By Alexa Chipman May 7, 2017
Resplendent with pink and white roses, Chinese lantern bushes of dangling fiery blossoms and heaps of cascading mandarin orange flowers, the grounds of Chateau St. Jean are dazzling in springtime, with meandering pathways, picnic tables and benches to enjoy a glass of wine. Its European style, known as the “chateau” by neighbors, who inspired the name, was built from 1916-1920 as a summer home for a family from Michigan. They were popular hosts, and received a magnolia tree gifted by Luther Burbank that stands to one side of the patio, nearly 100 years old. Although not conceived of as a winery, there were white wine grapes planted on the original estate.
In 1973, the property was purchased by a family interested in founding a winery. Jean was the only woman in the group, and “Chateau St. Jean” is in her honor, so the name is pronounced “jeen” not “john” which causes some confusion. The visitor center, housing the main tasting bar and patio, gift shop and mini café, was built in 2000 to mimic the other buildings. When arriving, walk through the ivy-wrapped archway, into the formal garden, past a playful fountain, and through to the low-roofed building on the opposite side to enter the visitor center and check in for your tasting.
There is a wide range of options at Chateau St. Jean. For a quick flight, choose four samples of their most popular varietals out on the patio with a beautiful view of the garden. Another outdoor experience, with vistas of the vineyard spread out to the road, is the Chateau Cheese and Wine Pairing, with higher end options paired with mouth watering local cheeses and a friendly server ready to answer any questions about the flight. Inside the restored chateau is the Reserve Room Tasting, private tastings, and what I would recommend—the Cinq Rêves Library Tasting. It is on the pricey side, currently $75, but it features their award-winning wine spread through different years for comparison. The Cinq Cépages ages well, with tannins slowly fading through the years, and this is a unique opportunity to taste the phenomena in action with one of the best wines in Sonoma County.
The winery hosts exciting events, often French themed, such as the Fête de la Fleur, which is open to the public, and Great Gatsby, for wine club members. Bring a basket of food for lunch and purchase a bottle to enjoy their picnic area, shaded by a grove, rose garden patio surrounded by climbing flowers that are spectacular in May, or join the wine club to relax in a patio area of comfortable couches. For a vintage wine country wedding, the grounds are open for reservations and include the upper story of the chateau with elegant preparation rooms, although it is quite pricey.
Tasting notes from the Chateau Cheese and Wine Pairing flight:
Viognier, Sonoma Valley 2015 (Winery Exclusive)
The bright orange blossom aroma pairs well with nutty, buttery Spanish Mahon cheese. It is intense for a white wine, without dominating acidity.
Chardonnay, Cold Creek 2014 (Winery Exclusive)
Slight black currant aroma with a grapefruit note to the flavor, it is spectacular with soft goat cheese that mellows and balances it. This is one of the best chardonnays I have tasted—even if you are wary of the varietal, give this one a try. The winery has eight different styles of chardonnay, all with French oak barrels, not stainless steel.
Chardonnay, Sonoma County Reserve
From four local vineyards, it has the smell of an ocean breeze and wonderful lingering aftertaste of refreshing peaches and cream.
Chardonnay, Le Seul (The Star)
Created with malolactic fermentation for a less acidic, relaxed flavor, it comes from a high, cool climate vineyard. Its dusty aroma gives way to exotic pineapple and melon flavor with a trace of oak on the finish. It is another distinctive and unexpected chardonnay that I would recommend.
Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2013 (Winery Exclusive)
The scent of a summer afternoon hiking through manzanita brush on Mt. Lassen comes through with this wine, with echoes of smoke and an earthy mushroom and cedar flavor that is soft on the palette.
Cinq Cépages, Sonoma County 2013
The first Sonoma area wine to be awarded “Wine of the Year” by Wine Spectator, it lives up to its reputation. Surprisingly smooth for having cabernet blended in, its tannins are kept in the background—truly fabulous red wine.
Gewürztraminer, Sonoma County 2014
Dry with an almond aroma, it takes the stage with orange blossoms and apricot. The flavor is solid, but average, and pairs well with a hard, salty cheese.
Late Harvest Riesling, 2012
Honey assaults the nostrils with this intense, syrupy sweet wine that you could almost pour over pancakes in the morning. It is excellent in small doses as an aperitif.
Note from October 11, 2017: There was minor property damage, but the winery was not lost and the main buildings survive.