Friday, February 23, 2007

Wild Oak by St. Francis - with Chris Silva, President

This past week Chris Silva, President of St. Francis Winery, paid a visit to the Connecticut market and shared the new Wild Oak line with a number of Worldwide Wines personnel, as well as a number of on- and off-premise accounts.

Mr. Silva has been with St. Francis for approximately 9 years and has seen a number of changes at the winery. In 1999, St Francis built a new state-of-the-art winery on the site of the Wild Oak vineyard. This location is about one mile from the original St. Francis winery built in 1979. This new location raised the ability of the winery to produce high quality wines, as well as giving them a new visitor center and tasting room.

In 2003, St. Francis winery began a new program at the winery to significantly improve the quality out-put at all levels of production. This process included multiple levels of review and addressed all areas of the winemaking process. They began with a review of all contracts for grape sourcing and eventually led to the elimination of about 40% of the original growers. St. Francis will not use any fruit that is deemed unsuitable by the winemaking team. They also took more control and oversight of the vineyards supplying the winery. Cop yields were restricted to improve flavor, and no vineyards are picked until the winemakers gave the go ahead to pick.

This was followed by the addition of a sorting table at the winery. This is seen as a major step for a New World winery, as there is now a severe selection process carried out before the grapes are allowed to enter the winery. Mr. Silva described a situation during the first harvest season where 30 tons of fruit were refused one day based on their overall quality. This decision, which can be very costly, quickly let St. Francis’ growers know that the winery was serious about quality control.

The third area that was addressed was the selection of lots for the final blends. St. Francis employed a system where the winemaking team would identify the “worst 10%” of all the possible lots for a particular wine. This bottom 10 would then be eliminated from the program and sold off in bulk.

What these changes really meant for the winery (and ultimately for the final wines going out to the market) was that there was about 30% less St. Francis wines being produced, but a dramatic improvement in quality. This is not a decision that many wineries will take, but for St. Francis this was a long term decision seen to make the winery more competitive for the long-term.

Part of the process of change at St. Francis also included a decision to move away from the traditional “Reserve” program and to producing a more limited, higher quality, series of wines that were true St. Francis’ Sonoma heritage. The result is the Wild Oak line that is now being introduced to the market, and the reason for Mr. Silva’s visit. A total target of about 7,500 cases is being produced over three wines: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. The allocations for CT are quite limited.

The wines tasted this evening were all very well made and accompanied our meals quite well. Overall the styles are pure “Sonoma” and show great attention to quality. The Chardonnay is elegant and refined without being over-blown. The Cabernet Sauvignon has a high percentage of Merlot and comes across as more of a Bordeaux-style, rather than a pure Cabernet Sauvignon, which St. Francis is perhaps better known for. The Zinfandel was probably the star of the evening, showing such elegance and balance for a wine that is over 15.5% alc.

Unfortunately the quantities available are small, but please keep in mind that the changes that lead St. Francis to producing the outstanding Wild Oak line are the same changes and improvements employed for all wines produced by this Sonoma Valley classic.

Please review the notes below:

Wild Oak by St. Francis Vineyard & Winery
Chardonnay – Sonoma County, 2005
100% Chardonnay, 100% Barrel Fermented in French Oak
This wine was lively with buttery/vanilla aromatics, smooth palate quality and a crisp finish that maintained a balance of acidity and deep fruit flavors. Not an overly rich or intense chardonnay; definitely Californian but with a strong desire to be French. About 3,000 case production.

Cabernet Sauvignon – Sonoma County, 2003
79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 5% Malbec, aged 24 months in French Oak
OK, here we have a wine that is well made, tastes great, is easily identifiable as Sonoma County produce, but does not necessarily display pure Cabernet characteristics. The high percentage of Merlot adds a good bit of red-fruit flavors (cherry) and chocolate, and a smooth style complemented by some dusty tannins. Again we have a well-made California wine that seems to be leaning towards being a Bordeaux. About 3,000 case production.

Old Vines Zinfandel – Sonoma County, 2004
This Zin was the wine of the night for me. It is produced from fruit drawn from St. Francis’ Nuns Canyon Vineyard, a big dollop of fruit from Pagani Ranch (planted in the 1880s) and topped of by certain lots of old vine zin from Dry Creek and Alexander Valley. Very expressive and balanced, loads of rich, luscious fruit (plums, briary blackberries and earthy notes), velvety on the palate and very smooth through the finish, which just keeps on forever. This wine carries its 15+% alcohol so well you do not even notice. The depth of this wine is tremendous. About 2,200 case production.

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