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Taste the high life at Sonoma's Chateau St. Jean

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Chateau St. Jean labels itself as “the quintessential Sonoma Valley winery,” and when you first see this former summer home built in the style of a Mediterranean villa with its orange tile roofs and lush cream-colored exterior, it’s hard to disagree. It looks pretty darn quintessential, all right.

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The chateau is set back from Highway 12 nestled under the protective gaze of Sugar Loaf Ridge. We came there for a tasting, tour and blending seminar conducted by the winery’s associate winemaker, Bob Coleman.

Both the tasting and blending seminar took place in the visitor center, the newer front building on the property that forms the camera-friendly view you see as you drive up. From this building you step outside onto a courtyard that leads to a big lawn that reminded me of the big sweep of green you see from the balcony at Pebble Beach Lodge. On the other side of the grass at Chateau St. Jean is a vineyard, not the ocean, but the comparison still applies. This is the high life, California style.

“I took my cousins there from Minnesota a few years back,” Jeff Brinkhaus, a friend and longtime wine country traveler, told me. “We had a fabulous picnic on their lawn. It’s one of my favorites.”

For the tasting they poured a 2011 Fume Blanc from Le Petite Etoile, a Chateau St. Jean vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and it was hard to argue with that too. Lunch consisted of wine country cheeses and charcuterie, and by the time the blending seminar rolled around we were ready to sample a little more of the high life. For this we would be tasting and mixing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot—the five reds that form the basis for the winery’s award-winning Cinq Cepages blend. (For pictures of the tasting and the day, please see the slide show.)

Although I knew a little about these wines, to be honest I couldn’t tell the difference between a Sauvignon or Franc grape if my life depended on it, and I knew even less about Petit Verdot, except that “petit” means small in French. Fortunately though, Chateau St. Jean did its best to provide the answer for me.

The main garden on the 250-acre estate is between the visitor center and the original country home built in the 1920s by the Goffs, the first owners. In the early 1970s the Merzoian family bought the wine grapes on the property and established Chateau St. Jean, although they are no longer involved in it. (“Jean,” by the way, is a tribute to a woman who was involved in the winery's early days and is pronounced not the way the French would say it but like the most famous product made by Levi’s.) The most eye-catching feature of the old home and these rear buildings is a three-story high tower, with its whimsical pointed roof and a balcony that offers 360-degree views of Sugar Loaf and the surrounding terroir. The squat building next to it houses the winery. Unfortunately the winery and tower are not part of the public tour.

There is something very worth seeing here, however, besides the gardens themselves—“the demonstration vineyard," as Chateau St. Jean calls it. I counted 14 vines, each labeled with the name of the grape and other identifying information, grouped together in a row. They were Petite Sirah, Malbec, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Viognier and Pinot Noir—all of them in their early “bud break” stage when the vines toss off their drab winter dress and put on something springier and more colorful.

If you’re like me, you drive all over Napa and Sonoma admiring the land but you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at—which grapes are which. The vineyards are beautiful and stirring and largely nameless. But this pretty little vineyard tutorial lets you get up close and personal with the grapes and greet them by name. What up, Sirah! Yo King Cab! It’s neat.

Due to considerations of length, we have to postpone our report on the blending seminar for another day. In the meantime, however, be sure to visit Chateau St. Jean’s website for more on its wines, tastings, gardens, picnicking and rates. Better still, hop in your vehicle and strike out in in search of the quintessence up Highway 12.

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