A group of ten wine writers, bloggers, and a local superstar wine radio host gathered by invitation from winemaker Chris Phelps at Swanson Vineyards to experience the winery’s hospitality, taste their wines, get a glimpse at their new tasting room facility, and share a meal. I am grateful for my inclusion, and the additional courtesy extended allowing me to bring a friend, Fred Albrecht, who I had not seen in months. Arriving early, I was able to meet, and thank, Elizabeth Swanson for her hospitality.

Swanson Vineyards Winery, Salon straight ahead, Sip Shoppe to the right

W. Clarke Swanson founded Swanson Vineyards in 1985, and originally bought the grapes for his first vintage wine released in 1987. Swanson Vineyards has the 76 acre Oakville Cross Vineyard, across the Napa River from Opus One, and that is the source for most of Swanson Vineyard’s Merlot. Today, Swanson Vineyards produces about 25,000 cases of wine annually.

Bud break at Swanson Vineyards

Phelps declared that, “Swanson Vineyards is the largest bottler of estate grown Merlot in Oakville, maybe the entire Napa Valley,” but the words Estate Grown or Estate Bottled do not appear on the label because the grapes are grown on Swanson owned vineyards in Oakville, while the wine is made at Swanson’s own winery in Rutherford. Technically, because of the different appellations, the wine can’t be labelled what it really is, estate grown Merlot.

As we tasted the 2008 Pinot Grigio, Napa Valley, $21, W. Clarke Swanson remarked that originally, “Pinot Grigio was tried as an experiment,” and has “largely replaced Chardonnay,” at Swanson Vineyards. The Pinot Grigio is a nice refreshing white that has maintained much of the fruit’s flavor from the vineyard to the glass. The wine is held “on lees” (with the spent yeast post fermentation) and all of it in stainless steel (allowing for more fruit expression than oak barrel held whites); the result is a wine with pear and citrus on the nose, following in the mouth, and tapering away on the finish, full yet crisp, a delightful and delicious wine to start with.

Working with many varietals, Swanson Vineyards has decided to shine a light on three: Cabernet Sauvignon (which is now the main grape of “Alexis”), Merlot, and Pinot Grigio.

With my fellow guests John Olney, Autumn Millhouse, Jim White, Fred & Eva Swan, Daedalus Howell, Mary Orlin, M. Annette Hanami, and Ziggy Eschliman, I sat in the beautiful “Parisian-inspired” Salon, decorated with vineyard and peasant inspired paintings by Ira Yeagar, at Swanson Vineyards for most of our tasting. The Salon is a unique hospitality wine tasting experience in the Napa Valley. Twice a day, at 11:00am and 1:30pm, Wednesday through Sunday, up to eight guests may experience a one hour formal tasting experience where six of Swanson Vineyard’s wines are paired with Swanson caviar, artisanal cheeses, and a Swanson signature Bonbon made by Vosges Haut Chocolat of Chicago for $55 per person.; and once a day, a 45 minute tasting at 4:00pm allows up to eight guests to focus on the core wines of Swanson Vineyards, the “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Grigio, paired with artisanal cheeses and a Swanson signature Bonbon for $30 per person.

The table is set for a special tasting in the Salon at Swanson Vineyards

Our seated Salon tasting started with Merlot, which Phelps described as, “Swanson’s bread and butter.” Andre Tchelistcheff was hired by Swanson at the beginning, and he directed that Merlot, then a lesser known varietal, be planted on the vineyard property. Twenty five years later, the grapes are so good that they lured Phelps, who had worked at Chateau Petrus, Dominus, and Caymus Vineyards, to come to make wine at Swanson Vineyards.

Chris Phelps, standing, and Fred Albrecht, sitting, tasting Swanson Vineyards Merlot

My friend, seated next to me, is not a fan of Merlot, but was surprised to find himself loving the Swanson Vineyard Merlot. He was not alone, everyone present loved the first sniff of the first Merlot poured for us. The 2005 Merlot, Oakville, $36, is a Cabernet lover’s Merlot, with black cherry and blackberry fruit, medium firm tannins, nice dusty oak, earthy, rich, earthy fullness (This wine is gone from the winery, if you see a bottle, grab it!). The 2006 Merlot, Oakville, $36 (currently available), was nicely perfumed with herb and cherry fruit, a little more vinuous, and more noticeable acid, and the 2007 Merlot, Oakville, $36 (anticipated release is October 2010), sweet, bright, candied cherry, definitely can use a little aging before release, were tasted next. Phelps also let us taste the 2008 Merlot, Oakville, $36, that was bottled just last week. After the 2005, this was my second favorite of the Merlot tasted, with a nice smoky nose, fine tannins, and warm allspice, black berry fruit, and oak. Swanson Vineyards is definitely one of California’s best Merlot producers, and far less expensive than the other Merlot bottlings I would group them with quality wise.

Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a little Pinot Grigio

The “Alexis” wine is named for the oldest Swanson daughter, Alexis Swanson Traina. Once made with up to 60% Syrah, “Alexis” is now a Cabernet Sauvignon based wine. Phelps, a Bordeaux-ist, has found that even a few points of Syrah can change a Cabernet’s recognizability, and has moved to eliminate the varietal from the “Alexis.”  We started with the 2005 “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, $75, a giant Cabernet Sauvignon, and a credit to the greatness of the vintage. Blackberry, nise, cocoa, coffee, herb, oak. Did I mention this is a big Cab? Did I mention how much I would love to build a meal around it? The 2006 “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, $75, has a rich, full, dark nose of cocoa, black berry, and earth, with a round herb, fruit, oak, tannin mouth. A bit closed, Phelps said it can take two hours for this wine to open. The 2007 “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, $75, is lush, has noticeable acid, rose perfume, and silken candied black fruit. We also tasted a sample of the 2008 “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, $75, due to  be bottled in a few weeks, and I look forward to tasting it again in the bottle; I found a lot of nice expressive fruit present.

