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Sonoma's St. Francis Reaches Out to Restaurants

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Wine can get you into a whole host of wonderful things, and that was never more clear than a few weeks back when it meant a tasting/multi-course lunch at BS Taqueria as the very first guests before it opened its doors in downtown L.A. (Yes, it's good to be on the list.) That meant a celebration of the Cochon555 rolling national festival of heritage pig happening later that weekend, a chance to feast on the amazing cuisine of chef Ray Garcia (a two-time Cochon555 winner), and the launch of esteemed St. Francis Winery & Vineyards' new reserve tier wines.

It turns out pork-out-the-wazoo goes well with wine. Katie Madigan, one of St. Francis's two winemakers, joked as she enjoyed ensalada de nopales with cactus, bean sprouts, black vinegar, and chicharron (two ways, both the classic crispy and then a bit more fresh and meaty, too) that, "I feel at home, for during harvest all I ended up eating out of the vending machines is chicharrones and Diet Coke." Both Madigan and her co-winemaker Chris Louton -- he makes the Bordeaux varietals, she makes the other wines -- seem young to be in charge at an established winery like St. Francis, but that just shows even the spot that planted the first merlot in Sonoma back in 1971 knows it has to move with the times.

Hence this reserve tier, comprised of a cabernet sauvignon, a merlot, and a zinfandel, an interesting marketing gambit as it's made just for restaurant wine lists, and targeted to come in on a list at under $99 -- that's reserve tier, after all. St. Francis is a fascinating business proposition, certified sustainable on 400 estate acres, making a relatively large 250,000 cases yearly on average, with eight nationally distributed wines and a good 'nother 20 that go to wine club members or are sold at the winery.

But then there's vineyard manager Jake Terrell, who elaborates on the 3 E's -- environment, equity, and economics -- that he strives to make work at St. Francis, and you realize the winery is big business at a more human scale. Everyone who works there has health insurance and can earn retirement benefits, for instance, and Terrell says, "Last year we saved 30% more water from the previous year," so they're even drought aware. All that good politics adds up to fine wines -- not surprisingly often what's best for the planet is best for grapes, too. It's both a joke and the truth when Terrell calls himself "a grape coach" at one point.

All three of the reserve tier wines are lovely, perfect expressions of their varietals with a Sonoma grounding, but if I had to pick one I'd say the merlot was the star, and that's not easy, as merlot tends to not like the spotlight that much (even this one has 19% Malbec). Chris Louton suggests merlot grapes are more finicky than cabernet sauvignon grapes, but if that's true, it's similar to your fussy fabulous friend, that if you pamper just right, makes your life just amazing. It's rare a merlot can seem this smooth yet full-flavored.

And on a food note, if I may, if BS Taqueria is this good (the.best.carnitas.) then how good will Broken Spanish, its upcoming sister restaurant, be when it opens in the old Rivera space? My guess is some St. Francis might end up on the wine list.

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