At least that’s what Clarke Swanson Jr. has done at his eponymous winery in beautiful downtown Rutherford, population 450.
As a neighbor of Swanson Vineyards, I have been to the property numerous times, but welcomed an invitation this week to spend a morning with winemaker Chris Phelps and owner Clarke Swanson Jr., along with a small coterie of local wine writers.
There wasn’t a real agenda to the get-together, other than to present us current wines and give us a sneak preview of the Swanson Sip Shoppe, a slightly less formal, retail room that is opening this summer next to the famed Swanson Salon, where by-appointment guests may enjoy Swanson wines paired with different foods.
For the record, the food pairings here are as friendly as the staff; no one goes home without a smile, and oh yes, purple teeth.
Winemaker Chris Phelps, who has been at Swanson seven years, is largely responsible for shaking up the winemaking practice. But then, you’d expect this from a wineman trained at U.C. Davis, as well as the University of Bordeaux and who then worked at Chateau Petrus, Dominus (Petrus’ Yountville property), then at Caymus, in Napa Valley.
Napaman Tip One
Chris is making a fabulous Pinot Grigio that is one of the most refreshing Napa Valley white wines that I have tasted in a long time. The fruit is a blend of Oakville, Oak Knoll, Carneros and even some Santa Barbara fruit, seamlessly blended in stainless steel. Read my lips: NO WOOD. The resulting wine is d-e-l-i- c-i-o-u-s, suggestive of spring flowers It would go extremely well with seameats, and has a lovely creamy finish. 91 points.
Napaman Tip Two
Are you looking for a way to recall which were the good recent vintages in Napa Valley? Let’s eavesdrop on Chris Phelps:
“’05, ’07 and ’09 were like Bordeaux vintages; we had longer, cooler growing seasons. The fruit had longer ‘hang time’ and the phenolics were allowed to fully develop. These are superior vintages across Napa Valley, if one can generalize.”
Napaman Tip Three
The Merlot at Swanson is better than it has ever been. Merlot has been, since 1987, the bread and butter grape at Swanson. In fact, Swanson is the largest producer of Merlot in the Oakville Appellation and Chris suspects that Swanson may actually produce more estate Merlot than any other winery in Napa Valley.
I tasted the ’05, ’06. ’07 and ’08 (from barrel) Swanson Merlots and they just keep getting better.
As the 2005 Swanson Merlot contains 14 percent Syrah, the wine has a slightly herbaceous, purple-y nose, though it does exhibit lovely balance and textural elegance. 91 points.
The 2006 Swanson Merlot has more floral and cherry notes, and appears to be a softer wine. Possibly due to the absence of Syrah? Another solid 91 pointer.
The 2007 and 2008 Swanson Merlots are each a dinner winner, though exhibiting younger flavors and texture than any of the siblings above. But these wines will come around nicely in a few years. 91 points for each vintage.
Each of the Swanson Merlots retails for $36.
Napaman Tip Four
But it’s what Chris Phelps has done to the flagship wine, Alexis (named after Clarke’s daughter) that is the most pronounced wine revival, or reversal, here.
Alexis, first made in 1994, used to be a blend of Cabernet and Syrah. But Chris, who had some ‘splainin’ to do when he proposed removing the Syrah, has succeeded in producing some gorgeous wines.
2005 Swanson Alexis, which is 90 percent Cabernet, 10 percent Merlot, has scents and aromas far deeper than the color of this wine would suggest. Warm fruit aromas, gobs of spice, ripe fruit and lush richness. What a twist on “Napa Valley Cab” – since it doesn’t taste as though it’s passed through the kidneys of a beaver. The wood is in HARMONY with the fruit. What a novel idea in a Napa Valley Cab. 93 points.
2006 Swanson Alexis. This wine’s composition is different; 81 percent Cab, 19 percent and the mixture shift is evident in the wine as it is softer, juicier, fleshier than the ’05. But still ‘loverly.’ 92 points.
2007 Swanson Alexis. Ahhh, this is the daddy! Wine of the month for napaman, a solid achievement, made with 90 percent Cab, and 10 percent Merlot. A stunningly good wine, delicious on the attack, right through to the swallow. There is a crème de cassis element in the middle palate. A fabulous, food friendly wine. 94 points.
Each of the Alexis wines retails for $75.
What has Chris done to cause these improvements?
“We are picking the fruit more ripe than we have in the past, but we are extremely aware of not letting the alcohol levels get out of check. Highly alcoholic wines are not refreshing.”
“For another thing, we’ve changed the level of toast on our barrels. We’ve cut way back, from heavy toast and toasted heads (the ends of the wooden barrels) to a medium toast.”
“We’ve also moved to screwcaps for our Pinot Grigio. No more corked wines.” (As far as napaman is concerned, Chris could move everything he makes, even age-worthy reds, to screwcap.)
It’s also evident that Swanson is engaging in some “alternate therapy” winemaking. Napaman spotted recent crop Merlot aging in small standard-sized, 225 liter barrels made of stainless steel, something I’ve not ever seen in a winery in this region.
Chris hinted that he’s conducting some ‘trials,” with them, but the nature of his short reply (so uncharacteristic of him!) leads me to believe that Swanson is experimenting. Which is a good thing, always the sign of a smart producer who refuses to accept commonplace methodology in an effort to improve the quality of core products.
To learn more about Swanson wines, go to www.swansonvineyards.com or call to make an appointment to visit the winery, 707-944-0905. To make an appointment to visit The Salon or The Sip Shoppe, call 967-3500.