Chateau St. Jean Gets a Second Chance
By: George Balling
During the rush of the Christmas holiday news broke that Treasury Wine Estates had sold Chateau St. Jean to Foley Family Wines. We have long had a deep connection to St. Jean, our first home in Sonoma County was adjacent to the winery and their Estate Vineyard. Mary worked at St. Jean and managed their entire tasting room prior to us moving to Coeur d’Alene to open the shop. I also worked there in the tasting room on special occasion weekends and in the tasting room when they needed help.
The winery sits on one of the most beautiful pieces of vineyard land in the Sonoma Valley and has some extraordinary history. One of the founders of the winery was Dick Arrowood who was not only the original winemaker at St. Jean but then went on to open his own “show” with Arrowood Winery one of our favorites just down the road from his original home.
We always thought the acquisition of St. Jean by Treasury out of Australia was an odd fit. Treasury owned by Fosters Brewing is a large producer whose primary goal always seemed to be to get everything out the door of the winery at the lowest price possible. They seemed to care little about the historic nature of St. Jean, their vineyards, the old Chateau, and the well-designed large production facility, not to mention the lineage of Cinq Cepages the St. Jean wine that won wine of the year from The Wine Spectator in 1996.
When we worked at the winery there were a number of long-term contracts with some of the premier growers in Northern California including Robert Young, the Hyde family and Durell Vineyards to name a few. Much of this was dismantled during the time of Treasury’s ownership with their thrust being to California appellated wines meaning the fruit could come from anywhere in the state. All of these moves while fitting Treasury’s strategic direction seemed to move away from all that gave St. Jean its sense of place. In my opinion these moves were sad.
The buyer of St. Jean is Foley Family Wines. Foley like many large wine companies has their own issues many disagree with. Compared to Treasury though we think this will be good for this storied winery and our connections to it. We have seen other Foley acquisitions that have been great for the winery, Three Rivers in Walla Walla as an example. With Three Rivers Foley provided adequate capital for the winery providing stability and fuel for growth. They left the winemaking team intact and the wines have improved ever since the merger.
With St. Jean they have vowed to reestablish the Estate Vineyards located in and around the old Chateau. They have also pledged to bring up to date and reopen the production facility at the winery allowing all of the wines to again carry Estate Grown and Estate Produced on the label where applicable. We hope too they can restart some of the great grower relationships they previously cultivated with the likes of Robert Young Vineyards, Durell and others. While it has not been discussed in the press, we suspect that the California appellated wines will be de-emphasized as Foley has demonstrated their goal to occupy the premium sector of the wine market. A good move we think.
Here at home in North Idaho there is potentially good news in this acquisition as well. Ever since we opened the shop the St. Jean wines have been stuck in a kind of distributor limbo with one distributor handling the wines in Eastern Washington and another in North Idaho resulting in neither having the critical mass to really stock the wines, including Cinq Cepages and their other sought after reserve bottlings.
The Foley portfolio is handled by one of the largest distributors in the state Hayden Beverage and we suspect that with some legal wrangling still to be resolved that Hayden will have full access to the wines. This would be great news for us and we would be first in line to get our hands on some of these delicious wines.
As the pace of mergers and acquisitions have picked up in the wine industry, we haven’t always felt that good things came from this ownership shell game. On occasion though we see one like Foley buying St. Jean and we feel hopeful about the end result for wine consumers in general and our customers specifically. We look forward to having access to the wines on a consistent basis and hope the distributor logistics will be worked out quickly. We will keep you posted.