Joseph Swan Vineyards & Winery
Wine     Newsletters     Tasting Room     Vineyards     Events     About Us     Joe's Drinking Buddies

February 2013 Newsletter

Back to Newsletters
Rhone Style Chardonnay and Pinot Gris

February 2013 Newsletter

Trenton Estate Vineyard, a retrospective

When I first set out to write this last August (interrupted by harvest), I had intended to do a series of tasting notes as I had had the privilege of attending several retrospective tastings of our Estate pinot noirs over a couple of years. However, during Lynn's gentle nudging (none dare call it nagging) to get me working on the newsletter, she commented that most people would be less interested in tasting notes and more interested in the story of how the tastings came to be. I of course disagreed but then saw the wisdom in her view. Tasting notes of a bunch of wines, even spanning nearly 40 years, don't really mean a whole lot out of context. We do have customers who have been with us since the beginning but I would have to guess that the vast majority of our mailing list consists of folks who have discovered us in the last 10 years, or perhaps fewer. So, in the interest of putting these wonderful tastings into context, here goes a bit of a disconnected discourse on the vineyard known as Trenton Estate and most particularly its pinot noir.

As a side note and to avoid confusion among those who run across any older Swan pinot noirs out there, I need to point out that although our basic label design has remained unchanged over the years, there have been some minor changes. From 1972 through 1980 the wines were designated as Sonoma. For some curious reason, the 1980 (technical glitch no doubt) was not designated as Estate Bottled although all of the prior wines were. After 1980 the BATF decided that Sonoma by itself was not acceptable, as they had started implementing the AVA system. Joe changed it to Northern Sonoma to comply. Northern Sonoma was an early AVA (at the time referred to as the Gallo AVA as wineries could not estate bottle their wines unless the vineyard and winery were within the same AVA. Gallo was not bottling at their Dry Creek Vineyard at the time but had plans to do so. They had a vineyard south of us and petitioned to establish an AVA that included all of northern Sonoma County). The 1981-1984 were thus labeled. In 1985 it was changed to the new Sonoma Coast AVA which was used until 1990 when in was changed to Russian River Valley. The original wines, with the aforementioned exception of 1980, were all labeled as Estate Bottled. In 1997 we bottled two different pinot noirs from the estate vineyard for the first time (with the exception of a couple of charity auction wines). The first carried the Estate Bottled designation. With the second, two barrels called Pentagon Reserve, from a small corner of our south block and the last fruit to be harvested, was given a vineyard name for the first time, Trenton Estate Vineyard. At the same time the Estate Bottled designation was dropped, as it seemed superfluous. The producer statement does say, "grown, produced and bottled by." The change came about as a result of European visitors' questions. They would often ask why our most expensive wine was one that did not have a vineyard name. At first I was puzzled by the question, as I am sure they were by my answer-"because it is Estate Bottled!" In Europe, particularly in France, small producers usually only estate bottle. They grow the vines, tend them, harvest them and make wine from them. If the vineyards are special, they will have a designation and are sometimes officially ranked. Estate bottling in and of itself means nothing. Thus the decision was made to give our vineyard a name. Since the property was once the center of the community of Trenton (the post office was in our home), and since it was our Estate, Trenton Estate became the name. Although the nomenclature has changed over the years, the wine has always come from the same piece of ground.

The first vines that Joe planted here in 1969 were pinot noir. A bold move as pinot noir was not only not proven in California; it was generally a train wreck. The wrong selections planted in the wrong places, farmed poorly and made like cabernet meant most wines were not only not good pinot noir they often weren't even particularly good red wine. There were just enough exceptions to keep hope alive. Although Joe probably had not intended to plant pinot here when he bought the property, his good friend and mentor Andre Tchelistcheff (then winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford) took one look at this site and told him that it was a cool spot and he needed to plant Burgundy varieties.

Joe however was a perfectionist. If he was going to plant pinot noir, he was going to make sure that it was going to be the finest possible. He had spent a lot of time in Burgundy, the ancestral home to pinot noir and still its hallowed ground. He took careful note of what separated the best vineyards from the rest. Site was of utmost importance. Soil structure and exposure were critical. And, in Burgundy, where you were on the slope determined whether you could get optimum ripeness in a given year. He thought that this site met the criteria needed to grow good if not great pinot noir. The soil was poor and well drained. The majority was on the slope. The other thing of importance that he noted was that the most highly acclaimed sites had superior plant material. The vines were typically of the pinot fin type (physical characteristics of the vines were drooping rather than erect foliage, small clusters without wings or shoulders, etc). Beyond this, yields were often painfully low. Part of the reason for the latter of course is that it is really difficult to get grapes fully mature in the short growing season there so large crops are generally not an option, but Joe reasoned that it was still part of the matrix for the very high quality of the finest wines.

