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Meet the Winemaker at Chateau St. Jean Winery

Chateau St. Jean is one of Sonoma County’s most picturesque wineries, with what folks like to call a “wine castle” set amid vineyards at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains. Notable wines include the Cabernet Sauvignon blend Cinq Cépages, estate Malbec, Chardonnay, and Riesling.

When Margo Van Staaveren took the helm at Chateau St. Jean Winery, she had the big shoes of Sonoma County legend Richard Arrowood to fill.  As its first winemaker, Arrowood brought great acclaim to the Sonoma Valley winery for several decades after its founding in 1973. But Van Staavern, who will mark her 36th harvest at the winery in 2015 and is only its third winemaker, was also preceded in the job by her husband, Don Van Staavern. That remarkable continuity is one of the reasons that Chateau St. Jean continues to be a much-loved brand today.

I caught up with Van Staaveren when she had a spare moment after tasting through the winery’s lots of Pinot Gris — but wait, a winemaker’s life isn’t all tasting wine! — and just before leaving for a business trip.

What was the first wine that inspired you?

I didn’t have that moment of epiphany in wine. I was exposed to wine all my life … but my dad had Gallo Burgundy, and I wasn’t that into it, to tell you the truth. I did spend some time in Europe as a freshman in college, in Italy, and the wines were pleasant. I enjoyed the study of wine, and got into it that way. Now, I walk into a wine store and I want to know what’s under each cork! But my pocketbook doesn’t always allow my curiosity to be satiated.

What’s your favorite wine bar in Sonoma County?

My husband and I … I guess we create our own wine bar at home. Because we taste so many of our own wines all the time, we try to get wines for each other as gifts that we wouldn’t normally buy. Since he’s Dutch, we double up and have the Dutch shoes on Christmas Eve and stockings Christmas morning, and each has a different bottle in it. This Valentine’s, he topped me — instead of a bouquet of red roses, he gives me a decorated bucket of wines that he’s created. That’s a lot more fun than red roses!

Do you have a favorite wine to make at CSJ?

I really love blending — even the Pinot Gris we were tasting today, part of it in oak barrel, part of it in stainless tanks. Any wine that I feel that I got to play with the components, even if it’s one barrel, that’s the favorite of mine that day.

Does CSJ have a nickname around the cellar? It isn’t “Jeanie,” is it?

No, we don’t call it Jeanie.

Do you ever use the word, terroir in the day-to-day business of winemaking?

Not on a daily basis, but I certainly describe terroir, or a sense of place, when describing Sonoma County, because there are so many different places.

Is there a CSJ way of doing things that’s been handed down from Richard Arrowood?

Actually, he’s celebrating his 50th year in the business this year, and we did tastings with different wine critics — yesterday was Robert Parker. We were tasting Chateau St. Jean from the ’70s, and recent wines from (Arrowood’s new winery) Amapola Creek. It was fun to taste with him after all these years. I think he makes very elegant, balanced wines, and that’s something I learned from him and his successor, Don, my husband, that carries through to this day. Specifically, late harvest Riesling (the wine that first put Chateau St. Jean on the map in the 1970s). Late harvests are so different from regular winemaking, they’re really kind of a different animal.

What’s your favorite place to get away to in Sonoma County?

I happen to live in Glen Ellen, and home is sometimes the best getaway. Where we live on Sonoma Mountain, there are so many places to get away and enjoy.

It’s really remarkable, hiking in our woods and our parks. Jack London State Park is just a marvelous park, to hike and watch Transcendence Theatre in the summer.

Transcendence Theatre?

They do “Broadway Under The Stars.” It’s fantastic, just top-notch. We have a big picnic there for our wine club. It’s very wine country, but it’s very transforming, because all of a sudden you’re looking at Broadway-quality performances in the open air at Jack London State Park. It’s pretty special.

Find more info about Chateau St. Jean Winery and wineries in Sonoma County.

Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.