In addition to the 2008 “Alexis,” we also tasted a barrel sample of the 2009 Chardonnay, Oakville, $42 (due out this fall), which I loved. No malolactic fermentation (retains some natural fruit flavor), no stainless steel, and no new, only used old neutral oak barrels, and this wine shows bright, but not shrill, fruit and promises to be delicious. Phelps feels that there is a phenolic aspect to Chardonnay, similar to red wines, that sees substantial flavor benefits to being held in oak as the oak allows a little breathing and maturing for the wine. Our final barrel sample was the 2009 Zinfandel, Napa Valley, about 14.5% alc, 100% Zin, smooth and round, held in American oak, this wine will spend the next 14 months in the barrel developing the edge, spice, and fruit it will eventually show, but I honestly wasn’t getting much yet.

Among the reasons we were invited to Swanson Vineyards was to show off the less formal Swanson Sip Shoppe, a more casual tasting room experience with 30 minute tastings available by appointment every half hour from 10:30am to 4:30pm Wednesday through Sunday, where the tastings are again focused on Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon at $20 per person, with a variety of tasty treat food pairing options available for separate purchase. “Salon is central to what we do here…it’s our tenth year in July with a Salon…but we wanted to offer a more accessible luxury lifestyle option,” explained hospitality host Shawn LaRue. Where the Salon, more formal, is Parisian inspired; the Swanson Sip Shoppe is vibrantly circus big top inspired with vertical red and white stripes. The Sip Shoppe is officially scheduled to open this Summer, but is playing host to guests already.

The new Swanson Sip Shoppe, accessible luxury lifestyle tasting room

While Swanson can only offer tastings by prior appointment, the phone number , (707) 967-3500, is on a sign right outside the gate for a reason. Call in advance if you can, but do not be intimidated if you forget to, just pull out your cell phone, call, and see if you can squeeze into a seated Salon tasting or visit the Sip Shoppe for a shorter but complete Swanson Vineyard tasting experience. I did a Google search and found only glowing reviews and compliments for the friendliness of the Swanson Vineyards Salon tasting experience. In 2000, when Swanson started this, they had the only Salon tastings in the Napa Valley; ten years later, they have been imitated, but never duplicated. Visitors to the Napa Valley would be well served including a visit to Swanson Vineyards on their “must visit” list.

Lunch was catered by Chef Shannon Kelley of Knickerbocker’s Oak Avenue Catering; Faux Fried Chicken, Potato Arugula Salad, Roasted Corn Salad (my favorite, yum!), Honey Mustard Coleslaw, and Salad of Baby Romaine Lettuce with Garlic Croutons and Point Reyes Blue Cheese Dressing. With lunch, we tasted the 2008 Rosato (Rose of Syrah), Oakville, $21, which was a fresh, enjoyable dry rose, crushed strawberry and raspberry over ice, easy to drink, delicious, and the 2008 Chardonnay, Oakville, $42, a rich, round, full wine with great apple and vanilla notes, sweet with nice acid, an elegant lovely Chardonnay.

The gardens at Swanson Vineyards Winery and Salon

Dessert was Chef Kelley’s Apple Galette paired with Phelps’ 2005 Tardif, Late Harvest Chardonnay, Oakville, $80/375ml, both were delicious showing lots and lots of apple. The dessert wine is made from grapes that experienced Botrytis Cinerea, the “noble rot” that perforates the grape’s skin, allowing liquid to leak out, concentrating the resultant grape’s sweetness. Honey, and fruit, richly sweet and complex, full and delicious, layered…oh and because it can’t be said too often, there’s a lot of apple fruit notes in this wine. Not cloying, just perfect, and a treat to taste with the beautifully executed Apple Galette.

Swanson Vineyards is experiencing a renaissance, changing, evolving, growing. More wines are being sealed with screwcaps, eliminating corked TCA tainted wines in those wines. The Merlot is being picked riper, and is less herbal. Swanson Vineyards has backed away from heavier black toast in barrels. Up to 20% of finished wine is sold off to other wineries, to ensure only the highest quality wine carries Swanson Vineyard’s name. In blind tastes against wines costing twice as much, and more, the “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon more than holds its own. While continuing to make a variety of exciting wines, and maintaining a sense of exploration and experimentation, the winery is focusing on a core of wines. A new tasting room will give guests more experience options. Focus, dedication, quality, evolution, success.

The full line of wines from Swanson Vineyards includes Rosato, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel (it’s coming), Arsene Dessert Petite Sirah, Tardif Late Harvest Chardonnay, Minuit Dessert Black Muscat, and Crepuscule Late Harvest Semillon. Swanson Vineyards is located at 1271 Manley Lane, Rutherford, CA 94573. Swanson Vineyards has a wine club, le club des bon vivants, and ships to 35 states.

DISCLOSURE: Swanson Vineyards provided wines to taste, and lunch, for both me and a friend. In addition to their hospitality, I was gifted a lovely bag containing a bottle of 2005 Merlot, and a baseball cap. My invitation from Chris Phelps was facilitated by publicity pro Julie Ann Kodmur. Thanks to Julie Ann and everyone at Swanson Vineyards.