Once he was convinced that this site was special, he began to look for the proper plant material. He was convinced that most, if not all of what was generally available in California was of very poor quality. This led him and Andre to the University of California experimental vineyard in Oakville, CA. There, the director had planted a row of pinot noir vines for evaluation. He had selected them from three vines in the original Martin Ray vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains (by way of Paul Masson). After following them for three years he made a selection and brought some wood up for further evaluation in Oakville. Joe and Andre both agreed that these pinot fin type of vines were worthy of propagation. Although Joe did plant some nursery selections as well, he later abandoned them. He even went further and marked with flagging tape any vines that deviated from the growth characteristics that he deemed proper, and grafted them over with wood from vines that he favored. What he ended up with is what Francis Mahoney, founder of Carneros Creek Winery, would later name the *"Swan clone."

Joe's early farming practices attempted to, in his way, emulate those of Burgundy. However, unlike Burgundy he planted his vines very far apart. The first block was planted 6'x12'. The subsequent blocks were tightened up a bit to 6'x10'. The reason was simple. The tractors available at the time were fairly large as they did double duty as orchard tractors. He came to regret this and always wished that he had planted more closely as he often fought the vines vigor. Even though it was an impoverished site, there really was no competition between vines for growing space. His initial plan was to put in wires for trellising but abandoned that in favor of his own version of head training. He reasoned that one of the reasons California pinot noir was of inferior quality was due to the way it was trained. The vast majority was farmed using what has become known as "California sprawl." Instead, he trained the vines up a tall stake and then topped them. At three "stages" he let the canes grow and then pruned them to 2 bud spurs each year. His goal was to have low, mid and high canes each year that were evenly spaced and did not shade the ones below them. He also wanted to severely limit the potential crop size so the number of buds per vine was kept to a minimum. While on paper it looked like a creative solution to a perceived problem, the issue was its difficulty. Each vine was pruned with a three dimensional view of the coming growing season and where the buds would be positioned for the next years pruning. It was an artist's way of creating vine balance. Each vine was like a sculptor's raw material. He would access each vine to determine how it wanted to be pruned. Needless to say almost no one was ever able to grasp what he was doing. The final winter of Joe's life I did all of the pruning. He told me that I was the only one that had ever understood it and the only one he would trust to do the pruning. All I had to do was to abandon what I thought I had learned about viticulture and attempt to see the vines through Joe's eyes. After Joe's death I knew that we would have to develop a new system. Not only was his system difficult, achieving vine balance was difficult. After consulting with several growers I respected, we decided to convert the vines to a bi-lateral vertical curtain system. The results were immediate. The large amount of second crop the vines produced vanished, the number of suckers we needed to remove was greatly diminished and most importantly the fierce tannins that were evident in the fruit were greatly softened.

A few years later we decided to replant a portion of the vineyard that struggled to bring its crop to maturity each year. The soil was so shallow that even watering during the growing season was not enough to keep leaves on many of the vines until harvest. We ripped the block three ways to a depth of three feet, which in much of it was two feet into the underlying sandstone. Lime and other nutrients were added and the block was replanted at a density three times what the first vines were planted to. In addition we planted the vines north-south instead of east-west to better optimize sun exposure. And, instead of planting using only the existing plant material, we planted the then 5 available Dijon clones. It was Joe's dying wish that we convert the entire vineyard to the new Dijon clones. Although I was willing to use some of the new plant material, I was not willing to relegate the Swan selection to the scrap heap. I reasoned that although site usually trumps clone in determining ultimate quality, what Joe had planted was not only very special, it was inseparable from this site. We also installed a drip irrigation system that, although we use it sparingly, allows us to provide the vines with a little water during the dry part of the summer when there is often no moisture available to the vines in our very well drained shallow fine sandy loam soils. The balance of the farming is the same as what we have been doing for some time. Although we are not certified (although some people think that I am certifiable!), we are farming organically. We use a spader to return the cover crop to the soil, serving as a green manure. We hoe the vine rows, formerly by hand, now with an in row tiller and only use sulfur and a bacterium that feeds upon botrytis. Each vine is touched many times during the growing season from pruning to shoot thinning and positioning to leaf and cluster thinning and finally to harvest. We could probably find a less expensive way to farm but at this point I am not willing to take chances. The fruit is simply too precious.

