The son of Dutch immigrants, winemaker emeritus Don Van Staaveren grew up living and working on dairy farms in California’s Central Valley. Vowing to leave cows behind him, he studied fruit science at California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo, with a specialty in orchards and vineyards. He worked first for Gallo, then for Frank Bartholomew of Buena Vista Vineyards, managing vineyards and a citrus grove on his Sonoma property.
“But I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I’d be a winemaker,” he says.
This is hard to believe coming from the man widely thought to be responsible for bringing international attention to Sonoma winemaking when his 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages was the first Sonoma wine to receive Wine Spectator’s “Wine of the Year” accolade. Modesty, however, is chief among Van Staaveren’s qualities, along with the calm, steady demeanor shared by surfers and farmers (of which he is both), and an unrelenting curiosity—what he calls his love of “tinkering”—that drives his commitment to create ever better wines.
Van Staavaren fell in love with Pinot Noir early in his vineyard days: while at Buena Vista, he joined a post-harvest celebration where someone had opened a bottle of 1947 Chambertin. “And I was transported,” says Van Staaveren. “It was definitely an ‘aha’ moment, and I’ve been hooked on Pinot Noir ever since,” he adds.
In 1976, Van Staaveren left Buena Vista for a job as a crush temp at Chateau St. Jean’s new winery facilities in Kenwood. Their winemaker, Richard Arrowood, known for being a taskmaster and perfectionist, liked Van Staaveren’s work ethic. It wasn’t long before the young temp was working his way up the ranks in the cellar and in 1985, he was promoted to winemaker. Around that time, Van Staaveren, who had long been a fan of Burgundian wines, began experimenting with eschewing crushing grapes in favor of whole berry fermentations.
“When I became winemaker, I really wanted to look for gentler ways to handle grapes,” he says. He explains that in 1990, following the winery’s purchase of a new de-stemmer, designed to remove berries from the stem and then drop them in the crusher rollers, he decided to remove the rollers. The idea was unheard of at the time. “I didn’t want any macerated grapes,” he says.
The critical acclaim showered upon Chateau St. Jean—including the first ever winery to have five wines featured in Wine Spectator’s annual Top 100—came in the vintages that followed Van Staaveren’s introduction of gentler winemaking practices, including “crush-less” pressing and gravity-fed operations.
While at Chateau St. Jean, Van Staaveren met Bill Price III following Texas Pacific Group’s purchase of the winery from Suntory in 1996. The two would get together a few times a year to taste wines, even after Van Staaveren left St. Jean to work at what would later become Artesa. They also both share a love of surfing, which is evident in the numerous surfboards and wet suits gracing the walls of the Three Sticks winery. In 2004, after what Van Staavaren jokes was an “eight-year job interview,” Price asked Van Staaveren to become winemaker for Three Sticks Wines.
In January of 2015, Don began his transition to an emeritus winemaker here in our cellar. He continues to work side by side with Bob Cabral and Ryan Prichard, taking the lead on Cabernet Sauvignons and our Adobe-exclusive Castañada Red and Rosé wines.
In his free time, Van Staaveren surfs the waters off the Sonoma Coast, and creates special cookie recipes for each new release from Three Sticks. He’s also a fan of woodworking, and is at work on a surfboard made from the stalks of an agave plant. He enjoys spending time in the garden and the kitchen with his wife, Margo Van Staaveren, whom he met at Chateau St. Jean in 1980 and who continues to work there as the General Manager and winemaker. Don and his family make their home in Glen Ellen.