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Sonoma's Wine Castle: Chateau St. Jean

Sonoma's Chateau St. Jean Winery

Dating from the 1970s, Chateau St. Jean is oh-so-chateau, French-styled, mega-corporate-owned, and I have an abiding fondness for the place. For one thing, I remember climbing the steps above the aromatic barrel chai, and surveying from the high tower when I was a mere nipper, totally unconcerned with the product made here. Now, I also appreciate this winery’s reliably high quality, and exclusive commitment to Sonoma County grapes.

Get in cinq
It’s actually quite a good-looking assembly of buff-colored, monastic buildings with tiled roofs, set against a dramatic backdrop of volcanic peaks.

Inside the gate, enter a charmed garden of dwarf oranges and, depending on the season, roses.

Continue to the tasting room, newly built in the past decade, and stocked with all the trinkets, deli items (sandwiches to go, during the high season) and wine tech that a visitor of reasonable expectations might wish for. Hang a left, and enter the restored 1920 vacation home that is the actual “chateau” here. Reserve tastings are held here.

The stair-climbing adventure that I described from early days is not currently available; experiences are limited to a brief tour and tasting. Every year, in late February, the winery holds a “Pinot and Mushroom” event. While the winery has passed through different owners, its winemakers have passed the torch quite smoothly from Dick Arrowood, to his understudy Don Van Staavern, to his wife, current winemaker Margo Van Staaveren.

Take a sip
I could have sworn that the Riesling here trucked the most love; turns out, while the 2011 Sonoma County Riesling ($20) seems even better, and drier than past vintages, with teasingly light flavors of honeysuckle, pear and apricot, it’s selling second fiddle to the sweeter 2011 Gewürztraminer ($20).

The 2008 Cinq Cépages ($75) is the big ticket, available for tasting in the reserve room, where the limited estate Malbec will also be available again in February, 2013. Meanwhile, Van Staaveren’s 2008 Red Blend Cuvee Eighty-Five Fifty-Five ($65) is much like the Cinq, with the addition of Syrah: anise, plum, and a luxurious velvet texture.

Nerd out
It’s Chateau St. “Jean.” Like blue jeans. Like Gene Simmons. It just is.

Hit the road
You can’t have a picnic lunch at the Chateau that wasn’t provided there. There are, however, great delis sprinkled throughout Sonoma and Rincon valleys (eastern Santa Rosa).

Chateau St. Jean
, 8555 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. Daily, 10am–5pm. Regular tasting, $15; Reserve, $25. 707-833-4134.

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