Planting “flowers amongst the vines” often serves quite different purposes in so-called Old World vineyards as compared with those in the New World.
In Europe, particularly France’s Bordeaux region, it’s traditional to plant roses at the end of a row of vines, to “ward off the evil spirits,” as is commonly told to tourists. But as Sylvie Cazes, a proprietor of Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux’s Pauillac region, explained to me, the real reason is quite practical, in that roses, which are even more susceptible to mildew than grapes, serve as an early warning for the need to consider preventative action with antifungals. Also, the rose bushes offer a home to insects, like ladybugs, which feast on such vine-damaging insects as aphids.
Even in the wine-producing areas of the Loire Valley, often referred to as the “garden area of France,” the plantings are usually quite pragmatic, featuring fruit-bearing trees and/or vegetables and herbs. Many of the gardens at vineyard estates in France, Italy and Spain contain primarily herbs and are hidden by walls from tourists.
While horticultural practicality is a common reason for the association of flowers and trees with vineyards in Europe, it is rarely the situation in the United States – with gardens often created purely for beauty or as a draw to visitors. However, whether for good luck or beauty, but certainly with public viewing in mind, the concept of mixing gardens and vineyards is taken to a whole other level in California, particularly in Sonoma County and most notably at the Ferrari-Carano and Chateau St. Jean estates. At these two properties, the magnificent, showy flower gardens definitely are beacons to visitors, not that the highly acclaimed wines produced by these properties need any apologies. (See Wine Notes).
Following careful planning some 16 years ago, Ferrari-Carano co-owner Rhonda Carano, a second-generation Italian-American, planted the winery’s gardens.
“What led me to creating the site was my lifelong passion for nature,” Carano says. “In fact, I can remember many happy days in my childhood spent gardening with my grandmother, and it now allows me personal time away from all the pressures of technology and such.”
Today, the Italian-French “parterre-style” garden – featuring classic geometric shapes, more than 2,000 species of trees and shrubs and more than 10,000 tulips and daffodils – surrounds the winery’s hospitality center. Visitors can partake of the pleasures of the gardens with a self-guided tour following footpaths that wander along and over a stream with waterfalls and fish-stocked ponds at both ends.
Ferrari-Carano is about 20 minutes by car north of Healdsburg at 8761 Dry Creek Road and is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
At Chateau St. Jean, the majestic entrance gardens, patterned after those found at Italian and French countryside villas, contain fountains, rare Windmill Palms and formal parterres filled with hydrangeas, dwarf Satsuma mandarin orange trees in terracotta pots, hybrid roses and numerous varieties of annuals and perennials. Moreover, in the spring, the ground is covered with what seems like a sea of white periwinkles, and almost year-round there’s a distinctive pleasant scent set off by sweet olive trees. Visitors to the winery can tour the gardens and even sip wine and picnic on site with the gardens as a backdrop.
Chateau St. Jean is in Kenwood at 8555 Sonoma Highway, little more than an hour car ride from San Francisco.
Here are some recently sampled Ferrari-Carano and Chateau St. Jean wines. Prices provided are typical local retail for 750 ml bottles.
2010 Ferrari-Carano Sonoma County Fumé Blanc ($15)
Blended from 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in a number of venues around Sonoma County and fermented in stainless steel (65 percent) or older French oak (35 percent), this straw-yellow wine with a fruity bouquet and taste of grapefruit and ripe figs has a touch of pleasant acidity on the finish. It mates particularly well with grilled swordfish, scallops and halibut.
2008 Ferrari-Carano Merlot ($16)
This wine exhibits a deep purple color and bouquet and taste of cherries, blackberries, plums and hints of oak that go well with beef, lamb or veal. It should improve with age, and in fact, a recently opened bottle of the 1987 vintage showed a velvety smooth wine with a complex bouquet and taste reminiscent of a well-aged Pomerol, like Chateau Trotanoy or Chateau Le Pin.
2010 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Chardonnay ($10)
This is a straightforward wine that has a bouquet and taste of pears and pineapple, with a hint of vanilla and a smooth pleasant finish. Not as elegant as the famed, premium 100 percent Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay from this producer, this wine nonetheless makes a great quaff to enjoy with shellfish, grilled chicken and mild cheeses.
2006 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma Merlot ($14)
Better than many Merlots selling for twice the price, this wine shows a fruity bouquet and taste of ripe cherries and chocolate with a smooth finish that perfectly matches the flavors of grilled salmon, barbecued chicken and blue-veined cheeses.