Forty Nine Years Making Gold in the Laguna Ridge Goldridge Soils of The Russian River Valley!
That was to be this past years harvest tee shirt. However it was a bit too wordy so there was no commemorative shirt for last harvest. Sad, since it really was the wineries 49th year. However, I couldn’t let the year go without a little bit of a look back at what things were like in the local wine world in the winery’s first few years.
Part 1, The Early Years
In 1967, after a several year search for just the right property, Joe Swan found a 13-acre parcel near Forestville for sale. It included a house, a large barn, several outbuildings, some pasture, a number of fruit trees, the remnants of an old zinfandel vineyard and a whole lot of history. The sales price was considered astronomical at the time, but today the price per acre would be more than double what Joe paid for the entire property. In reality, Joe was pretty good at assessing value and not overpaying for things (some would call him cheap), but when you have a dream, you have a dream…..
The grapes on the property, as was the convention, went with the seller for the crop year. We do not know for sure but most likely they went down the road to Martini and Prati, one of the largest wineries in the county at the time. Not that there were that many wineries. There were only 28 bonded wineries in Sonoma County and one producer, Frei Brothers in Dry Creek which was in a partnership, with E & J Gallo, processed a huge amount of the fruit grown in the county. I was told, but have never seen records to back it up, that Gallo purchased up to 50% of the grapes grown here, either directly or as bulk wine produced by wineries such as Martini and Prati.
Grape acreage? There wasn’t a lot. In fact, there were fewer than 12,000 bearing acres. More acreage by far was planted to prunes/plums and hay. There were nearly 9,000 acres of apples. Healdsburg had been known as “The Buckle of the Prune Belt” and Petaluma “The Egg Basket of the World”. Sonoma and Bennet Valley were still full of walnuts and dairy farms dotted the south and west parts of the county.
Many of the wineries bonded then have faded into history. Some of those that survived, and in most cases thrived, included Pedroncelli, Simi (bonded as Montepulciano), Korbel, Sebastiani and Hanzell. Others, such as Rodney Strong’s Windsor Vineyards changed names and focus. Wines from even the best cabernet producers over the hill in Napa sold for $2-$4 a bottle. There wasn’t a lot of acreage here devoted to the so-called “noble” varieties. Zinfandel, carignane and petite sirah accounted for about half of the acreage and “other” for about half of what was left. If you wanted to plant a vineyard it was pretty reasonable. In addition to low land values, nurseries could supply you with grafted grape vines for $0.325 each. Ornamental plants were $0.49 each and live chicks were a whopping $0.127 each!
In 1968 Joe made his first wine from the zinfandel planted on the property. He made it in the cellar of the house, which had been used to produce wine in the late 1800’s. He was bonded the following spring, but, according to the stories, because he followed all of the rules for commercial production and kept good records, he was able to sell that first vintage. He also bought some fermented zinfandel from Pedroncelli winery, which he barrel aged and bottled. While not as extraordinary as the legendary 1968 Estate Zinfandel, it was still a mighty fine wine that stood the test of time.
Making wine then was a little different than it is now. There weren’t a plethora of wine equipment suppliers, or sources of good advice. There were no commercial labs to analyze wine for things that even today biochemists find mystifying. Lab analysis generally consisted of brix with a hydrometer, residual sugar with a pill, malo-lactic with paper chromatography, alcohol and if, you were sophisticated, free and total SO2, all performed on site. Barrels were generally those made for whiskey or brandy and fermenters tended to be redwood. If Joe hadn’t had over 20 years of experience as a home winemaker and been introduced by a good friend, Maynard Monahan, (who spent his entire post UC Davis career working for Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford), to his eventual mentor, André Tchelistcheff, the legendary winemaker for the aforementioned Beaulieu Vineyards, things might have turned out very differently. (It was André, who, after taking a look at the Trenton property, told him that, being in a cool area, it should be planted to French Burgundy varieties, i.e. chardonnay and pinot noir.)
Much of what Joe actually did in the early years has been forgotten. Many of the people who were around have now passed or had their memories fogged by too many wonderful bottles shared with Joe! We do have the early journals but piecing together the winemaking thread is a little difficult. He was still an active airline pilot and avid traveler. His daily journals included everything, from cloud cover and rainfall to taxi fares and where he had dinner. Grape growing and winemaking was carefully noted but it was just part of the everyday flow of life.
