Wednesday, February 24, 2010

St. Francis Embraces Social Media and Bloggers

Recently, I accepted an invitation to have lunch with winemaker legend Tom Mackey of Sonoma County’s St. Francis Winery & Vineyards. As if I would have said no. First of all, the man is “The Master of Merlot,” and with 36 years of winemaking at St. Francis alone, he’s an absolute well of knowledge and a genuine soul. I was honored to dine with him at the exquisite Urban Farmer in the swanky Nines Hotel and excited to hear about his impressions of the current state of the wine industry. Also joining the party and bringing their own viewpoint to the table was Mary Cressler of Vindulge, Jim Eastman of The Wine Cyclist and Bernie Gehret and Eva Schmole of

When Tom started with St. Francis in 1983, he admits it was a much simpler time. The winery consisted of a four-man team in a smaller and less demanding market, before the explosion of the nineties hit and small wineries started popping up like prairie dogs in a field. He acknowledges the changes, both in viticulture and winemaking standards, has seen the California sprawl and embraces the winery’s current goal to walk with a lighter carbon footprint (Cheers to that!). St. Francis presently participates in a water collection program and has 90,000 square feet of solar panels that actually feed energy back into the grid! When asked about biodynamics, Tom admitted he was amused by the cult aspect of it, but respectful of the science and the goal for healthy plants and earth. He spoke of their own movement towards organics, but said they’re years from certification.

We talked a little about Merlot, naturally, and of course I had to ask Tom what his thoughts were on the Sideways "phenomenon". I was quite surprised by his answer; the man is as eloquent a speaker as he is a brilliant winemaker. Humbly, he said, “Sideways was just the straw that broke the camel’s back; Miles said what a lot of critics were thinking at the time. There was a lot of mediocre Merlot being produced.” Merlot had been riding the wave Pinot Noir is currently riding. The varietal was relatively new to the American market; it was easy to say and sounded interesting. Unlike Pinot noir though, it was ready to consume and user-friendly. Win, win… until the next trend came along. This of course got me wondering about that wave of Pinot noir; is it leveling out making its way for the next big trend? What is that next big trend?

Tom started lunch off with a taste of his 2007 St. Francis Sonoma County Chardonnay and a fascinating lesson in the history of the winery. He regaled us with stories of how the Chardonnay grapes are harvested at 2:00 in the morning, when the fruit is at its coolest. I could just envision the workers plucking ripe green clusters from the vine they’re tethered to with only the light of the moon to guide them. The grapes are immediately whole cluster pressed and then barrel fermented to reveal a fantastic wine that let delightful citrus and melon flavors of the grapes show through while retaining a precarious balance of rich though not creamy texture and delicate vanilla oakiness. I really enjoyed this wine and wanted to savor it a bit before heading off to the land of the reds, where we were clearly headed.

After tasting some other Sonoma County wines, we arrived at the treasure trove, tasting St. Francis’s limited production, artisan label, Wild Oak—which Tom says consists of the best of their best. Like a winery within a winery, St. Francis has a separate area for processing smaller lots of fruit in a gentle, minimal intervention style to produce wines of greater character expressing the sensational vineyard sites from where they sprung. St. Francis has continued to grow and produce exceptional Merlot year after year and though Tom prides himself on being able to play on the flavors of the vineyards as opposed to making the wine taste the same vintage to vintage, there is still a certain consistency and predictability in his wines.

The 2004 Wild Oak Merlot was outstanding. The wine was every bit as lush and velvety as a Bordeaux-structured Merlot should be. I let the wine open up in my glass for some time before I even approached it. At first sip, it was slightly firm, with chewy tannins that continued to soften as it oxygenated. The Merlot was just starting to reveal its luscious cherry, floral and cocoa flavors while Tom explained how though California is generally picking later than they did historically, this vintage was ripe early and then blended with Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot—a real beauty.

