St. Francis Winery and Vineyards has for a long time been on our list of favourite California wineries. We can still remember the 1996 St. Francis Reserve Merlot, the wine that tuned us on to St. Francis and the wine that turned us on to Merlot! The fruit-forward and beautifully textured style of that wine remains the house style today.
St. Francis was founded in 1971 by Joe Martin who planted 22 acres of Chardonnay and the first 60 acres of Merlot in Sonoma Valley. Joe focused as a grower until 1979 when he decided to open the winery. In 1983 he hired Tom Mackey to be winemaker. Tom loved to make big, exuberant wines; wines that had loads of character but still remained balanced. The fruit was always the dominant feature. That became a stylistic emblem that the winery has always retained. Over the years the exuberance has shifted a bit in favour of a little more restraint, but the basic style remains the same. Tom retired from St. Francis in 2011 after a career of many accolades, including being named by the Wine Spectator as the “Master of Merlot”.
After Tom’s retirement, the winemaking job was divided between two winemakers: Chris Louton handles the Bordeuax varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc) while Katie Madigan makes Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
We met up with Katie Madigan at St. Francis’ beautiful tasting room just outside of Kenwood in Sonoma Valley. We had been to the Tasting Room just two days prior to attend their food and wine pairing lunch, something that has become a must-do for us each time we visit Sonoma. It is right at the top of our recommendation list but also at the top of many other’s recommendation list as well. This means you need to book your reservation at least 6 weeks in advance. It has now become a reflex reaction for us when we go to Sonoma: book flights, book accommodation, book rental car, book St. Francis Food and Wine Pairing.
Katie got her Chemistry degree from UC Santa Barbara and in 2002 started working at St. Francis as an intern. She told us, “I didn’t quite know what to do with that degree. I thought about pharmaceuticals but didn’t want to be locked in a windowless lab somewhere, that’s not my personality at all. I grew up in the Bay area and my parents sold their house to live their dream of retiring in wine country and I crashed that dream! They did build a beautiful house here and I came to visit them. It happened to be August and all the jobs were in the wine industry so I ended up getting one here for harvest. I got an internship here really just to pass the time as I figured out what I wanted to finish my education in. I had no intention of falling madly in love with the craziness of harvest but it was the perfect combination of science and Mother Nature and just so much going on. I spent half the day in the vineyard, half the day in the cellar and it was both the hardest I had ever worked and the most fun I had ever had. I decided this is what I wanted to pursue.”
She worked her way up at St. Francis while studying Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. In 2006 she became assistant winemaker and in 2011 winemaker. Katie described to us how it happened: “Someone told me that anyone that wants to get into wine goes to UC Davis so I enrolled the next semester into the Oenology and Viticulture program. St. Francis was really wonderful to keep me on – they really push the education aspect here so they said ‘we want you to finish your degree so you work as little or as much as you need to get your studies done’ and I graduated in 2005. I worked my way up from lab tech to assistant and I became winemaker in 2011.”
Katie greets us warmly at the Private tasting Room at St. Francis. She has set up six wines for us to taste: three Chardonnays and three Zinfandels. Before we begin tasting, she tells us some background about the wines. Our first wine is the 20015 Sonoma County Chardonnay, “We want this wine to be a great every day drinking Chardonnay, somewhere in between un-oaked and buttery; we want to display the characteristics of Chardonnay but with a nice refreshing minerality. It is a blend from about 15 different Chardonnay vineyards and sees about 20% new oak.” Next is the 2015 Martinelli Vineyard Chardonnay. “This is a relatively new wine we’ve been producing but we’ve been actually contracting fruit from the Martinelli vineyard for about 30 years. We always put them in our Sonoma County Chard but a few years ago I got this interesting idea to make a Chardonnay completely in stainless steel, fermenting on its side rather than upright in traditional process. We ferment sur lie [meaning on the spent yeast cells] and rotate it back and forth periodically to stir up those lees. My idea was to produce a Chardonnay that was 100% stainless steel but still had good body.” The Chardonnays finished with the 2015 Behler Vineyard Chardonnay, “This is from our original vineyard we planted in 1971 just down the road which we still own. It has perfumed aromatics on it and is aged 20 months in 100% new oak. This is as far as I go in terms of an oaky Chard; we’re very careful with oak. I still want those varietal characteristics to come through but I like those nutty characteristics.”