The 1968 zinfandel was a good example of this. Joe was still actively flying so wasn’t always present during the fermentation. He used to say that he had no idea how the wine was actually made as he left instructions for his son but had no idea if they were carried out. Sad, because whatever was done was done very well!
Prior to the first crop of chardonnay from the estate fruit, he decided he needed to practice making white wine. He decided to use an easily available variety, french colombard. In the early years there was precious little chardonnay planted. Fermentation went smoothly. When it came time to bottle, he made a power of 10 (one decimal point too far) error on the amount of SO2 to add. When André found out, he told Joe that from now on he was to take his wine to Simi winery, for whom he was consulting, to have the new winemaker, Mary Ann Graf, do the analysis for him and tell him how much sulfur to add! (On a side note, I had a chance to taste some old California white wines blind with a couple of other winemakers for an article that writer Jeff Cox was writing about the ageability of California white wines some years ago. Unbeknownst to us, he slipped in the French Columbard. We all thought he was just testing us, as the wine couldn’t have been much more than a year or so old! The preservative power of the SO2 was amazing!).
A couple of years later Joe made the first chardonnay from the Estate fruit. Being frugal, and, having little access to French oak, he bought a used bourbon barrel that he had shaved and used it to ferment the chardonnay. It turned out to be one of the most bizarre chardonnays made in California but still had a following. The following year, 1975, he progressed to fermentation in French oak, producing a wine that was still youthful and stunning the last time I tasted it three years ago.
After the mystery of the first zinfandel, the rest is pretty clear. He found a zinfandel vineyard in Dry Creek that he would work with through the 1976 harvest. He produced two wines from the fruit that year, lots one and two. The difference was the time in barrel. Not having any tanks meant that he had to bottle barrel by barrel, a laborious task since it was all done by hand. Possibly by design, possibly due to space constraints and the need to empty some barrels for the next years harvest, or possibly due to his travel schedule (or any combination of the above), he bottled a portion some time earlier that the last and labeled them lot 1 and lot 2. I have little doubt that he saw a difference early on as only the most senior members of the mailing list got the lot 1, however, whatever differences there were early on faded with time. Barrel bottling and/or bottling over an extended period of time was not new. Bordeaux chateaus often followed the practice and often tailored a particular bottling to match the needs of a certain market, i.e. the UK. I am sure that Joe’s reasons had nothing to do with marketing. In fact, he once told me that he would never make wine for the market. He was confident in the quality (in fact he was his own biggest critic) and if he couldn’t sell the wine then it was not about quality but about the lack of consumers who agreed with him and his stylistic preferences.
In 1970, due to what Joe said was his communication error, Joe did not get any zinfandel for the Teldeschi’s. Since they didn’t have any extra zinfandel they offered him what they called gamay (which we now know was actually a grape called valdigue. To make up for the lack of zinfandel he once again went back to the wonderful Pedroncelli brothers and bought a little bit of bulk wine to finish and bottle. The purchased wine was wonderful but it was the gamay that stole the show. Some old timers still think that it might have been the best wine Joe ever made. Every year for Thanksgiving Joe would bring out a bottle, as it was Lynn’s mother, June’s, favorite wine. I still remember the Thanksgiving in the late ‘80’s when June decided that it had changed and was not as good. It had begun to taste and smell like it was actually made from grapes rather than blackberries! To me a very good thing, to her not so much.
The next couple of years were a little difficult. Joe made sure that he told the Teldeschi’s that he did indeed want zinfandel. Both years were cool with lots of rain. Determining when to pick was difficult. As they had in 1970, they again offered him a little bit of gamay. From what I remember Joe telling me, he looked at the grapes and decided they needed two more weeks. A couple of days later the grapes arrived. It was a common practice for growers to pick when they wanted and deliver the grapes to a winery. Growers were paid by the ton (or pound in Joe’s case) and were either rewarded for sugars that were higher than minimums or penalized if they were lower. Joe had different ideas. The result is that the 1971 was the last gamay (valdigue) that he would make, although he would continue to make zin from their grapes through 1976.
To cover for not making any zinfandel in 1970, Joe put together two bottlings from what he had. Lot Z (a blend of 1969 and 1971) and lot 3Z (which included a little bit of ’68 Estate). The 1971 zin, which I have not tasted for many years, did not go through a malo-lactic fermentation, and was a tart, low alcohol, incredibly elegant wine that after about 20 years became marvelous! In 1972, a portion of the grapes came in before the rains and the balance after the rains. He aged and bottled them separately, another round of lots 1 and 2. Again, over time, the original differences seemed to have largely disappeared.
