Quality vs. Quantity - Chateau St. Jean Masters Both

We’ve all done it. We’ve all had that internal struggle as we stand in front of the wall o’wine at our local grocer trying to figure out what bottle will pair best with whatever culinary creation is in the oven.
Then, from seemingly out of nowhere a glimmer in your eye and you look to the far end of the shelf and see it....Chateau St. Jean. Whether you are in California, Oregon, Washington, or somewhere else, there is a good chance you have seen that bottle sitting on the shelf. For the everyday California wine drinker, Chateau St. Jean represents that little splurge you give yourself on payday. Many of the widely distributed wines are on the higher end of the all important under $20 price point. But don’t let the big name fool you. Chateau St. Jean, a pioneer in the single vineyard technique in California, maintains its identity as a maker of both fine wines and a maker of wines that appeal to a wide audience, rather than sacrificing quality for quantity. On a recent trip to the Chateau, Josh and I got to experience this first hand.

In the area for a conference, Josh took the liberty of setting up a tasting for us. We arrived at the Chateau at 10:30 and were met by the Hospitality Specialist Bob, who served as our host for the day. After a quick description of the tasting room we were led to the private and reserve tasting room where a small table for two was set up. Bob first started by telling us a little about himself and the winery. Founded in 1973, Chateau St. Jean has been a leader in fine California wines for many years. Just recently, winemaker Margo Van Staaveren was named the 2008 Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. Part of her success comes from having worked in almost every position in the winery in the 25+ years she has been with Chateau St. Jean. Following the day of tasting, it is easy to see why Van Staaveren earned this esteemed honor.

As Josh and I sat down, neither of us knew what we were getting ourselves in to In front of us lay two tasting menus, one was the regular tasting menu and the other included all of their reserve and limited production wines. With few exceptions, Bob told us we would be going down the reserve list that morning, totaling 16 different pours. Yes, you read that right, at 10:30am we started our adventure of 16 very different wines. We started with two different Fume Blancs. First, was the 2007 La Petite Etoile from the Russian River valley. If this was any indication for what the day had in store, Josh and I were going to enjoy ourselves. The nose contained hints of lemongrass with a prominent scent of green tea. Upon tasting we noticed the tartness in this wine and immediately thought of grapefruit or some other sweet citrus. Having not gone through malolactic fermentation, the acidity and tartness of this wine lingered as it finished with a hint of spice. After tasting the Lyon Vineyard Fume Blanc we moved through Pinot Gris and onto one of my favorite whites of the day, the 2007 Robert Young Vineyard Pinot Blanc. This wine was actually off the regular tasting list but our host thought it special enough to pour alongside the reserves...boy was he right. Immediately we picked up on the intensely floral nose and it didn’t taste half bad either. The crispness of the wine was complimented by mellow flavors of melon, nectarine. This could easily be enjoyed by itself while sitting on the porch on a hot day with a good book, or enjoyed with food. Personally, I will be opening one of the bottles I walked away with tonight as a pair to a Thai curry dish.

And now on to the reds. While I would love to go in depth about each wine we tasted, there were a lot of them and I would encourage you to visit this landmark of Sonoma County and experience them on your own. However, I can’t leave you in the dark about some of the favorites of the day. We started with 3 different Pinot Noirs: Durrell Vineyard, Benoist Ranch, and the Sonoma County reserve, all from 2007. Each one different, I was partial to the Durrell Vineyard Pinot Noir. This wine held the spice you would expect from a Pinot Noir without overpowering the rest of the black fruit flavors. On the finish we got hints of black tea, leather, and bacon....that’s right, I said bacon! Two of my favorite things joined at the hip...today was a good day.

We continued through a the 2006 Estate Cabernet Franc and the Sonoma County reserve Malbec from 2005 before getting to the crème de la crème. A wine so great that even after 10 tastings, still stood out. This was the 2005 & 2006 Cinq Cepages Cabernet Sauvignon. A Bordeaux style blend of Cab Sauv (83%), Merlot (7%), Cab Franc (5%), Malbec (4%), and Petite Verdot (1%), this wine is the flagship of Chateau St. Jean each year. Since they began blending this wine in 1990, it has never received below 90 points by Robert Parker and in 1996 became the first (and remains the only) Sonoma County wine to be declared the #1 wine in the world. The flavor profile includes raspberry, blackberry, red and black currants, perfectly balanced with cedar wood and an earthy flavor. Josh and I enjoyed a bottle later that night and were quite impressed with the complexity of this wine. It is something to open on that special night or lay it down for another 5-10 years like I plan on doing with a couple bottles.
We ended our tasting excursion by jumping up the tasting menu to the 2004 Sonoma County reserve Merlot. What is so unique about this wine was the aging process. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec, each varietal is aged separately for 2 years in French Oak before being blended and then aged another 3 years, totaling 5 years of aging before ever being released. Described as “liquid velvet,” the Reserve Merlot offers a profile of dark cherry, espresso, and bittersweet chocolate.
As you can tell, Josh and I were treated very well at Chateau St. Jean and I would highly recommend checking it out if you are in the neighborhood. Chateau St. Jean offers several different tasting options depending on what you’re in the mood for. While you do have to pay to taste at Chateau St. Jean, the wines and knowledge of the staff are well worth what you will get on either the regular tasting menu or the upgraded reserve tasting menu. While you’re there be sure to make time to walk around the property and enjoy the lush courtyard gardens that make for a great Kodak moment. Don’t be put off by the formal exterior of this property. Once inside, the friendliness and knowledge of the staff make you feel right at home. This was my first trip to Chateau St. Jean and I will be sure to return in the near future.



Josh Gana said...

Great account and a wonderful experience. The hospitality at CSJ is second to none. It was nice to find out their portfolio is much more expansive than we see on the shelves of the supermarket here in Oregon.

Christina said...

You have described a day of tasting at CSJ perfectly. The staff and wines are nothing short of the best. How lucky you were to be there when Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir was still in stock. I keep missing it! It is one of my favorite all-time wines. A visit to CSJ is a MUST on any wine country itinerary. The wine club is the best way to get their limited-release wines at home, too.

Jesse said...

Thanks Christina, I had never been there but have already been back another time since Josh and I visited. My wife and I met a different host and he was also incredibly knowledgable and friendly.