st. francis winery

Chris Louton of St. Francis Winery

Chris Louton from St Francis Winery is our guest on California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon and Dan Berger. He is one of two winemakers at St. Francis Winery. Also, today we will commemorate the late Chris Silva, who passed away one year ago and was a prominent and beloved figure in the local wine business.

Here, today’s tastings. Above, Dan Berger and Chris Louton.

Wines tasted today from St. Francis Winery:

  • Sauvignon Blanc, 2017
  • Old Vines Zinfandel, 2015
  • Merlot, Behler Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, 2014
  • Chardonnay, 2016
  • Cabernet Franc, Wild Oak Vineyard, 2015

Dan tells about St. Francis Winery and introduces Chris Louton, one of the two winemakers there. St. Francis Winery was founded by Joe Martin, back before Merlot got a bad reputation. At the time, Sonoma County was not well known for tourism, yet. Then they moved a few miles north, at the base of Hood Mountain.

Chris tells how he started in the early 2000s, when he was a science major at UC Davis, he discovered the wine business. He has worked with Schramsberg and Beringer Vineyards, and then at St. Francis. Joe Martin realized that Sonoma County would be perfect for Merlot and they built their brand first by growing great fruit, then they started making wine themselves.

Dan was visiting St. Francis Winery about 1990 and found some vinegar for sale. He asked and said they had a batch of wine that went bad. Dan says it was great vinegar but Chris says they aren’t a vinegar maker.

They taste the Chardonnay, a 2016, with bright fruit and good acidity, even if it’s barrel fermented. Chris describes its richness. Dan says the wine is based on its acidity and it’s crisp and could stand 3 years in the cellar. Slightly tropical, a little bit of kiwi fruit. The acidity comes in early but it’s not sharp, it’s very nicely balanced.

Next they taste a Merlot. Dan describes a period starting about 1995 or 97 when St. Francis Winery Merlot became so popular that it was sold out, which caused problems for their reputation, but today they have come back strong. Chris Louton says the sourcing for their Merlot is still their original vineyard, and they also use some fruit from select growers. They are also investing in replanting their vines to fine tune Joe Martin’s vision and keep it going.

Dan describes how Cabernet and Merlot need different conditions. Merlot likes poor soils and is a trickier variety to work with. Joe Martin was around still, when Sideways came out. Steve asks Chris what Joe thought of Sideways, and they can’t repeat it on the radio. Dan says that Joe had a lot of customers for his excellent Merlot back then.

Chris Louton is one of two winemakers at St. Francis Winery. They work together on everything but Katie Madigan handles more their Burgundian varieties and their Zinfandel program, Chris concentrates on the Bordeaux style varieties. The price for this Chardonnay is only about $18 and Dan points out that wineries try to hold their prices stable even if they have a very good year that might warrant a price increase, because they risk alienating their customer base.

St. Francis Winery also does public events, such as movie showings on the lawn in July on Tuesday evenings. Throughout the year they have a food and wine pairing program.

Next they taste a Sauvignon Blanc. Dan points out that Kenwood Vineyards got into Sauvignon Blanc lately. It is really dependent on where it is grown. The best area is Dry Creek Valley, Dan thinks. Chris thinks anywhere in Sonoma County is good for Sauvignon Blanc, and the different AVAs have different terroir. Dan says you want to be there when the grapes come in. He wishes he could capture the perfume in the air when the grapes come in. Even the fresh juice is delicious. There are two ways to drink Sauvignon Blanc, young or old. They are great fresh, or after 20 years.

After they break they will talk about the Open Table series and how St. Francis Winery, which is not a restaurant per se, has been chosen as “best restaurant” because of its wine pairings series.

After the break, they taste the 2014 St. Francis Merlot. Chris says that year was a sleeper of a vintage, with less fruit and lower acid levels. Dan doesn’t age Merlots as long as he ages Cabernets, because the tannin levels don’t require it, and because Merlots peak earlier. He likes the wild cherry component, exactly what a great Merlot should offer. Merlot should not be a Cabernet by proxy, even though they are cousins. Dan would cellar it for 3-5 years, or decant it and let it breathe for about 3 or 4 hours. This Merlot gets 20 months in the barrels. (Cabernets can get 25 to 28 months.)

St. Francis Winery is located at the corner of Hwy 12 and Pythian Road. Their Outdoor Film Festival runs on Tuesdays in July. They will show Singin’ in the Rain, Rocky, The Wedding Singer and Jaws. Follow the link to the St. Francis Winery website for details and directions.

Even if they are not a restaurant, they have been named Best Restaurant in the country by Open Table, which rates the top 100 restaurants in the country. Dan says that what St. Francis has done is match fresh food with great wine. No other wine region in the world can produce so many other fine foods apart from the fine wine. Dan says they are trying to create an explosion of flavors in both the food and the wine, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Next they taste a 2015 Cabernet Franc, which is one of the noble Bordeaux varieties, usually used in blends. They haven’t been bottling it every year, because it can be hard to produce. They only produce a few hundred cases. He likes the candy, violet floral flavors. Dan says it’s too young right now. Chris says it’s fun to taste these wines now, so you can tell the difference as they mature. Finally they taste a

Finally they taste an old vine Zinfandel that was a favorite of Chris Silva. Chris Silva was the president of St. Francis and he passed away about a year ago. He was a great friend and a beloved figure in the local wine scene. Dan says this Zinfandel is a fun wine that could also be chilled, not to be taken too seriously, but a tasty wine.

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