The first wines were made in the cellar of the house, which was far from ideal. In addition to a low ceiling, it is hard to wash things in a cellar, as the water has to go somewhere. There was a large two-story barn on the property so he briefly moved production there. He poured a pad outside the barn where he crushed the grapes. However, since it had wooden floors and a crawl space underneath, both weight and washing were real issues. The solution was to build a winery. Once again being frugal (and practical), his needs were minimal. A concrete floor, four walls that could be insulated, power and water. Nothing extravagant. Fermenters were a combination of 500-1300 gallon open top redwood tanks and a couple of old stainless steel dairy tanks. The redwood tanks rested on redwood 6”x12” boards on pier blocks. The barrels were only 1 high, also on boards on pier blocks. No forklift, no lab, no anything other than the bare necessities. In addition to his daughters, a couple of sons, a nephew and a smattering of friends, he always seemed to have help when he needed it.
Except for pruning. He had devised a bizarre method of training his vines that required extra-dimensional thinking two years out. It used to frustrate him that no one could understand his system. Joe’s last year I pruned the vineyard and he told me that I was the first person that got it. It was not due to my vast knowledge of viticulture. In fact, I had to forget what I had learned (which was far from vast), as I began to understand that Joe was, first and foremost, an artist. He approached each grape vine like a sculptor would a piece of raw material. He did not see a grape vine that he would mold into what he wanted but rather a grape vine that its own unique potential and it was his job to see what that was. He would kneel before the vine, access it and then begin his cuts, not for one year but for two as he would try to visualize where the canes from the buds would be and how the buds that would be left would be positioned for the next years growth. It worked, but sometimes he didn’t finish pruning until well after the vines had begun to grow.
One of the early helpers who came to learn from Joe was a young medical professional, Joel Peterson, who had grown up with wine and wanted to follow in Joe’s path. He came in 1974 to help, as Joe was about to put up our “tin shed” and needed some extra hands. He and Joe were busy getting the winery finished when André Tchelistcheff stopped by to take a look at the grapes, as harvest was imminent. My late mother-in-law loved to tell me about that visit. André, who was much shorter than Joe, was very poetic. Working for him must have been very interesting as he was a man that commanded attention but did it with a soft voice and compelling words. In any event, on that day after taking a look at the pinot noir, June said that he walked up to Joe, grabbed his airline pilot shirt by the lapels, looked into his eyes and said “Joseph, the grapes are crying out for their maker”. Even if it didn’t happen that way it makes for a great visual! He and Joel immediately dropped what they were doing and raced to the phone to round up some pickers. The resultant pinot noir was the highest alcohol pinot noir ever to come off the vineyard but even the in-pursuit-of-of-balance at any cost high alcohol phobes would admit, it was and still is, an amazing wine. Joe was more than a little pissed about how ripe it was and vowed never to let that happen again. I think that it puzzled him how the wine turned out years later as he had always said that it was a mistake.
There wasn’t much of a wine culture here in those days and it is interesting that Joe was not only able to sell his wine, but that he became one of the first true cult winemakers. Sonoma County wasn’t famous for fine wine. Healdsburg, today the darling center of wine, art, food and the good life, was a quiet backwater, far enough from San Francisco that houses and land were incredibly cheap. Guerneville was a fading summer vacation spot with very few year round residents. The canyons of Rio Nido, which now have a very vibrant year round population, was full of cabins only used as summer retreats. Only Sonoma City had much of a tourist draw and it was largely due to being the site of the last of California’s 21 missions and the site of the Bear Flag Revolt. The county got some national publicity from time to time, such as when Lou Gottlieb deeded his Morning Star Ranch property to God in an attempt to shield himself from the county’s attempt to evict the hippie inhabitants from his commune. A judge ruled that God was not a legal entity and could not hold title. The ensuing storm made headlines, including in Time Magazine but it did nothing to entice visitors to come for the wine.
