, if anything happened to him during a harvest, he could call up many other local winemakers, both friends and strangers, to take over. “There’s a feeling that if something’s really good for one winery in the county,” he said, “it’s good for them all.”
Fortunately, though, Jaffurs plans to continue giving the city of Santa Barbara yet another source of pride amidst the fantastic Mexican fare and palm-tree-laden lifestyle he loves. “We’re good now,” he said of the region, “but come see us in 10 or 20 years.”
Jaffurs Winery is located at 819 East Montecito Street, off Milpas. The tasting room is open Friday-Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 805-962-7003 or see jaffurswine.com.