Later this year, Chateau St. Jean will harvest the red grapes that will make an iconic wine reaching its quarter-century mark.
Cinq Cepages, a cabernet sauvignon that is always blended with four other Bordeaux grape varieties, started out life in 1990 as a non-varietal blend, which at the time was a risky venture. Most high-end cabs had varietal designations and as such had to be at least 75% cabernet sauvignon.
Even though Cinq Cepages was technically a varietal wine, winemaker Don Van Staavren decided that it would always be a blend of the five varieties, including Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petite Verdot. So its name was not cabernet sauvignon. Its name was a fanciful "faux French" phrase referring to a blended wine.
And at the time the idea — though not a first — was tricky for the marketing people and consumers.
As a high-end wine, the price for it would be relatively high. And such wines usually were called cabernet sauvignon.
This became such a problem for fans of great blended red wines that two years earlier, a Napa-based group founded the Meritage Association to give a more prestigious name to all such higher-end blended wines. But the name Meritage was still so new that it really meant little to consumers or the wine trade.
Moreover, Cinq Cepages had one more strike against it: it was from Sonoma County, and to most wine geeks at the time, the best cabernets in California came from Napa Valley. Sonoma was that other place off to the west that, sure, made wine, but Napa was the iconic wine country to most Americans.
Van Staaveren's main goal with Cinq Cepages was to use Cabernet grapes from St. Jean's vast holdings in Sonoma County, including Knight's Valley, Alexander Valley and the home ranch in Sonoma Valley, and craft a red blend that displayed the best traits of Sonoma County.
That it did. From the outset, the wine displayed a complexity rarely seen in Sonoma County cabernets.
Chateau St. Jean had made some stellar Cabernets in the early years, starting with founding winemaker Richard Arrowood's 1974 and 1975 cabernets, both of which were startlingly fine wines.
Soon, however, St. Jean became more famed for its chardonnays and other wines, so red wine was eventually abandoned at the handsome property. Then a phylloxera infestation forced replanting of the vines. The return to cabernet came in 1990.
Sonoma fans loved the first Cinq Cepages wine, and by the mid-1990s the wine was a staple on high-end restaurant wine lists.
Still it failed to gain the wide recognition it deserved, because French phrases do not roll easily off the tongues of most Americans. And mispronounced, the first word sounds like "sink" or "sank," not terms often associated with world class wines.
That all changed in the late 1990s, when The Wine Spectator magazine named the 1996 vintage of Cinq Cepages as its wine of the year.
"Suddenly everybody could pronounce it," said Margo Van Staavren, wife of the first winemaker and now the person who makes the same wine.
At a tasting at the chateau last week of all 21 vintages of Cinq Cepages thus far released, it was noted, interestingly, that the first seven wines, through the 1996 vintage, were made by Don. The second seven were made by Steve Reeder, now at Simi Winery, and the last seven were made by Margo.