The French connection is strong at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, but step through a nondescript door in a corner of the ivy-shrouded tasting room, and it's an Aussie accent you'll hear in the cellar.
Named after Edward St. Supéry, who planted Zinfandel here in 1900, the current winery wasn't founded until the 1980s, when another Frenchman in the wine business, Robert Skalli, was inspired to venture to Napa by the 1976 Paris Tasting. Then in 2015 the Skalli family sold to Chanel, which also owns several high-profile estates in Bordeaux.
Native to Australia's Barossa Valley wine region, winemaker Michael Scholz first came to St. Supéry in 1996. After a hiatus, Scholz returned with some big ideas. He toured some of the top Cabernet names in the valley to see what they were up to and then built a winery-within-a-winery to produce St. Supéry's best lots.
Followed through the cellar by a big, shy boxer named Angus, Scholz shows off the new toys. "This looks like a Pinot Noir cellar," he admits. It's nothing fancy by Napa standards—no chandeliers or aesthetic woodwork in this utilitarian cellar. But instead of tall, closed-top tanks, there's a double row of squat, open-tops in which fermentations can be gently punched down with a pneumatic device—exactly like you'd see in most Pinot cellars these days, but St. Supéry is all about the Cabernet.
The mini-Supéry reboot had the side effect, Scholz says, of upping the quality from the now less-full larger tanks. Because there's not enough time in the day for the international team of interns to hand-sort all the grapes from winery's estate vineyards—which include not only 35 acres in Rutherford, but also 500 acres of the sustainably farmed 1,500-acre Dollarhide Ranch, a former cattle ranch purchased by Skalli in 1982—St. Supéry invested in an optical sorting machine that works much faster.
"Any berry that is excellent," says Scholz, clearly enthused by the new technology, flies out of the machine onto a conveyer. "Any berry that is not excellent," as judged against the computer's digital snapshots, gets kicked off the line by a pinpoint jet of air.
The results can be judged varietal by varietal in a new, hosted pairing experience that matches up Bordeaux varietals (Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon) with artisan cheeses. I liked best the prototypically Cab-perfumed, juicy 2012 Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($100). The cheese is excellent, too, but, no, it's not French—it's the best of the North Bay.
St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, 8440 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford. Open daily, 10am–5pm. Tasting fee, $25–$40; tour, $35; five Bordeaux varietals, $55. 707.963.4507.