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 portlandoregonwine.com.
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!