The Peterson Principle : In the End, It's the Blend That Counts at Chateau Souverain

FIFTEEN VINEYARDS, each of different geological conformation and microclimate, are the structure of the wines of Chateau Souverain in Sonoma County. On a recent visit to the Geyserville winery, I stood--with wine master Tom Peterson and winery representative Michael Florian--in front of a topographical map of the diverse regions from which the grapes had come. Peterson and Florian helped me relate wine to soil and fermentation science, and I sampled the unreleased 1987 components of Chateau Souverain's ultimate blending, underscoring the benefits of layered complexity of Chardonnay over the restrictive nature of "estate-grown" wines. The grapes involved had come from the 2,000-foot-high rocky hillsides of the Oak Ridge vineyard at Alexander Valley and provided intense tastes and fleshy structure; from the San Giacomo vineyard in the Carneros region, with French oak barrel-fermentation and rounder mouth-feel; and from the Vail Vista vineyard, also in the Alexander Valley, contributing citrusy, almost tangerine, tastes to the emerging Chardonnay.

The Chateau Souverain winery, founded in the Napa Valley in the 1940s by the late Lee Stewart, began taking its present shape in the '70s. That was when architect John Marsh Davis juxtaposed, on one hand, French country-style architecture, and on the other, two prominent towers inspired by Sonoma hop kilns to create a structure that won an AIA design-excellence award in 1974. The multimillion-dollar facility was sold several times and became, in 1986, the property of Wine World, one of Nestle of Switzerland's well-financed holdings in California, others of which include Beringer in the Napa Valley.

Peterson, 37, has been Chateau Souverain's wine maker since the harvest of 1984. With a degree in anthropology from Stanford, Peterson would hardly have seemed a logical candidate for a career in the wine industry. However, some retail experience in the wine business undoubtedly piqued his interest, and in 1976 he enrolled at UC Davis, where he earned a master's degree in enology. At that point he was taken on as a protege by Richard Peterson (formerly of Beaulieu Vineyards and no relation) and given the responsibility for Monterey Vineyard, where he remained until he accepted the wine master position at Souverain.

Peterson and Florian, using the soil-structure maps of Chateau Souverain, have been on the road part time recently, conducting invitational seminars for the wine press, merchants and wine lovers to update the image of the winery. In current release, there's a fresh, bright, friendly, lightly oaked 1986 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($8); a rich, gold-medal-winning 1986 Sonoma Carneros Chardonnay-Reserve ($12), a 1986 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($5) of engaging bouquet and savor; a 1985 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon (100% Cabernet) aged in both French and American oak ($8), and a classically dry 1986 Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc ($5)--using grapes from four vineyards, including 14% Semillon from Knights Valley, that give the product an almost melon-like aroma, as opposed to the characteristic of grassiness. As Tom Peterson says, this modestly priced wine is "restrained, brisk, piquant and refreshing."

Photographed by Dale Berman; prop styling by Nancy Linderman; table from Arte de Mexico, North Hollywood

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