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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 5)

Arrowood didn't stop at Chardonnay. Hard as it seems to believe now, he also made five vineyard-designate Rieslings. Such misplaced ambition might bankrupt a modern-day producer, but St. Jean thrived. In 1981, as a statement of what the winery was and what it wasn't, Arrowood stopped making Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1984, Japan's Suntory bought the property. Six years later, Arrowood left to start his own winery and was replaced by Don Van Staaveren, Margo's husband. By the time phylloxera hit at the end of the decade, reds had become fashionable, so he replanted some vineyards to Bordeaux varieties. That led to Cinq Cepages, which blended Bordeaux grapes into a high-end release.

When the 1996 Cinq Cepages was named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, it forever changed the image of the winery, which is now owned by Australia's Foster's. Those who knew it for its Robert Young Chardonnay were always surprised to see a bottle of red beside it at tastings. Now consumers see Chardonnay and say, "I didn't know you made whites, too." But the multifaceted approach has remained unaltered even as winemakers have come and gone. In all, St. Jean produces 30 different wines today, including a Fume Blanc, a single-vineyard Pinot Noir, even a rich, singular, varietal Malbec. All but the lowest-priced blends come from Sonoma.

When Margo Van Staaveren first arrived in 1980, as the first in her family to have attended college, she was looking for a permanent job with benefits. It became permanent, all right. Yet after more than a quarter-century in Sonoma, she knows little about Napa. Even names of famous restaurants and gourmet shops fail to alter her blank expression. "Sonoma's very provincial, exceedingly provincial," she says. It's supposed to be an apology, but she doesn't sound too contrite.

Benchmark Wineries—Napa

Beringer Vineyards: Living History
As you drive up Napa Valley, past fashionable restaurants and one sleek winery after another, it's easy to forget that the vinous past here extends back more than a century. Then you arrive at Beringer, where the Rhine House looks like something from a fairy tale and wine has been produced for generations. Ignore the tour groups and concentrate on the history: Beringer was founded in 1876, which makes it older than the vast majority of wineries in the world.

 

In recent years, it has been owned by Nestlé, the Texas Pacific Group, Michael Moon, Beringer Blass and now Foster's. Despite such change, it's been a model of consistency. Head winemaker, Ed Sbragia, started in 1976, when he was 26; assistant Laurie Hook arrived a decade later. "Guys in the cellar have been there as long as I have or longer," Sbragia says. "One of our cellar managers has been here for 40 years."

When he started, Sbragia recalls, Chateau Montelena, Shafer and a few other wineries were making wines at the level he was shooting for. "[There were] maybe 10 of us making Reserve Cabernet," he says. "Now there are hundreds." And many taste like Beringer, or try to.

He and his team have helped define and hone not only the modern incarnation of Beringer's style, but, it might be said, Napa Valley's, too. Sbragia likes wines that are big, Cabernets and Chardonnays and Merlots full of tannin and loads of fruit, balanced by enough alcohol and a splash of acidity to keep it all afloat. Unlike many imitators, however, Beringer's top wines are built to last. On first impression, a five-year-old Bancroft Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot 2001 is hard and firm and not particularly ripe. But as it begins to open, it shows layers of dark fruit and a mountain hardiness that seems to promise it will taste good forever.


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