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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 4)

In 1997, Williams and Ed Selyem sold out to enthusiasts John and Kathe Dyson. John had helped revamp Times Square for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and John's father, Charles, had pretty much invented the leveraged buyout, so the Dysons had plenty of money. By then, Williams was weary of the grind. He agreed to stay and consult. But he needed somebody to make the wine.

Bob Cabral, 44, has long hair and granny glasses. Raised in Modesto, he was 19 when he started buying Williams Selyem Pinots: customer No. 576 on the mailing list. He worked as a field representative for winemaker Fred Franzia, served as the assistant winemaker at DeLoach from 1987 to 1992, then moved on in succession to Kunde, Alderbrook and Hartford Court. An affable journeyman who could turn out serviceable wine from most any variety, he was hardly someone you'd pick to succeed Williams. But Williams did.

After a long, oblique tasting session that Cabral never realized was an interview, Williams asked if he'd meet the Dysons. Cabral couldn't believe it. "I remember thinking, 'Holy cow, I'd get to work with the greatest fruit in California,'" he says. He didn't exactly drive a hard bargain. All he desired beyond what they were proposing was a case of each wine for his own use, since he couldn't afford to buy them anymore.

Cabral has calibrated his vision to Williams's template. The resulting wines bridge the gap between what the best American Pinots tasted like a generation ago, and what they taste like now. Volume has gone from 8,000 cases in 1997 to 12,000 today, but the pinpoint intensity, rich texture and long finish of the wines have remained. Like the old Williams Selyems, the wines are manipulated as little as possible—and never filtered. "If I have to filter it," Cabral says, "I dump it down the drain instead."

He pours a 2001 from the Allen Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, a 2000 Hirsch Vineyard from the Sonoma Coast, then a 1999 from the Rochioli Vineyard redolent of plums and blackberries. All are different, but they share the common thread of bright, intense fruit. And they all taste unmistakably like Pinot Noir, which Williams insisted on.

Cabral is the first to say that he's no visionary. "Where Burt was a mile ahead, I'm only about 50 feet ahead," he says. But times have changed, and what's needed now isn't vision so much as standards and a steady hand. Cabral is adamant that the quality of Williams Selyem will not decline on his watch. And he'll let you spit when you taste his wines.

Chateau St. Jean: Napa in Sonoma
Not all of Sonoma's wineries are hideaways down unmarked lanes, or rural farmsteads with wine on shelves alongside jams and jellies. Chateau St. Jean is a chateau that wouldn't look out of place in Margaux, let alone Napa. Its best wine is not a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay, but a meaty Bordeaux blend.

Yet something about the place feels hopelessly, wonderfully Sonoman. There's never a crunch in the parking lot, rarely a line at the cash register. Set on the 250 acres of the old Goff Estate, its gardens are lush and perfectly tended, but utterly accessible. Pretense is abandoned at the door. A small boy whacks a balloon over the hedges and runs after it over the lawn. He looks like a character in some French movie.

Since 1974, its first vintage, Chateau St. Jean has turned out a range of high-quality wines as broad as any winery in California, from fruit grown in every corner of the county. "That's what makes Sonoma unique," says winemaker Margo Van Staaveren, who has been employed there since 1980, when she was 23. "You have that wild diversity. Not only can you grow all these varietals, but many of them can be grown in several different appellations."

It seems sensible to capitalize on that range of potential sites with distinct wines. But before Chateau St. Jean, nobody was doing it. Hired as winemaker by the original owners, the Merzoian family, Dick Arrowood found one compelling parcel after another, then set out to make wines from each in the Burgundian fashion. "At one point," Van Staaveren says, "we had nine vineyard-designate Chardonnays."

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