Wine has a way of transporting people back in time to a special day or moment. For some it’s a celebratory milestone, such as a birthday or anniversary, for others it’s that once-a-year gathering of friends. Whatever the occasion, winemakers like Whalebone Vineyard’s Jeremy Leffert realize it’s important and that’s what makes his job so rewarding.
“You can transport somebody to another world, they are not in your world, which is very cool,” Leffert says.
Leffert, who has been making wine on the Central Coast, primarily in the Paso Robles American Viticulture Area, does not take for granted having people tell him they are saving a bottle of wine he made for a special occasion.
“It is always a ‘wow’ moment; the best compliment you can get,” Leffert says. “It’s nice to know that they liked your stuff so much, that it means so much to them, they are going to share it with their family. We are there in spirit.”
Leffert has been the consulting winemaker at Whalebone, known for its award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon, since March of 2015. He works closely with assistant winemaker Travis Hutchinson.
The chance to work with one of the storied Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in the renowned Adelaida District of the Paso AVA was something Leffert could not let pass.
“This corridor right here is special,” Leffert says. “It’s the perfect spot for Cabernet. There is something special here.”
The vineyard, owned by Bob and Janalyn Simpson, was planted in 1989 with Estrella Clone Eight Cabernet vines on an entirely south facing, rocky hillside. The multi-layered soils, a combination of limestone, calcareous shale, mudstone and a dense clay base, are what separates Whalebone Cabernet apart. The vineyard’s name comes from the whalebones and other marine mammal fossils found in the calcareous rocks during planting.
All of this equates to big, fruit driven Cabernet Sauvignon with soft tannins that can be enjoyed today or cellared to enjoy later.
“I think the minerality shows in all of the Cabernet-based wines and that is from this site, there is a rocky component to it, which is unique,” Leffert says. “The Whalebone fruit, the chemistry alone, the concentration, the color, it is outstanding.”
Initially, the fruit from the vineyard was sold to JUSTIN, Hess, Meridian and HMR. In 1994, Bob Simpson began reserving some fruit and making Bob Wine. Labeling for the homemade wine was simply a piece of duct tape with Bob Wine written on it. The garage wine quickly became a hit and led to the Simpson’s officially starting the Whalebone label. The first Whalebone vintage was 2001.
Today, Whalebone bottles an Estate and Reserve Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Bob Wine, blend of Cab, Merlot and Petite Sirah, Bourdeaux and Rhone blends, a Zinfandel and a rose of Grenache.
Over the years, every wine in the Whalebone portfolio has received high ratings and earned numerous awards in competition.
Most recently, Leffert was director of winemaking at the Workshop, a custom-crush facility in San Luis Obispo.
Prior to that he was winemaker for Hearst Ranch Winery for six years, beginning with its first vintage in 2009. He worked closely for years with owners Jim Saunders and Steve Hearst, who are friends with the Simpsons.
“At Hearst, Jim was like a father to me. It was awesome,” Leffert says. “I had the opportunity to learn a lot there — eye-opening experience. We started out small but grew it to 15,000 cases in a couple of years. I got to wear a lot of different hats.”
Unfortunately, the Workshop closed its doors, forcing Leffert to break out his resume.
Leffert, who made some connections in SLO, began taking jobs as a consulting winemaker, and if not for a fortuitous visit from Hutchinson to the custom-crush facility before closing may not have landed at Whalebone.
Hutchinson came in one day and said Whalebone’s winemaker was leaving and told Leffert to give Bob Simpson a call.
“I had always had a great relationship with Bob, and loved the wines and loved the vineyard,” Leffert says.
Leffert, who grew up in Minnesota but was born in California, moved to Santa Barbara after attending college in Vermont and started working at Trader Joe’s, where he attended in-store wine tastings.
He was instantly hooked and went on tasting trips to the Santa Ynez Valley. He bought books on Amazon and began learning about viticulture.
Eventually, he enrolled at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and worked toward a master’s in viticulture. During an internship with Christian Tietje at Four Vines, is when and where he decided to be a winemaker.
“That harvest was punk rock, full on pedal to the metal winemaking and I was hooked,” Leffert says.
Whalebone Vineyard has a tasting room, actually a barn, that is open seven days week — 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday — at 8325 Vineyard Drive, Paso Robles. For more information, call 805-239-9020 or visit online whalebonevineyard.com.