Jeff Gaffner, the owner of and winemaker for Saxon Brown Wines, once observed, “Winemaking must consume you, or your wines may not be worth consuming.”
That’s the approach he has taken with each wine he has crafted at Saxon Brown, from Semillon to Syrah, from Chardonnay to Zinfandel, and from Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Gaffner is a 25-year veteran of the wine industry. His career as a winemaker was launched in 1981 at Chateau St. Jean under the tutelage of renowned vintner Richard Arrowood. Most notably, Gaffner was part of the winemaking team responsible for Chateau St. Jean’s 1996 Cinq Cepages, which was named the 1999 Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator magazine.
In 1997, Gaffner launched Saxon Brown, named for the willful heroine in Jack London’s “Valley of the Moon.” The winery gained instant recognition for its flagship “old vine” Zinfandel from the family’s Casa Santinamaria Vineyard–one of only a few remaining classic, Italian-style, field-blended vineyards.
The winery also produces an “old vine” Semillon from the same vineyard, as well as Pinot Noir from the famed Durell Vineyard (Sonoma County); Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel from Parmellee Hill Vineyard (Sonoma Valley); Syrah and Syrah Rose from Flora Ranch (Chalk Hill), and Semillon from Cricket Creek Vineyard (Alexander Valley).
In addition to his Saxon Brown wines, Gaffner has won critical acclaim as the consulting winemaker for several high-end boutique labels, including Xtant (Napa Valley), Stephanie (Napa Valley), Black Kite Cellars (Anderson Valley) and Ram’s Gate (Sonoma Valley).
But most of the time, he is focused on the wines of Saxon Brown, which he describes as being made from the ground up.
“We spend at least as much time in the vineyard as the cellar,” Gaffner explains. “Our flagship Zinfandel and Semillon are from our family’s 19th century Casa Santinamaria Vineyard. Saxon Brown is one of only a handful of wineries making classic ‘field blended’ wines. This commitment to tradition is a grounding principle of the Saxon Brown wines.”
Gaffner’s affinity for the land is in his blood.
“As a third-generation Sonoma farmer, I have spent my career as both a grower and winemaker,” he says. “As such, I believe that truly great wine is made in the vineyard. In addition to the Semillon and Zinfandel from Casa Santinamaria Vineyard, we make a Syrah from Parmelee-Hill Vineyard, and Napa Valley Syrah that is a blend of two vineyards in southern Napa Valley.”
Field blending is the practice of blending the grape varieties in the vineyard instead of the winery. The practice is still very common in Europe, especially Italy. In the late 1800s, many Italian immigrants settled in Northern California, bringing with them a vast knowledge of grape growing and winemaking. They planted vineyards in Sonoma and Napa Valley using their Old World “field blend” model for both red and white wines.
The traditional field blend was not limited to grapes. Often, the vines would be interplanted with olives, cherries, walnuts, prunes, pears, plums, apples and tomatoes. The field blend would vary from grower to grower and site to site, depending on the stylistic preferences of the grower and the varietal suitability of the site.
By the late 1960s and early ’70s, however, the practice had fallen out of favor as the wine industry moved to single-variety and single-rootstock plantings.
Planted before the turn of the previous century on one of the most magnificent sites in all of Sonoma Valley, Casa Santinamaria is one of only a few “field blended” vineyards remaining in California. Due to the age of the vines and the fact that they are dry-farmed and head-pruned, the yields are low, the clusters are very small and the fruit is very concentrated.
“Typically, we harvest between one-half ton and one ton per acre,” Gaffner says. “The vineyard is planted to a classic field blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet and Mataro (which comprise our Zinfandel), and Semillon, Muscadelle du Bordelaise and Sauvignon Blanc (the blend for our Semillon).”
Saxon Brown wines are made with great reverence for tradition. The grapes are nurtured in the vineyard throughout the year. Harvest is based upon touch, smell, taste and appearance, not lab reports. Gentle handling is emphasized, along with slow fermentations and (except in the case of the Semillon) lengthy aging to promote wines of elegance and longevity.
Timing of Saxon Brown wine releases often is out of sync with other wineries, which demonstrates a strict adherence to stylistic ideals.
“I love making wine,” Gaffner says. “I love the art of it, the science of it and, most of all, the tradition of it. I continue to be fascinated by wine’s capacity for reflecting the subtlest of influences from the vineyard environment to the winemaker’s touch. And my goal is always to produce a wine that is true to the varietal and growing site.”