From there it was on to the three Zinfandels, all from the 2014 vintage. We kicked off this flight with the St Francis Old Vines Zinfandel. Katie told us this wine comes from a compilation of vineyards. “We don’t contract with Zinfandel growers that are companies, all the vineyards are family owned. The vines need to be at least 50 years old but the majority are 80-120 year old vineyards, so they do have a true sense of place.” Then we tasted their Zinfandel Giovanetti Vineyard. “Also from Russian River, very close to Martinelli and one of my very favourite vineyards – 120 years old, it’s an incredible place that screams Russian River. I love this vineyard because there are 22 different varieties in this 8 acre piece of land; mostly Zin plus several different varieties so lots of fun to walk through. I believe the number of varieties grown there is one of the reasons the wines from here are so complex.” We finished with the St Francis Reserve Zinfandel. Katie informs us this is a brand new wine (3rd vintage) born out of our travels across the country. “We would go into restaurants and retail shops and they would say ‘ we love St Francis but how do we compete with the retail shop down the street that selling your wine for $11.99?’ So we thought of doing a line of wines that are appellation based showcasing the best of Sonoma for the variety and only focusing it on restaurants and high-end retail shops. This way we can give the consumer something that they can’t get if they’re not local and at a restaurant it can be a nice bottle of wine to order. It only comes from 2 vineyards and is a much more opulent, bigger bolder style”.
It was a fascinating tasting with the 2015 International Women’s Wine Competition Best Woman Winemaker of the Year. We have been regularly drinking St. Francis wines for 20 vintages now and we think the current releases are some of their best to date.
2016 Sonoma County Chardonnay
Pale gold in colour. Aromas of apple and pear intertwine with minerals. This medium-body Chardonnay is crisp and refreshing thanks to its taught acidity on the finish. Great with cold seafood or just as an aperitif.
Very Good (US$18 at their tasting room)
2016 Chardonnay Martinelli Vineyard
Here Katie has turned up the dials while still retaining that wonderful balance that all of her wines showed. White peach and golden delicious apple are delivered and a textured frame that delivers power and elegance. The mouthfeel is slightly creamy but accented by the acidity we pick up on the back end. For us, this is a reference point for California Chardonnay that shows how to make the most of this sunny terroir.
Excellent (US$ 28 at their tasting room-particularly good value for this quality level)
2015 Chardonnay Behler Vineyard
A delicious Chardonnay that is big and bold with a lovely textured mouthfeel. Apple and pear combine with hints of brioche and almond paste to create a slightly exotic profile.
2014 Old Vines Zinfandel
Dark cherry and black currant mix together on a medium frame. There is a gentle spice component which is accentuated by the medium tannin and acidity. At $22 this wine over-delivers.
Very Good+ (US$ 22 at their tasting room)
2014 Zinfandel Giovanetti Vineyard
Black cherry and boysenberry get lift from the spices that come through on the back end. The body is medium + and the tannin is smooth and just enough to keep the fruit defined without being drying. This would be a perfect accompaniment to a spicy slice of grilled Tri-tip!
Very Good/Excellent (US$ 48 at their tasting room)
2014 Zinfandel Reserve
Tom Mackey would definitely approve of this bold and richly textured wine. This is classic Zinfandel: broad shouldered, rich, plenty of opulence and that signature spice that all Zinfandel seems to show on the finish. Here the fruit is delving more into the black fruit end of the spectrum showing boysenberry, black currant and black cherry.
Excellent (US$ 48 at their tasting room)
St. Francis Winery and Vineyard
100 Pythian Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95409
Phone: (888) 675-WINE (9463)
Local: (707) 538-9463
Open daily 10:00am to 5:00pm