Winemaker of the Year: Jeff Gaffner

Chances are pretty good that if you enjoy limited-production, hand-crafted California wine you've heard the name Jeff Gaffner a time or two.

Although he runs his own small winery, the cultish Saxon Brown in Sonoma County, Gaffner is a familiar face to winery owners throughout Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, where he has carved out a niche as one of California's most sought-after consulting winemakers for boutique brands such as Xtant, Hestan and Black Kite.

He began his career in 1981, working under the legendary Richard Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean. His talent was apparent early on and he's known nothing but success ever since.

I was particularly impressed in 2015 with his work at Black Kite, a small pinot noir estate in Mendocino County's Anderson Valley. Gaffner was instrumental in the rise of the highly regarded Black Kite wines, suggesting upon his initial consultation that the estate vineyard had three distinct microclimates that each produced sensational pinot noir with characteristics unique to each.

So each vintage, Gaffner makes three different pinots from these diverse Black Kite vineyard blocks. To complicate the narrative only slightly, he then crafts a blend of the three that he calls Kite's Rest, which is priced slightly lower ($48) than the individual blocks ($60).

I have tasted and rated all three blocks from the 2013 vintage, plus the blend and another pinot and chardonnay from a non-estate vineyard, Gap's Crown in the Sonoma Coast appellation.

None of the wines scored lower than 92 points, with the Stony Terrace topping out at 96 points, followed closely by the Gap's Crown pinot at 95 points. Redwoods' Edge and River Turn each rated a score of 93 points, the River Turn 92 and the chardonnay from Gap's Crown 94 points.

Such a remarkable run is impressive even for an accomplished winemaker such as Gaffner, and for this reason I have chosen Jeff Gaffner as my Wine Talk winemaker of the year.

Tasting Notes

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine. 

Merry Edwards 2013 Pinot Noir "Georgeanne," Russian River Valley ($60) -- The 2013 Georganne is the sort of pinot noir that Merry Edwards made her mark with: bold, rich, well-proportioned and yet in exquisite balance. From this vintage, Georganne was able to get plenty of extracted fruit without the harsh, bitter tannins that sometimes accompany that style of wine. The Georganne from this vintage shows plump dark fruits, a note or forest floor and a subtle wood spice. It has firm grip on the back of the palate, but that will subside as this wine matures into another glorious Merry Edwards pinot from the Russian River. Rating: 97.

Patz & Hall 2013 Chardonnay, Zio Tony Ranch, Russian River Valley ($65) -- Zio Tony Ranch has long been one of Patz & Hall's most reliable sources for chardonnay, and it didn't disappoint in 2013. This vintage is powerful and robust, showing a nose of lemon zest, butterscotch and spice, with a richly layered palate of pear, baked apple and lemon creme. Notes of baking spice linger in the background, and the wine finishes with exceptional persistence of flavor. Rating: 94.

Rombauer 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($55) -- While Rombauer is somewhat infamous for its rich and gaudy chardonnay, the dirty little secret is that cabernet sauvignon is probably its best wine. The 2013 delivers rich, ripe aromas of cassis and blueberry, with supple tannin and a spice note that runs the full course from the moment it's poured into the glass all the way through its remarkably long finish. Rating: 94.

Spottswoode 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa County/Sonoma County ($38) -- Although Spottswoode's vineyard sources for sauvignon have changed through the years, the quality and style have remained a beacon of consistency. Spottswoode embraces the sensibility of Bordeaux blanc without the heavy hand of oak, using stainless steel barrels rather than oak to achieve the lees contact that contributes to the wine's fine texture and inviting aromatics. This vintage exhibits notes of white peach and persimmon, is well balanced and shows good length, with a crisp, clean finish. Another home run from one of California's most successful producers of sauvignon blanc. Rating: 93.

Gary Farrell 2013 Pinot Noir, "Russian River Selection," Sonoma County ($45) -- Gary Farrell has been a reliable name in California pinot noir for more than two decades -- and still is, although Gary long ago moved on to other wine projects. The 2013 Russian River Selection delivers earthy aromas and spice on the nose, with note of forest floor, cola and red fruits on the palate. There is a bit of bite on the finish, but all the better for pairing with food. Try this wine with pasta and wild mushrooms or roast duck. Rating: 90.