... and a stroll down memory lane
Most wine lovers have quite a few bottles of wine that they would categorize as “most memorable” wines. Some have many, others have one or two. I’d have to say I've had many great wines in my life, but few have left a mark on me that I will remember forever. Among those was the 1997 St. Francis “Kings Ridge” Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine I was drinking when my husband proposed. (Okay, I know this sounds like it's going to be a cheesy sappy story, but it's not, so please read on if you’re not into sappy stuff).
You see, St. Francis was one of the first wine clubs we joined after moving to San Francisco and becoming seriously interested in wine, and we remained members until a year after moving to Oregon (six years later). It wasn’t just the wines we fell in love with, but the experience they provided when visiting. They didn’t just have a tasting room that offered the average 4-6 wines in a flight, but also offered guests a whole food and wine pairing experience, lasting close to an hour, where they would pair 4 or 5 of their wines with appetizers created by their chef. For me, it was the first time I started to understand the art and science behind a good food and wine pairing while falling in love with their wines. We visited often and brought family and friends to experience this place that almost became synonymous with Sonoma to us.
So, it was fitting that my boyfriend (now husband) brought out that bottle the night he planned to pop the question. And, cheesy as it sounds, I kept the label to that very bottle, had it professionally framed, and gave it to my hubby on our first wedding anniversary as the traditional first anniversary symbol of “paper" (Okay now THAT was cheesy! But it was true nonetheless).
St. Francis wines were also among the first that I tasted enough times to be able to identify a specific “winemaking style” to their wines. That became more evident when I was studying for the CMS Certified Sommelier exam and had my husband blind taste me daily on new wines to prep me for the tasting portion of the exam. Anytime he brought out a browned bagged St. Francis (whether it be a Cab, Merlot, or other), I would smell and immediately respond, “I’m not sure the exact varietal yet, let me taste a little more, but it smells like St. Francis”. And 9 times out of 10 I was right. I still don’t know what it is (anybody like to share?), the barrels, the vineyards the fruit is sourced from, a magic potion? But whatever it is there is definitely a distinct style to most of their wines. Some may call this Terroir, and I would just call it distinctly good.
So, needless to say I was very excited to have been invited to meet Tom Mackey, who has been the winemaker at St. Francis since 1983, last week for lunch along with other local wine bloggers, Tamara Belgard from Sip With Me!, Jim Eastman of The Wine Cyclist and Bernie Gehret and Eva Schmole of PortlandOregonWine.com. I’ve met many winemakers before, but there was something special and exciting about meeting Tom, since I had been enjoying his wines for years and had never met the man behind them.
Tom was warm and genuine and it felt like we were conversing with a friend rather than a stranger. He spoke of the early days when he first joined the winery. “Times were more simple then, yet the work was hard. We had a small crew, about four people that did everything from working in the field, working all through harvest, doing the prep work, the cleaning, the bottling, etc.”
He spoke of the changes he has witnessed in the Sonoma valley over the decades. Times have changed, wineries have evolved and learned from their mistakes and experiments. “We prune differently now… we space our vineyards differently… we pick our fruit later”. He described that, in his early days, they used to pick fruit much earlier in the season. Now he has learned that if you leave the fruit on the vines longer you get more developed and deeper flavors out of the wines.
They have also learned how to be better stewards of the land, and now strive for green and sustainable practices, including installing a solar electrical system on the roof of the winery, a water conservation program, recycling programs, and more.
In 2001 they opened up their visitors center on Highway 12, in Santa Rosa (about the time I started visiting), where they offer tastings, events, and my favorite, their wine and food pairing experience.
When I asked Tom about the Kings Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon and their other reserve wines (ok, I had to, I got engaged over a bottle of that wine for goodness sake. Did I also mention we shared another bottle of the same wine and vintage at our actual wedding?), he shared that the 1997 was probably the best vintage of that wine, but that they are no longer making that specific wine anymore. He went on to explain the evolution of the once “reserve wine” program to their now Wild Oak wines. Tom described that he felt, over the years, wineries started using the term “reserve” too loosely, and that it had lost value and meaning (in the U.S. there is no legal designation for the term “reserve” on a bottle of wine), and that they decided to create a new label to distinguish the “best of the best” for their wines. Their Wild Oak label represents just that, the best fruit from the best vineyards in each vintage.
"So, Wild Oak represents the best of the best, but what is your favorite wine to make, each year? The one you get most excited about?" I asked. "Our blends", Tom responded. "Including our Sonoma Red, our Claret, and our Anthem". The Anthem in particular is a unique "reverse Bordeaux-style blend", meaning instead of focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as the primary grapes, the focus is on Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. I have had a few vintages of the Anthem and I have to say it is indeed a unique and special wine, not to mention delicious!
Tasting through the flight of wines was like going down memory lane for me. That distinct “St. Francis flavor” was evident in each of the reds. The one white we had was their outstanding 2007 Sonoma County Chardonnay, and I say outstanding because you can’t really find a better Chardonnay for the price point (retail between $10-$12/bottle). Oak, vanilla, toast, with balanced lemon, spice and acidity. Seriously, for $10? Yes please!
Another one that blew me away because of the $10 price point was the 2006 Sonoma Red blend (Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Zinfandel). It had bold black berry fruit, with chocolate, vanilla and spice throughout.
My two favorite wines of the flight, however, were both Zinfandels. First off was the 2007 “Old Vines” Zinfandel, which was a blend of fruit from fourteen vineyards throughout the valley. Typical dark berry Zin aromas with oak spice, lushness, black cherries with a long finish without any distinguishable “hot” characteristics.
The second Zin that won over my heart was the 2006 Wild Oak Zinfandel. My notes for that wine simply said “Woah!” with a smiley face J. You know, I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes you find a wine that you just want to savor and not be too analytical about, and this was one of those. I loved it.
As I think back to the lunch, I feel honored to have been invited to sit down with such an intimate group (seven people total), with a winemaker whom I’ve respected since I started seriously learning about wine almost ten years ago. And I am so glad to have meet Tom. He was sincere and genuine, and as talented and experienced a winemaker he is, he was very unpretentious. As we ended lunch, we just sat and chatted. Not about wine, but about our lives, comparing San Francisco stories (Tom grew up there), and he talked about his passion for motorcycles and surfing, although he does much more motorcycling now and no more surfing. He even got excited when I shared with him my first experience surfing last summer in Hawaii. He asked if I would do it again… “of course” I answered.
I feel that meeting the man behind one of my most memorable bottles of wine makes the wine even more memorable now. Almost making the story complete.
You can read more about Tom Mackey and St. Francis wines on their website.