I'm confessing right here, I'm a bit gaga for his 2006 Wild Oak Zinfandel. It was sweet with cherries, blackberries, licorice, pepper and something like mint, menthol or eucalyptus that added a lovely lift on the finish. Lively fruit and juicy acids coyfully played with the smoky chipotle sauce on my chicken sandwich and then, as if reading my mind, Tom told us about how St. Francis was the first California winery to focus on food and wine pairing. They now feature an on-site executive chef and the St. Francis website goes one step further, offering recipes to pair with their wines.

Before I arrived at lunch, I honestly wondered why someone who primarily writes about Oregon Pinot noir (me) was invited to meet with the California Master of Merlot (Tom). Never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, I had no intention of passing this lunch up. I try to embrace most opportunities that come my way… finding life’s greatest lessons are often learned from some of the most surprising and unexpected teachers. What I really came away with, aside from an even deeper love of St. Francis wines, was an appreciation and respect for how this well-known winery was reaching out beyond traditional press to wine bloggers and Twitterers instead. They could have invited big-name reporters from local publications looking for traditional news articles, but chose to incorporate and utilize social marketing; here’s to the power of the new press and to St. Francis for their forward thinking. Until we sip again…


Photo provided by Mary Cressler, thanks Mary!


Ben Simons said...

It's great that Mr. Mackey was willing to spend time talking with you. I love it when wine people are open to bloggers and social media people. It's been a struggle getting some of the Texas wineries to come to the table, but it's great to find the ones who will reach out to me and who recognize the value of social media. Sounds like a wonderful experience!

Sonoma William said...

Really nice article, and also glad to see a big winery embrace social media. As a local Sonoma winery blogger, have been remiss in visiting St Francis in years, and need to address that soon!
(one minor note on links in the blog...maybe its just me, but I prefer when a link opens a new page, instead of taking me off the blog article. Its an option in WordPress,assume maybe here.)

I live in Sonoma, but travel to Portland for work regularly and keep a flat there, maybe we'll cross paths at a wine event one day!

Sip with Me! said...

Thanks for stopping by Ben! I was obviously impressed by St. Francis outreach for social media, they came after me. Many wineries are now beginning to see the light! I worked with a winery 2 years ago, recommending they establish a Twitter presence. They finally started Tweeting today! Sometimes, it just takes time. And yes, it was a fantastic experience and I hope for many more! Cheers!

William, thanks so much for your comments as well. I really appreciate your feedback, I'll look into the link opening and hope to see you sometime when you're in town. I've added you to my blogroll!

Anonymous said...

They could have invited big-name reporters from local publications looking for traditional news articles, but chose to incorporate and utilize social marketing; here’s to the power of the new press and to St. Francis for their forward thinking.

Your last statement is beautiful. Now, I wish I was able to taste that Zinfandel you went gaga over.


Nancy said...

I've been lucky enough to be able to taste some St. Francis/Wild Oak wines lately and I agree with your assessment. Delicioso! Thanks for the inside info on the winery.

Bill Eyer said...

The "power of the new press" indeed, great read! A big thanks St. Francis for reaching out to social media and congrats Tamara.

Sip with Me! said...

Thanks Josh, that means a lot coming from you! I'm sure you could easily find a bottle of their Zin, or better yet ask them to send you one for your own review at drinknectar!

Nancy, thanks for stopping by! I welcome your comments and hope to see your voice again!

Bill, good to see you again! St. Francis obviously has a good PR firm!

Mary Cressler said...

It was a great experience indeed. I agree about the Chardonnay and Wild Oak Zin. Delicious! I may have to stop back in there when I'm in Sonoma this weekend and pick a few bottles to share next time we meet up.

Sip with Me! said...

Hi Mary, thanks chiming in! I hope we get to sit in another wine blogger lunch together again soon! I'm very jealous of your trip to Sonoma this weekend, I'm sure you'll have an amazing time!!

Bernard and Eva said...

Great article Tamara! We loved the lunch too and felt the same way about the wines. Let's make our own Blogger's lunch soon!

Bernard & Eva

6512 and growing said...

ps: you've been tagged. Check my blog.