Revived California winery now making good varietals

VINTAGE POINT

March 01, 1992|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Chateau Souverain is not a cutting-edge winery.

It doesn't dabble in exotic Rhone Valley or Italian grape varieties. It doesn't make sparkling wine. It doesn't make any $40 reserve bottlings in collaboration with famous French wine-makers.

All Chateau Souverain does is make flavorful, reasonably complex, ready-to-drink versions of the most basic California varietals: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. And it sells them for attractive prices.

In today's wine market, that's nothing to scoff at. The honest laborers of the wine world deserve recognition, too.

Five years ago, however, it was more difficult for Chateau Souverain to get much attention at all.

Tom Peterson, Chateau Souverain's winemaker, and Michael Florian, its public relations director, still remember one incident in Baltimore back then.

They asked the local wine critic if they could get together with him and taste some wine. Sure, said the critic, twist my arm. So they all met at a local restaurant.

Mr. Peterson and Mr. Florian explained that they represented a ++ company that had taken over Chateau Souverain, a famous old California winery whose reputation was in tatters after years of dubious management. They had with them some of the first wines made under the new regime. They wondered if the critic might write an article about them.

The critic sniffed the wines and swirled them in the glass, splooshed them around in his mouth, sucked air through them and did all the obnoxious things wine critics do. Then the critic suggested gently -- at least gently for a critic -- that the visitors go back to California and call him again when their wines were ready for prime time.

Now flash forward to 1992. Same visitors. Same critic. Even the same restaurant. The only thing different is the wine.

And what a difference! The sauvignon blanc is smooth and spicy; the chardonnay intense and fresh; the merlot luscious and silky, and the cabernet sauvignon stylish and structured.

After years of effort, Mr. Peterson has done what he said he would do: He's restored the reputation of Chateau Souverain.

Looking back now, Mr. Peterson and Mr. Florian admit their previous visit to Baltimore might have come too early in the Sonoma County winery's rebuilding program. After all, Chateau Souverain had a lot to come back from.

Souverain, French for "sovereign," got its start with the 1945 vintage under the name Souverain Cellars. It was a Napa Valley winery then, founded by J. Leland Stewart, a retired businessman.

Through the 1950s and 1960s Souverain Cellars reigned as one of the most respected wineries in California, but in 1970 Mr. Stewart sold the winery and stability vanished. For much of the early 1970s, it was owned by the Pillsbury Co., which inexplicably decided Souverain needed two wineries -- one in Napa, one in Sonoma.

In 1976, Pillsbury decided to get its dough out of the wine business and sold the Napa Valley winery to Rutherford Hill. The Sonoma County facility was sold to a group of grape growers and became Chateau Souverain.

The growers essentially made a hash of it. The winery would buy just about anything one of the co-owners grew. The quality of the wine plummeted; the winery ended up in bankruptcy.

In 1986, the winery was bought out of bankruptcy by Wine World Estates, the Nestle subsidiary that had done a superb job of restoring Beringer Vineyards. Tom Peterson was given the task of turning the winery around.

And turn he did. Old contracts with growers were canceled, and Mr. Peterson found entirely new sources of grapes in the most prestigious areas of Sonoma County, including Carneros, Dry Creek and the Alexander Valley. Vineyards owned by the chateau were replanted and expanded. Less successful varietals were dropped from the product line. More and better oak barrels were bought.

"We're a new winery since 1986," Mr. Florian said.

Probably the most attractive thing about the new Chateau Souverain is its old-fashioned prices. Most of its wines sell for between $7 and $11, and their quality is superior to many that sell for $15 to $20.

For many California wineries, a little attention has meant a lot higher prices, but Mr. Peterson said Chateau Souverain plans to remain a low-cost winery for the long haul.

"I think that's going to be with us not just for the short term but for the next decade," said Mr. Peterson. "Everything is going to be value-oriented."

These are the current crop of values:

* 1990 Chateau Souverain Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley, $7. A mouthful of ripe melon, with notes of vanilla, yeast and woodsmoke. There are none of the herbaceous notes that mark many California sauvignon blancs.

* 1990 Chateau Souverain Chardonnay, Sonoma County, $9. Up front, this shows an intense, ripe vanilla-banana flavor, but there are also notes of pear, apple and smoke. With 60 percent of the grapes coming from the cool Carneros region, it avoids the heaviness of many California chardonnays.

* 1989 Chateau Souverain Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, $7. This isn't one of your blockbuster zinfandels, but it has good peppery flavors in a medium-weight package. It's not as successful as Souverain's other wines, but the price is right.

* 1989 Chateau Souverain Merlot, Alexander Valley, $9. Here's a big, soft, luscious wine with loads of ripe berry flavor. Behind its chunkiness there is good structure and acidity. Restaurateurs, take note: This wine is ready to drink now.

* 1988 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, $9. For a weak cabernet vintage, this is an exceptionally fine job. The wine is medium-bodied and well-balanced -- more angular than the merlot but still well-proportioned. Drinkable now, it should improve over the next two years.

* 1987 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon, Private Reserve, Alexander Valley, $14. This wine needs a little time for the strong vanilla flavor of the oak to marry with the fruit flavors, but it has good concentration.

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