The secret of Joe’s success, beyond the extraordinary quality of the wines he made, was the network of fellow travelers he was a part of. His homemade wines were known by other employees of Western Airlines. In fact they referred to his wine as Jose’s Rosé. So, when he started, he built in list of potential customers. He also was a football fan, a patron of the arts (he was even paid by the WPA during the depression to paint), an avid Opera buff, and bought a fair amount of fine wine for cellaring, all of which gave him entrée into the sparsely populated fine wine circles. It didn’t hurt that he was a member of a tasting group in San Francisco known as the Vintners Club. They held tastings weekly. Each tasting featured 12 wines for a very, very nominal fee. They could be top Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy or California wines from top old producers or the new kids on the block. At an early tasting of zinfandels they invited him to submit a wine. When the tasting was over, his mailing list had expanded significantly as the wine was marvelous. A couple of the people at the tasting later told me that they had recognized Joe’s wine and, fearing that he was now about to be “discovered”, had rated it poorly. It didn’t matter, his fame now extended beyond family and former co-workers. Almost overnight it became nearly impossible to obtain a bottle, as there was a three-year waiting list to move up. I remember to this day the first newsletter that I received. It was actually a tersely written synopsis of how some of the wines had showed in his annual evaluation dinners along with a brief description of the new wines. I took it from the mailbox and read each and every word! When I got to the part where he told you what you were allocated and it said zero bottles I was devastated! Some years later I related that story to Joe and he said that he did it so people wouldn’t give up hope, not to be mean. He was a stickler for seniority. It did not matter how much money you had, seniority was seniority (although he did make a few exceptions for those he considered special such as other producers he admired).
A Welcome Introduction
I first heard of Joe not long after my discharge from the Navy. I and two friends who had also developed an interest in wine, spent a lot of time searching out promising leads to new wineries, sometimes over the hill in Napa, as there were more wineries there, but also in the wilds of the Santa Cruz mountains as well as closer to home. We had heard about this little winery in Forestville, making some excellent zinfandel. We were going to be in the area, as we wanted to check out the special bottlings with the hand written labels being made at Rodney Strong’s Sonoma Vineyards by one of his young winemakers, a fellow by the name of Richard Arrowood, and figured it was worth a try to find this guy. We found the address but couldn’t find any winery. We checked the open barn, circled the house, said hello to the dog and called out but couldn’t raise anyone. There was a car parked in front of the house with the keys in it. The doors to the house and the cellar were wide open. When we noticed the stack of cases of wine on the front porch that had Joseph Swan Vineyards on the labels we knew we must have found the place but it was totally abandoned! (We found out later that Joe had lost a wrench or needed a part from the hardware store and had simply gone to town. This was the country and you didn’t worry about things like closing doors or taking the keys out of your car!).
A short time later, my two wine drinking friends, Jim and Rick had decided that we needed to try and meet others that shared our interest. We would often search out wineries together, and often got together to taste and drink wine, but really didn’t know anyone else with our interests. Rick worked at a bookstore at the time that had a small community bulletin board, on which he posted a little note saying that the three of us were interested in forming a little wine tasting group. A short time later, a man by the name of Don Baumhefner was in the store, found Rick, and invited the three of us to join him and a local winemaker at his house for a little tasting. He and his wife, Kay, lived on the appropriately named Kay Lane in Forestville, next to the newly shuttered Russian River Vineyards. Don had been hired to keep watch on the property and to pull bulk wine samples for potential sale. Don and his wife’s day jobs were as teachers for an early Montessori School. Kay was also an excellent cook! In any event, when we arrived we were introduced to the mystery local winemaker, Joe Swan! When we told him of our earlier attempt to find him, he commented that he would have been happy to sell us wine as he had plenty to sell. However, things had suddenly changed and he now had a long waiting list that would take well over three years to clear. Nonetheless he added us to the waiting list.
It was in 1976, the third vintage at the new winery, that I got my first opportunity to “help make” some wine. I was attending college and also working full time at Safeway in Sonoma. I had a few hours before going to work in the afternoon and happened to be in the neighborhood so stopped by the winery to see what Joe was doing. He had just received his zinfandel grapes from Teldeschi Vineyard in Dry Creek (this would be the final Teldeschi zinfandel) and there was no one around to help him. He had several tons of grapes all in wooden lugs. He asked if I would mind giving him a hand. He didn’t have to ask twice! I will never forget lifting those lugs and dumping the grapes into this new Demoisy Stemmer Crusher! It was magical!
We finished cleaning up with just enough time for me to get to work. Despite my having time to stop by my house in Santa Rosa to take a shower and change, I drove directly to work, unable to bring myself to wash off all of those great grape juice stains! It was the closest I got to making wine for a while, but the thrill would not fade.
NEXT TIME: The Middle Years, my start and Joe’s pursuit of age ability at all costs.