In addition to the changes in the vineyard, there have been many changes in the winemaking over the years as well. I have forgotten the exact details of how Joe made the first few pinot noirs but do know that his equipment was quite primitive by today's standards. His first stemmer/crusher was locally fabricated by Healdsburg Machine. As the name implies, it was a crusher. Its job was to remove the stems (and not too gently) and to macerate the fruit.

The fermenters were open top redwood vats and the press a very small horizontal basket press. Barrels were French but were not as perfected for pinot noir production as the ones now available. Most likely Joe added stems back into the must, as that was believed to be a secret of making Burgundy (the stems add tannin). During the barrel aging process he racked the wines at least twice. The pinot noir spent at least 20 months in barrel before being bottled barrel by barrel as he did not have a tank. Over the years the winemaking evolved with the most significant improvement the purchase of a French stemmer/crusher (Demoisy) in the late 70's. This was a significant improvement as it had moveable crusher rollers that allowed you to pass whole berries through without significant crushing. Still, by today's standards, it was a bit of a beast. During this time, the processing began to evolve. Joe began to add a portion of whole clusters to the must instead of stems. He also began to pick earlier, attempting to emulate Burgundy's vin de garde wines. He began to feel that if the wine was drinkable in the first few years of its life it probably didn't have the structure to make old bones. A case in point is the '83, a wine I had written off as being far too tannic and backward to ever give pleasure. The '83's we have had the last two years proved me very, very wrong but it was an awfully long time to wait!

When I took over in '88 I began to change things in the winery. With Joe's blessing we fermented the '88 as 100% whole cluster, a practice that continued through the 1990 vintage, in an attempt to mitigate the immense tannins that many of the wines earlier in the decade had shown. By 1991 changes in our vineyard practices gave us fruit that while still having structure were far more balanced. The percentage of whole clusters dropped until we had reduced it to our current 20%-25% on average. We also increased the length of the fermentation/maceration to over 21 days. Sometimes well over. We also began to bottle the wines earlier, usually after 14-16 months in barrel. And, both the source of the barrels changed (more than one cooper and a variety of origins of the wood but all barrels specifically coopered for pinot noir), as did the percentage of new wood. The goal is not to have more oak influence but to maintain the brightness of the fruit. One additional change was going from racking the wine during aging to not racking it at all until blending for bottling.

One would expect that all of the changes over the years, changes that I view as evolutionary rather than revolutionary, would result in radically different wines. This is what one would expect, but we found that the belief that site trumps all else when growing grapes was certainly true in this case. From the 1973, the first commercial vintage, to the present, there is a common thread, a readily definable character that is unique to this place. What is almost as intriguing is the site's ability to produce wines that not only last but also truly benefit from aging. The '73, tasted three times over the last few years, is not only alive but also bright and vibrant. And this from a new vineyard planted to a grape of little repute farmed by a guy who was doing things on gut instinct and with no experience making it!

Although it didn't go back as far as the tasting/dinner put on by **The Rare Wine Company or the one that was staged for ***John Gilman of View From the Cellar, the two day 27 vintage retrospective that our tasting group put on was the most comprehensive. There was not a wine that was over the hill or even particularly old. All had the unmistakable Trenton spice. And they spanned three decades, a time in which both the winemaking and viticulture had changed, to say nothing of the vagaries of vintage. To paraphrase one of the tasters, Spencer Garret, a thoughtful and knowledgeable wine and food person who worked for Kermit Lynch for some years before changing careers, the measure of a Grand Cru Vineyard in Burgundy is not only its extremely high quality but its ability to produce wines in every vintage that speak unmistakably of a sense of place. While we make no claim to be a California first growth, this site and the wines it produces is truly unique and very, very special.

One caveat: the old saying goes that "there are no great wines, only great bottles" is very true. We have had some bottles of some vintages that have been gone. With the exception of the 1979 however, every bottle from our cellar that has appeared to be in good condition has been good, some truly great. Conversely while we have never had a good bottle of '79 from our cellar, we have been fortunate to have been treated to bottles from old customers' cellars that were among the best of anything Joe ever made. That was the last year that he barrel bottled before he obtained a bottling tank. Apparently, the barrel his own wine came from was an ooops!

*Technically a selection and not a clone. See the February 2009 newsletter on our web site for a discussion of the differences between clones and selections.

** While you are there you might want to subscribe. It is free!

***We have temporarily lost the article but hope to retrieve it and have it posted upon our website. However, if you wish to consider subscribing here is the address: View From the Cellar You can ask for a back issue or two when you subscribe but be forewarned: each newsletter can run to well over a hundred pages!

