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Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week

St. Francis Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: The monastically inspired winery off of Highway 12 would make ol' St. Francis proud. Named for the pauper saint whose followers brought the first vines to the New World, St. Francis Winery is about simplicity, beauty and big juicy reds that inspire hallelujahs all around.

The newish visitors center is all about warm wood and stucco. Designed in the Cal-Mex mission style with fireplaces and tile, the simplicity of the design is punctuated by the winery's signature bell tower. The tasting bar stretches the length of the room, offering expansive views of the vineyards and the Mayacamas Mountains through soaring windows.

Mouth value: Though it wasn't always so, reds--specifically Merlot--are St. Francis' strength. The Behler Merlot (1999, $45) gets consistently high scores, but a little more intriguing to this palate was the Rockpile Vineyard Red Wine (2001, $35), made with a mix of 60 percent Merlot and 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The Rockpile appellation is producing amazing fruit that give the finished wine a deep, rich, somewhat spicy flavor. The higher-end wines produced at the winery are those from King's Ridge Vineyard, most notably the Cabernet Sauvignon (1998, $85), offering a velvety, purple color with layer upon layer of complexity. The Old Vine Zinfandel (2001, $22) is also a favorite, with tons of spice and fire.

Don't miss: If you blink, you'll miss the town of Kenwood, home to local favorite, Cafe Citti (19049 Hwy. 12, Kenwood, 707.833.2690). At this mom-and-pop-style Italian eatery, you order at the counter from a dizzying array of homemade items, including fresh pastas and focaccia. A family favorite is the tuna, egg, mayo sandwiches on ciabatta which are loaded with all of the above--including the ultracreamy, ultradecadent house-made mayonnaise. Don't be surprised if you end up dining with a rancher tracking in mud from the farm, wine tourists and a local society matron just back from getting her hair shampooed. The consistently excellent Italian dishes pumped out every day bring in a cross-section of Sonoma culture.

Five-second snob: Rockpile is Sonoma County's newest appellation. Funny name, serious grapes. The appellation is actually a ridge of about 150 acres stretching from Lake Sonoma to Mendocino. Though most of the vineyards are less than 10 years old, they're producing some very interesting wines because of the unique microclimate above the fog that gets intense sun and cooler springs. Zinfandel is among the most popular varietals coming from the area, although Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah and Syrah are also being produced from Rockpile grapes.

Spot: St. Francis Winery, 100 Pythian Road, Santa Rosa. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. $5 tasting fee; $10 reserve tasting; $20 reserve tasting with food pairing. 800.543.7713.

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From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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