St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
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St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, born in Italian Umbria in 1181, is the namesake of the city of San Francisco, hundreds of other municipalities around the world, and, of course, Sonoma's St. Francis Winery and Vineyard. The connection between winery and saint here is not one of those accidents of California geography. Winery president Chris Silva is personally dedicated to animal welfare. “We have dogs, horses, a camel, an Amazon green parrot, and even an African porcupine on the property,” Silva tells me. “We host a St. Francis blessing-of-the-animals ceremony every September, as well as charity events to support Canine Companions for the Blind and the Sonoma County Humane Society.” Silva is a fifth generation Sonoma native. The family (of dairy farmers) originally migrated from Italian Switzerland. Silva worked as an attorney before coming on at St. Francis.

If Silva is sensitive to animals, he shows equal sensitivity to the concept of grape excellence. “We have our own 600 acres, and we deal with many outside growers,” he relates. “We maintain report cards for all our growers. An A grade is necessary for us to accept the grapes. These are terrific growers, usually third to fifth generation family operations.”

In the winery, Silva brings in managerial skills and standards that show the same obsessive concern for quality and consistency. “We taste and taste again,” Silva says. “We remove the lowest 10% of each wine and sell it off. We don't want our name on it. We do blind tastings of four final blends for each varietal. If we do not find a wine of sufficient quality by the second taste test, we simply do not release the wine that year.”

Logic dictates that the five wines I tasted with Silva at lunch in Manhattan's Palm Tribeca did run a successful gauntlet. So did the steaks. They proved an excellent combination.

The St. Francis 2007 Sonoma County Chardonnay, $15, is produced from hand picked whole clusters. Silva is committed to hand picking, whatever the trouble. “A human being is better able to ascertain that which should go into the gondola and that which should be left out” he tells me. Just over 50% of this fruit is from the cool climate Russian River Valley, the remainder from Sonoma Valley and Carneros. This wine sees seven months of French and American oak of mixed ages. The Chardonnay is a brilliant greenish gold. On the nose, I enjoyed notes of clove, apricot and poached pear. The palate, couched in medium-level acidity, shows green apple, warm citrus (bergamot) and fresh floral notes. The wine is rich and creamy in the mouth, appropriately oaked, nicely balanced. I paired it successfully with the Palm's “Colossal Lump Crabmeat Cocktail.”

I do not put my imprimatur on a Chardonnay, especially in the $15 range, lightly. Most show too much oak, too much sugar, and sometimes, at the other extreme, so much fruit with such in-your-face acidity that I get no sensation of Chardonnay in the first place. The St. Francis skirted all these pitfalls, and do I need to mention the price a third time? That said, the reds are the winery's main squeeze. Aware of this, I ordered a medium-rare bone-in rib-eye.

The St. Francis 2005 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, $22, accesses grapes from five Sonoma appellations: Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and the hard-to-reach but quintessentially stimulating Rockpile in Sonoma's extreme northeast. These grapes are hand picked in whole clusters, the wine aged just short of two years in French and American oak. “We look for the grapes that get picked last,” Silva says, “for maximum hang time. The hillside grapes grown on west-facing slopes above the fog line bring structure and tannin. We blend these with grapes grown below the fog line to add juicier fruit.” The result, in my book, is a deep ruby, with an array of aromatic notes: black raspberry, licorice, nutmeg and dried beef. The wine has some firm acidity, well rounded fine grained tannins, full body, and some nice nutmeg and black pepper with cocoa on a long finish.

The St. Francis 2005 Sonoma County Merlot, $22, a hand-harvested amalgam of the breadth of Sonoma County, enjoys 23 months in French and American oak. The wine is a medium ruby. “We were looking for good, even-ripening Merlot,” Silva explains, “and we got an excellent season in 2005. We also believe in Merlot with full structure. We've never believed Merlot should be Cabernet light.” On the nose, I enjoyed black plum, nutmeg, black cherry and cassis, balanced quite well as a single aromatic unit. The palate has nice depth and a fine balance between fruit and wood; the flavors here are not shy, with echoes of chocolate at various stages. Tannins are round, but hard working. Tastes like Merlot used to taste, before they began manufacturing it.

The St. Francis 2005 Sonoma County Old Vines Zinfandel, $22, is derived from a blend of families (you read that right, families) that have been producing Zin in Sonoma for generations. “Nothing says Sonoma like old vines Zin,” Silva tells me. “It's a definite labor of love, cost inefficient, labor intensive.” Silva lays down his three rules that determine if the Zin is really old-vines Zin (minimum age, 50 years). “First, the grapes are head trained and pruned. No wiring or canopy management. Second, the vines are on St. George rootstock. Third, and, best evidence of all, is dry farming.” Lack of irrigation brings extreme stress on the roots, yields of less than a ton an acre (as compared to four tons for many other grapes), a “nightmare to farm.” Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet often find their way into this “field blend.” The wine sees 100% new American oak for more than a year.

My notes on the Old-Vines Zin: well-balanced nose, deep black raspberries, black plum, prune with a touch of jam. Palate: good balance between fruit and wood, with black fruit, leather, tobacco box, cedar, a little meat, baking spice and smoke. Better to say that this wine is a “Zin that works” rather than break in down into particles. The finish befits a wine that is so well put together.

The St. Francis 2005 Sonoma County Pagani Vineyard Zinfandel, $45, is a single vineyard, old-vine, old family, quintessential Sonoma Zin, 1,000 cases produced. Petit Sirah, Mourvedre, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet make appearances, leading to fourteen months in American oak. Pomegranate, brambly blackberry and black pepper excite the nose, chocolate, cocoa, clove and nutmeg the palate. This wine is mouth-coating. Same caveat as to the previous Zin, however. In many Zins I get a faint tease as to what I perceive this idiosyncratic varietal should offer; I am firmly rewarded in the case of this Pagani. Though the initial heritage of Zin was Croatia and the Paganis came from Italy, dare I use a French word to describe this wine: terroir?

Verdict: Sonoma Excellence

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food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

St. Francis Winery with its distinctive bell tower.

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