Barrel Tasting Futures: We will once again be offering futures of the 2011 vintage wines. If you cannot make it to barrel tasting but wish to purchase futures, they will be listed on our website. Deadline for purchase is March 15. If you need more information, contact Cody @ 707.573.3747 or email

New Releases

2009 Pinot Noir Saralee's Vineyard - $35

I really didn’t want to like the 2009 vintage. Too much hype, too much vintage of the century stuff, all before the wines were even finished! However, I finally had to admit that much of the hype actually fit this year. While I have come to love the 2008 pinot noirs after initially being worried about their dark fruit and rusticity (which has evolved into structured elegance), the 2009’s have captured my heart with their combination of beauty and structure. They give pleasure now and are sure to reward cellaring.

All of the usual descriptors for Saralee’s are apt for this wine. It is all about pretty red fruit (raspberries, cherries, strawberries, plums) and floral perfume, but there is an added dimension as well, a depth and a bit of a tannic edge that is not usually there. Tasted from an open bottle on the second day it was even richer and brighter with an apparent increase in its length and depth. A new level of achievement for this vineyard. 274 cases bottled.

2009 Pinot Noir Trenton View Vineyard - $35

Again, this vineyard overachieved in 2009. It shows more plum than berry/cherry with a hint of tea, spice and earth. It is quite rich but not at all over-ripe. In the mouth it is full with a hit of obvious tannin, excellent acidity and overall structure with a long finish. The most “serious” Trenton View to date. 154 cases bottled.

2010 Pinot Noir Trenton Estate - $58

Aromas of wood spice, wild cherry and berries predominate. Prettier than the Estate wines usually are with a restrained, almost lean yet full mouth feel. Great acidity, polished tannins, it finishes with a punch! 2010 was unlike any vintage of my current memory. Except for a brief, torrid heat spell in August (which reduced our crop somewhat but seemed to have no other lasting effect), it was one of the coolest growing seasons on record. It makes me think of the 1973 even though I didn’t have the opportunity to taste that wine when it was young. Beautiful now but could it follow the same aging trajectory? There is only one way to find out.............. 310 cases bottled.

2011 Côtes du Rosa - $22

After losing all of the fruit in 2010 we were thrilled to get at least a modest crop in 2011, another very cool year. Harvest as always was in late October. Despite some rains during harvest the fruit was in perfect condition.

Deep garnet color. Loads of white pepper and bright red fruits, it is lively, fresh and exuberant. In the mouth the white pepper seems to explode along with fruit, leading to a long, clean finish. Less like Cru Beaujolais than the 2009, this is more like the Southern Rhone. 131 cases bottled.

2008 Zinfandel Zeigler - $30

When we ran the alcohol on this wine I actually had it repeated-twice. From the number I thought that we must have veered over into jam-in-a-jar land but that is not what we were putting in the bottle. In 2008 the combination of very late severe frosts and inclement weather during bloom led to very small crops. A moderately warm summer allowed the little fruit there was to accumulate sugar faster than flavor and the accompanying drop in acidity. When we did harvest the fruit was in excellent condition but both the sugar and the acidity were very high.

The nose is redolent of spicy olallieberry and fresh black pepper. It is quite rich but not at all jammy. There is a bit of heat (it is 16.5% alcohol after all) before it finishes with zingy acidity and minerality. This one should appeal to zinfandel drinkers of all stripes. 138 cases.

Calendar of Events

February through mid March (except for 3/1-3/3)
We will be pouring all of the new releases.

March 1,2 and 3 - Barrel Tasting!
We will be pouring all three days from 11-4. Due to fatigue from trying to see several thousand of our closest friends over two weekends, We WILL NOT be participating the second weekend. But fear not, we will have all of the barrel wines available for tasting if you are doing the tour the second weekend or just want to avoid the crowds here. The full program and ticket information is at Or you can just go to Wine Road and click on the events section.

Week of March 11
An on again, off again, now on again trip to Ft. Meyer’s to Tampa, Florida trip. Details of tastings and dinners have not been finalized. If you live it the area and are interested email us at and we will let you know as things develop.

June 8 and 9 - The second annual Russian River Valley Passport to Pinot Barrel Tasting.
The inaugural event last year was a great success. Expect more wineries this year. We have not finalized which barrels we will be pouring but have a lot to choose from of the 2012’s. We will most likely have some clonal comparisons and might even be pouring our new “secret vineyard” pinot noir. We will once again be offering futures. Information will be posted shortly on the RRVW web site @ Alternatively you can contact us for more information.

Ongoing! Follow us on Facebook & Twitter. Find out what is happening and let us know what you think.

Back to Newsletters

Newsletters     Wine club     Trade     News     Email Us     Contact Information     Site Map     Home
Copyright 2015 Joseph Swan Vineyards, All Rights Reserved