St Francis has grown to be one of the larger wineries in the Sonoma Valley. That growth has allowed them to invest in a beautiful winery and tasting room off the Sonoma Highway (12) in Kenwood. It is one of the best wineries to visit in the Sonoma Valley.
Joe Martin founded St Francis in 1971 by planting Chardonnay and Merlot in Sonoma Valley and quickly achieved great success as a grower. In 1979 he opened the winery. He hired Tom Mackey in 1983 who can be credited with taking the wines up into the top ranks of quality. Mackey’s wines were big and bold and I remember tasting his 1997 St Francis Reserve Merlot which was a favourite of ours. Today the wine making is now in the hands of Katie Madigan and Chris Louton and they have not just continued the tradition of quality but focused on sustainable vineyard practices. Estate Vineyards now cover 400 acres and are supplanted by other growers, particularly growers of old vines Zinfandel.
It turns out that we have been drinking St Francis wines for 17 vintages now. As you would expect, there has been an evolution in the wine making. Today the focus seems to be more on elegance over the obvious power of the Tom Mackey wines. Merlot is no longer the focal point of the reds; that mantle seems to be borne by Zinfandel these days. Chardonnay remains a staple white but Sauvignon Blanc has joined the line up as well as a delicious white blend of Northern Rhone varietals. That shift towards elegance has made the wines very food friendly. These wines really shine their brightest when served in the company of a good meal. St. Francis obviously got that message loud and clear and so they have created a beautiful kitchen and dining room adjacent to their tasting room where special events are hosted.
We recently attended their Food and Wine Pairing (our sixth time; it has become a must-do standard on our regular trips to Sonoma) to enjoy a spectacular lunch of six small plates each paired with one of their wines. We are not the only ones who love this pairing. Lunch time seatings are available Thursdays through Mondays and you will need to make a reservation well in advance. They only take 16 people per seating and with ZAGAT recommendations as well as being voted #1 on Trip Advisor, it sells out fast! It is truly a five star experience. The room is beautiful, and the table is set elegantly with appropriately shaped glasses for each wine.
Each dish we enjoyed was stunning in its intense flavours that were very thoughtfully chosen to go with the wines in such a way that each brought out the best in the other. And the St Francis staff, from the friendly and very knowledgeable hostess Renee to our lovely server Brittany make you feel instantly at home. Kelly, who now heads events and banquets has been a wonderful hostess at past pairings we attended. All of the St Francis staff are terrific; eager to help, knowledgeable and quick to make you feel right at home.
Executive Chef Bryan Jones has capably filled the large shoes left by Dave Bush, who recently left to set up the soon to be opened Oso restaurant off the Sonoma Plaza.
2013 Gewurztraminer, Sonoma Valley
Pale gold with a citrus/lime expression on the nose. A somewhat unusual take on the varietal, it is completely dry with a light/medium body and bright acidity. The traditional lychee nut aroma/flavours were not present but replaced with a more pineapple/apricot flavor profile. Crisp finish.
US$ 18 at the Winery
2012 Chardonnay, Wild Oak Vineyard, Sonoma Valley
Deep gold with greenish hue. Apples and pears rise up from the glass to greet your nose with medium+ intensity. The fruit flavours carry through on to the palate and are met with almond as a supporting note. Though the wine only goes through 30% malo-lactic fermentation, it retains a nice creamy, buttery texture. A kiss of oak further adds to the body. This wine is considerably dialed back from the big, bold Chardonnays of the Mackey years and is in keeping with the shift to a more elegant style overall. But this is not the new lean and mean high acid, un-oaked Chardonnay that seemed to be popular for a while. To us this expression of Chardonnay finds the fulcrum and expresses the varietal as it should be.
US$26 at the Winery
2012 Zinfandel, Bacci Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Medium red through to the rim. Nose of black cherries and bramble. The black fruit flavor profile is forward and gets support from spice and a little tannin. Quite ripe, there is a slight confectionary note that gets balance from the spice elements and keeps it from tasting “sweet”. Medium body, the texture is plush with a slightly creamy texture.
US$45 at the Winery
2012 Old Vines Zinfandel, Anacleto Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Here the colour is a slightly darker red. Probably more similarities than differences between this and the preceding wine, but we found the accent to be more on the spice notes and it slightly less fruit-forward. This wine would likely reward a few years in the cellar to bring out some of the incipient complexity that it seems to be hiding at this early stage.
US$40 at the Winery
2012 Port, Sonoma County
We have always felt that St. Francis did a wonderful job with their dessert wines. While lacking some of the complexity of traditional Port from Portugal, it is a fraction of the price and delivers plenty of candied black cherries and blueberries in its thick, plush style. A lovely finish to a meal.
$40 at the Winery
It was a wonderful afternoon of delicious wines paired with innovative and perfectly matched small plates of intensely flavoured food. And as always seems to be the case, the rest of the diners who we met there turned into delightful dining companions. We thought it would be fun to bring down one of the older St. Francis wines from out cellar to try and to let the rest of the patrons see how well their wines can age. We asked hostess Renee if it would be alright to serve the bottle we had brought and she enthusiastically agreed.
1999 St Francis Cabernet Sauvignon, Kings Ridge Vineyard, Sonoma County
Medium red, fading to tawny at the rim. Nose took some coaxing but eventually revealed black cherry, earth and pencil shavings. On the palate the wine had a lovely smooth texture with tannins fully resolved. It came across as particularly smooth after all of those younger wines. Flavours of cassis, blackberry and cherry were supported by earthy undertones. The wine was elegant and delicious to drink on its own but paired surprisingly well with the dessert course. The rest of the patrons seemed to enjoy it too and expressed their appreciation and realized just how well the St. Francis wines can age.