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Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week

Chateau St. Jean Winery

By Heather Irwin

Low-down: You're too sexy for the tasting room. A VIP like you is used to the red-carpet treatment. Yes, you have arrived, Mr. Big, but the ham-fisted way you hold a wine glass? That's a dead giveaway that you're not a student of the grape, baby.

Time for a proper education. For $15, Chateau St. Jean hooks you up with an insider tour of the grounds, a tasting of several reserve wines (that's the good stuff) and a real-life wine primer all wrapped up in about 45 minutes. So now you can not only order a respectable bottle of wine at a restaurant, but also at least look like you know what you're doing as you inspect, taste and swirl like a pro.

Vibe: Chateau St. Jean is casual uptown: premium wines, a lush Mediterranean garden, lots of gourmet goodies and oenophile gear in the tasting room, plus there's the whole chateau thing. The home, which sits on the original 93 acres of vineyards, was owned by a single family until the mid-'70s, when it was bought by an extended family who renamed the winery after Jean Sheffield Merzoian, a wife of one of the brothers. But despite garnering some serious cred in the wine business (their 1996 Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon was named Wine Spectator's "Wine of the Year" in 1999, the first local wine to win the award), this is still Sonoma County, after all. Our tour guide, Tammy, had us sipping, swirling and spitting with gusto and laughing all the way through.

At the helm: Though the winery recently lost Steve Reeder, its master winemaker, new winemaker Margo Van Staaveren--wife of Don Van Staaveren, who served as winemaker from 1990 to 1997--has been a fixture at the winery for years and is known as the "palate" of the winery. Producing some 300,000 cases per year, Chateau St. Jean is part of the Beringer group which includes Beringer, Chateau Souverain and several others.

Mouth value: The tour gives you the opportunity for a reserve tasting, well worth the price. We especially liked the dry, grapefruity La Petite Étoile Vineyard 2001 Fumé Blanc, the Cinq Cépages 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon and the full-bodied Sonoma County Reserve 1997 Merlot-- all only available on the reserve tasting. On the regular tasting menu, don't miss the Sonoma County 2002 Johannisberg Riesling, slightly sweet and crisp and fully delicious.

Don't miss: Now that you're a big shot, you'll need to keep it real. Work off that education with a big old burger just down the road at Heavenly Hamburger (4910 Sonoma Hwy., Santa Rosa, 707.539.9791). They're greasy and cheesy, served with a side of onion rings and nicely toasted buns.

Five-second snob: Ever hear someone say a bottle is "corked"? Like many people, I can get halfway through a bottle before someone raises an eyebrow and asks if the wine has seen better days. The best way to determine whether a bottle is corked is to sniff the wine in the glass. Tammy compared it to grandma's basement: when you go past a pile of 1952 Life magazines, you know that musty, old-paper smell. Corkage happens when a certain type of mold grows on the cork and imparts an off flavor in the wine. And a big P.S.: It's "Jean" as in blue jeans or Jean Harlow. Leave the snobby French affectations at home.

Spot: Chateau St. Jean, 8555 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. Wine tour 101 classes occur daily at 11am and 3pm; no reservation needed. $15 for the tour; $5 for regular winetasting. 707.833.4134.

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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