For some long-forgotten reason, I developed a bias a while ago against Chateau Souverain wines, and I suspect it was during the murky years of the winery’s history.
I didn’t just ignore Chateau Souverain. I spurned it, refusing even to pick up a bottle off the shelf, much less to buy one. There are too many good, inexpensive wines on the market to waste time giving a bad one a second chance, unless, of course, someone hands you a glass of Chateau Souverain Sauvignon Blanc and suggests you try it.
It’s unfortunate that I didn’t put my prejudice aside sooner. Chateau Souverain has apparently been making good, affordable wine for the last couple of decades.
However, that was not always the case, and the winery’s story is not that unusual in the California wine world.
J. Leland Stewart started the winery in 1944 after giving up a marketing job in the meat-packing industry to try to write the great American novel, author James Conaway says in his 1990 book Napa: The Story of an American Eden.
Stewart, who was 39 at the time, came from good stock, and he knew how to work. His mother’s family, the Lelands, were the founders of Stanford University, and his father was a successful businessman from Scotland.
Stewart thought the Leland name was a bit pretentious, so he preferred to be called Lee Stewart. He soon gave up on the novel and bought the old Rossini winery on Napa’s Howell Mountain, which had been around since 1887. It was a bargain and a hovel. He fixed the place up, and a year later he had his first harvest, calling the company Souverain Cellars, the French word for sovereign, at the suggestion of his daughter, who was studying the language in high school.
Stewart was one of the pioneers of California’s modern wine industry, the Souverain website says. He was among the first to make single-varietal, estate-grown wines. He introduced to the state Petit Sirah and the French method of aging Chardonnay in oak barrels.
He was called the “Rock” and known for being one of the tightest, penny-pinchingest winemakers in the state, who nonetheless loved boozy, steakhouse dinners, Conaway writes in Napa.
Stewart built Souverain into one of the state’s most respected and award-winning wineries from the 1950s through the 1960s. In 1970, he sold Souverain Cellars to Pillsbury, a food company in the process of getting into the wine business. The corporate giant expanded Souverain, foolishly opening a second winery in Sonoma County. Over the next six years, it ran Souverain into the ground. Stability vanished, and Pillsbury wanted its money back. The Napa winery was sold to Rutherford Hill, and the Sonoma property was sold to a group of grape growers, who renamed the company Chateau Souverain. Lee Stewart retired as winemaker in 1980.
Chateau Souverain was forced to make wine from the grapes the co-owners grew, and some weren’t so good. As a result, the quality of the wine was poor for about a decade. The winery ended up in bankruptcy, a 1992 article in the Baltimore Sun says.
In 1986, Wine World Estates, a Nestle subsidiary, bought Souverain out of bankruptcy, canceled the contracts with the growers’ group and found new, reliable sources for grapes. Wine World turned Chateau Souverain around, and under the direction of Ed Killian, who has been the chief winemaker since 1996, the wine has been consistently good.
Killian, who has been using grapes from the same vineyards for more than 25 years, has steadily improved the wine while working with a series of owners that included Foster’s, the Australian beer maker, and film director and wine producer Francis Ford Coppola. He moved Souverain into the historic and defunct Italian Swiss Colony winery in Asti, a village that was once a tourist destination. Gallo bought Souverain in 2015 and redesigned the label and logo to pay homage to Lee Stewart. A fitting tribute on a wine that he probably would have liked.
Killian now makes only single varietal wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. They’re all ready to drink, very good and a terrific bargain at $11.99. They also go on sale for a couple of dollars less.
The Sauvignon Blanc has bright, fresh aromas of pink grapefruit and lime zests, and dry, crisp flavors of ripe melon with a smooth finish, Killian says in the tasting notes.
It’s a fine wine to drink with appetizers or by itself on a hot night. I had it with shrimp and garlicky zucchini noodles, and it was an excellent match.
My only regret about Chateau Souverain is that I didn’t give it a second chance 20 years ago. It’s now a house favorite.
Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.