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

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 is hard to disagree. It looks pretty darn quintessential, all right.

Chateau St. Jean, with the lawn and a magnolia tree in front and Sugar Loaf Ridge in back.
Photo by Kevin Nelson

The chateau is set back from Highway 12 nestled under the protective gaze of Sugar Loaf Ridge. We went there not long ago for a tasting and blending seminar, both of which took place in the restored 1920s-era chateau 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 wide 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 still more of the high life. For this we would be creating our own blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot—the five reds that form the basis for the winery’s award-winning Cinq Cepages wine, itself a blend of these Bordeaux varietals.

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

When you enter Chateau St. Jean—“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—you walk through the main garden. Down a path and to the left is the chateau. There is a modern visitors center and on the east side of the garden are some rear buildings. The most eye-catching feature of these buildings is a three-story high tower, with a whimsical pointed roof and 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. This mini-vineyard consists of some 14 vines, each labeled with the name of the grape and other identifying information, grouped together in rows. 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 valleys admiring the land but you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing—which grapes are which. The vineyards are beautiful and stirring but largely anonymous. But this pretty little vineyard tutorial lets you get up close and personal with the grapes and learn their names. It’s neat.

After spending a few minutes looking over these vines I returned to the blending seminar with a better sense of what I was drinking. I felt more connected to the land and the grapes, even in this small way, and this feeling enhanced my enjoyment of what was in the bottle.

Chateau St. Jean, 8555 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood. The winery offers a Cinq Cepages blending experience, similar to what we did, daily at 1 p.m. $75 per person. It also offers tours and a variety of other types of tastings. Best to call ahead for details. 707-833-4134.