Since it was established as a vineyard in 1971 and as a winery in 1979, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards has been a pioneer in developing the distinctive, bold Sonoma Valley wine style and in delivering great value for the quality of its wines.
Sonoma Valley, which has existed in the shadow of the more famous neighboring Napa Valley, has evolved over the years from being just a prodigious producer of crowd-pleasing wines to one that can produce outstanding, terroir-driven wines with distinctive character.
St. Francis has been an important wine producer for 35 years and its evolution is a microcosm of Sonoma Valley’s.
St. Francis winemaker Katie Madigan traveled to Grand Cayman in April to join a dinner at the Beach House restaurant at the Westin resort featuring five different St. Francis wines.
In welcoming guests to the event, Madigan told them that she likes attending wine dinners because she doesn’t get an opportunity to dress up very often since she is usually working in the winery or the vineyards.
“You may not believe this, but I have my tractor license and my forklift license, so I get dirty,” she said.
The youthful Madigan – she’s only 33 – started as an intern at St. Francis after graduating from college in 2002. Ten years and more education later, Madigan was promoted to a winemaker in 2012.
In her first decade at the winery, Madigan worked closely with and learned a lot from trailblazing winemaker Tom Mackey, who earned many accolades during his long career at St. Francis that spanned from 1983 to 2011. However, she brings her own style to winemaking, which she loves to talk about.
New and old whites
The welcome reception featured a trio of canapés and a relatively new wine to the St. Francis portfolio called White Splash, which was launched in 2010.
A blend of four grapes – Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Muscat and Pinot Gris – White Splash is a fun, highly aromatic, fruity wine. It’s slightly sweet because of the Muscat, but it still has a crisp acidity that balances it out. This isn’t a wine that is meant to be contemplated or over-analyzed. This is an easy-drinking, entry level wine that is meant for enjoyment, and it is perfect for outdoor quaffing in the Cayman Islands, as an aperitif, or, as Madigan suggested, as the base for white sangria.
The other white wine served during the dinner was 2011 St. Francis Chardonnay, which was the first grape planted in the St. Francis vineyards 40 years previously. Since 2006, when Mackey handed over the winemaking reins to St. Francis Chardonnay to her, it’s been Madigan’s baby.
Like the typical Chardonnays for which California has become known, St. Francis Chardonnay is buttery in texture and has firm flavors of American oak, but not as much as before Madigan started making the wine.
“I love the roundness a little bit of oak gives it,” said Madigan. “I just don’t think it should be hampered with toastiness.”
As a result, Madigan started making St. Francis Chardonnay in a more Burgundian style, using less oak than previously.
“It’s a much more refreshing, clean Chardonnay,” she said.
The wine was served with a seared scallop that featured flavors of citrus and vanilla, both of which were also present in the wine, making for a nice pairing.
For decades St. Francis was well known for producing luscious and bold Merlots, the kind that appeal to those who like California Cabernet Sauvignon. St. Francis Merlot – like the winery in general – has also been known over the years for offering great value for quality.
“That’s still a very big focus for us,” said Madigan.
In her time at St. Francis, Madigan has seen the bottom drop out of the market for Merlot, owing in large part to the 2004 film “Sideways,” in which the lead character shows disdain for the once very popular varietal.
Because of the significant drop-off in demand, St. Francis made a strategic decision in 2009 to cut its production in Merlot while at the same time increasing the quality by using only estate-grown grapes.
Madigan now thinks that Merlot is about to emerge “on the other side of our Darwinism.”
“In California, we’re definitely seeing more of an uptick in our sales, so it’s exciting,” she said. “I’m convinced the 2012 vintage of Merlot is going to bring back Merlot. It’s the best vintage I’ve seen in 15 years.”
The 2008 St. Francis Merlot was served with braised rabbit leg, quinoa and mustard Champagne sauce. For Madigan, it was the highlight pairing of the evening because the acidity of the Merlot cut through the oily texture of the rabbit. However, Madigan said the wine is also great with lobster.
“Merlot and lobster is one of the best pairings that no one knows about.”
Although Merlot might have been the wine for which St. Francis became known, these days it is Zinfandel that leads the way. The foray into Zin, as it’s affectionately called, was initiated in the 1990s.
“It was a crazy idea Tom Mackey had,” said Madigan.
That crazy idea eventually turned into the winery’s most important varietal. Of the 26 different wines St. Francis produces, 20 of them are available only in the wine club and 10 of those are terroir-specific Zinfandels, Madigan said. St. Francis also produces a highly regarded Old Vines Zinfandel that is available here in Cayman and was served at the dinner with smoked duck breast.
The term “old vines” isn’t regulated in California, but for St. Francis it means that the vines from which the grapes come must be at least 50 years old.
“But most are 80 to 120 years old,” Madigan said.
The older a grape vine is, the smaller the grape yield will be. The smaller the grape yield, the more concentrated flavors in the grapes on that vine will be. Thus old vines produce rich Zinfandels that are packed with flavors of ripe dark fruits, layered with notes of spice.
Zinfandel also has a beautiful aroma that is sometimes masked by oak aging.
“For me, Zinfandel is all about aroma. I think it’s a shame to cover it up with oak,” Madigan said, adding that St. Francis is in the process of transitioning into using 100 percent French oak – which is more subtle than American oak – for aging Zinfandel.
Because Zinfandel has softer tannins than many other “big” red wines, it can pair with many foods, and has gained the reputation of being a great wine for barbecue.
“In California, Zinfandel is our go-to pizza wine,” she said, adding that it also goes well with an American Thanksgiving dinner.
“Stuffing and Zinfandel is amazing.”
The final wine of the dinner, 2010 St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon, was served with pink pepper-crusted beef tenderloin. Madigan said that the grapes for the wine are mostly located on hillsides these days.
“The Cab sits above the fog line, so it gets a longer growing season and a warmer growing season. It needs that; it needs heat.”
St. Francis has changed the way it makes Cabernet Sauvignon and is now using 100 percent French oak in aging to produce a softer textured wine.
Although the Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley are more famous, Madigan thinks Sonoma Cabernets have characteristics that make them distinctive.
“I don’t think we’re trying to be a Napa Cabernet,” she said. “Sonoma Cabernet is its own beast; we don’t have to compete with the other valley.”
For the dessert course of flourless chocolate cake and summer berry pannacotta, the evening ended as it began – with a glass of St. Francis White Splash and a lot of friendly conversation among the guests.