Grape Talk

Interview by Alastair Bland |
Beer, Wine, and Spirits

A winemaking gem in the heart of Sonoma, Chateau St. Jean has become famous not only for its breathtaking estate, but the charactered wine of Winemaker Margo Van Staaveren. While clearly diverse, her style has honed in on the art of blending. We were able to sit down with Van Staaveren between barrel tastings to talk about her approach to winemaking at the winery.

How do you see your own role in the making of wine? Are you in charge of what goes to the bottle? Or do you simply serve as a conductor of a greater process—one of terroir, time, and place?
We’re partners with nature. You don’t have full control over the situation, the rainfall, the temperature. Nature can throw curveballs, and you have to work with them. But you aren’t just a bystander, either. You have choices, like when to harvest, how to blend, how to age the wine. As winemakers, we’re definitely active players, but nature still determines a great deal of what happens.

What do you find most exciting about your job?
Working in Sonoma County. The county is so big and so diverse, and that’s very exciting for a winemaker. We really capitalize on that diversity.

Chateau St. Jean has a very thorough single vineyard wine program. To you, as a winemaker, what does a wine made from one vineyard represent?
A single vineyard wine offers a chance to demonstrate a vineyard’s capability. A vineyard should only be designated for its own wine if it has unique characteristics that show up consistently year after year. But these often aren’t wines for the general public, since the unique characteristics of a vineyard might make a wine that is interesting but not necessarily broadly appealing to the masses.

How frequently does a great vineyard make a wine that is worthy of single vineyard status?
We have 17 vineyards that we use for vineyard designates, and we strive to get a single vineyard wine from each one each year.

You also lead a sophisticated blending program. Can you describe how blending wines, rather than bottling from a single vineyard, showcases terroir?
Well, it should be pointed out that even with a vineyard designate, you’re blending. Because a vineyard might be big, like our Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay. It has 14 parcels, and when we make a vineyard designate out of it, we’re blending those parcels in a deliberate way. So, we’re blending with every wine we make.

Do you make any wines that are even more focused than vineyard designates?
Yes—the Robert Young Reserve. We use three parcels of the Robert Young Vineyard to make that wine.

What is your flagship wine?
It’s probably the Cinq Cepages—which means a blend of five grapes—though most of it is Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s made using 20 different vineyards from five distinct regions of Sonoma County. It’s like a big puzzle, with a lot of pieces fitting together, and it’s a big task to really get it seamless. To make it, we look for vineyards that in a given year complement each other, that amplify each other—and you can’t just combine your favorite wines. You often have to use wines that on their own might not be that great. It’s like cooking—using things you wouldn’t eat alone, like basil, to make a complete dish.

You work in a very distinguished wine region. Do you feel some level of pride when you showcase Sonoma County’s terroir in a bottle of wine?
Absolutely. Sonoma County is a great place, with a lot to show. Chateau St. Jean has forwarded that reputation by making good wines with Sonoma grapes. With the Cinq Cepages Cab, we helped bring attention to the fact that you can do great Cabernet Sauvignon outside of the Napa Valley. There is so much diversity here, so many great vineyards, and we’re proud to be working with them.