The girl & the grape
Marvelous Margo Van Staaveren brings female olefaction to Chateau St. Jean
The world of winemaking is ripe with romantic images: muddy boots and misty mornings, loamy caves and weathered casks. In our mind’s eye the process is perhaps accompanied by a sound track of soaring strings, sawing away to the thump and roar of old-fashioned machines and streams of people in motion. Margo Van Staaveren, Chateau St. Jean’s winemaker, fits the idyllic profile, too. Athletically slim, with a shining mane of dark brown hair that could star in its own shampoo commercial, she conveys both the glamour and braininess behind her craft; she is the lady winemaker, a tastemaker in heels.
Still a kid in culottes when she joined the winery in 1979, Van Staaveren signed on as a lab technician after graduating from the University of California at Davis. Less than a decade later she earned her keep as assistant winemaker. Today, with 27 years of experience under the Chateau St. Jean umbrella, Van Staaveren is a trailblazer and a maverick—not to mention a charter member of that first crop of women daring enough to tackle the patriarchy of the old guard.
More and more frequently, women are rising to the top tier of the wine world’s elite, and though the trend is still somewhat new, it’s no wonder: Female olfaction is acutely more sensitive than the male’s. (Ever meet a pregnant woman who can guess the entire contents of your Saran-wrapped sandwich from three cubicles away?) With the sense of smell responsible for a significant percentage of capacity to taste, it follows that women may indeed claim a genetic predisposition to the art and science of winemaking.
Van Staaveren is disarmingly humble about her path. “I didn’t set out to become a winemaker, actually. My first thought was to become a special-education teacher,” says Van Staaveren of her earliest days at Davis. Back then, the wine industry didn’t have the cachet it does today. The sipping tours and celebrity labels and can’t-swing-a-dead-cat-without-hitting-a-vintner phenomenon had yet to materialize; with the exception of a few sprawling jug-brand goliaths, most wine was made at mom-and-pop-style operations in cozy quantities, and distilled spirits still ruled the dinner parties of 1975 America.
But at Davis, Van Staaveren found herself surrounded by ag-geeks striving to harness the temperamental team of Nature and Science. Curious, she began dabbling in such coursework herself, surprised by how well she liked it. Before long, that early image of schoolmarm-in-waiting morphed into something new and unexpected, and Van Staaveren was on her way.
The work of winemaking is demanding; the end game, of course—a beautifully finished bottle of wine.
“There is no slow season,” says Van Staaveren. “Vacations are hard to come by.” Harvest, which can last as long as 12 weeks, calls for intensive days when Van Staaveren wakes with first light to walk the vineyard blocks, tasting fruit until she’s nearly green at the gills. Any distressed fruit requires intervention, and Van Staaveren prescribes orders like a doctor tending a fragile patient. More water, less
water, nutrients for the soil.
Then, when the last trucks of the season have delivered their loads and the juice from the berries is tanked and fermenting, attention turns to those waiting in the wings—the wines from previous harvests
that now need Van Staaveren’s expert tinkering.
Tinkering Season soon gives way to Blending Season, when juice from specific terroir is married and mixed to create the balance that the Chateau St. Jean label aspires to. Bottling Season comes next, followed in short order by Living Out of a Suitcase Season, wherein a winemaker can find herself jet-lagged and confounded, checking in and out of hotels across new cities each week. Just when she’s heaved a weary sigh, stowed her luggage and kicked off her heels, Harvest Season nips at them again.
“That’s one thing I love about this job—you’re always ready for the season to change,” says Van Staaveren. “Just about the time when you’ve had enough of harvest, it ends. Just when you’re ready to start harvest again, it begins. I like that variety. You can’t completely control it. In the end, you’re really depending on Mother Nature.”
Mother Nature has been very, very good to Chateau Saint Jean. In 1999, their 1996 Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon was named “Wine of the Year” by the Wine Spectator. The 1999 vintage of the same blend ranked number two. That’s first-and second-place accolades out of nearly 14,000 samples from around the world. Not bad for a girl who grew up in the tidy, unremarkable suburbs of San Rafael.
The label—owned by the corporate Australian behemoth Foster’s Wine Estates Americas—moves 400,000 cases of Chateau St. Jean each year, roughly half of it Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay, the signature juice that put the winery on the map. The remaining volume is spread across 32 different selections representing specific vineyards and various gradations of quality—a mere six or seven of which are available at grocery retail outlets. Since the balance of Chateau St. Jean’s luxury wines are available only at the winery, a steady pilgrimage of some 70,000 enthusiasts ply the winery’s long, narrow drive each year.
Situated at the base of Sugarloaf Ridge, off Highway 12, the winery’s grounds are bucolic and pristine. Water splashes prettily in the large fountain anchoring the central courtyard. Five full-time gardeners ensure there’s not an unruly privet or scraggly lavender in sight. The original chateau, a splendid and buttery French thing, faces a vast vineyard and emerald expanse of grass shaded by 200-year-old oaks. Inside, “hospitality specialists” pour reserve and limited-production wines along with free streams of informative banter. Upstairs a string of what were once likely bedrooms now serve as exclusive tasting venues, at the ready for those connoisseurs whose precise palates require specialty Riedel glasses fanned out in front of them and the attention of private sommeliers. Like the kind served daily by Philippe Thibault, the dashingly French hospitality manager who cites the “orgasmic smell” of September’s crush and offers a taste of a special 2005 late-harvest Riesling with the promise that I am about to sample a rare “de-LICK-acy.”
Across a small inner courtyard is a new visitor center with tasting bar and gift shop, completed—along with a new garden installation in the Mediterranean tradition—in 2000. Here, one can sample vineyard-designated wines while shopping for souvenirs, like the pink Chateau St. Jean “bling-bling” babydoll tee ($28), or the set of chunky champagne flutes, perfect for a modernist with streamlined tastes ($96 for eight).
The tradition of holding the juice of grapes from specific terroir in separately differentiated containers is uniquely French, and defines the character of both Chateau St. Jean and winemaker Margo Van Staaveren. A perfectionist with a remarkable palate, she articulates not just individual vineyards but particular blocks within each. For example, Block 15 of the La Petite Etoile Vineyard is famously, mystically, capable of producing grapes the winemaker regards as the crème de la crème. Something indefinable demarcates this fruit, leading Van Staaveren to hold they are “just the right grape for just the right location.”
She thinks of her work in the happiest possible terms. “It’s just a big playground, to have the opportunity to make some of the finest wines in the world. I count it a privilege to be making this wine.” With nature being an unpredictable collaborator, I ask Van Staaveren whether she’s at all superstitious, whether she has any particular traditions during harvest. She laughs.
“What? Like lucky underwear?”
No, she explains, nothing like that. But she does gather her crew to meet the arrival of the first load of fruit with a bottle from a previous harvest in her hand. They open it and lift their glasses, offering a toast to the gods of wine, a salute to the nectar itself, and then they get to work.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA