Joseph Swan Vineyards: A Rebel (Winery) With a Cause!
Last summer a couple visited us from Texas that were long time fans and supporters of Joseph Swan Vineyards and were also in the wine business. She works in high end wine marketing and support for wineries and had done some liason work with restaurants for us. He is a long time master sommelier who is responsible for the wine program at six restaurants. In the course of our conversation he mentioned that he had been asked to do a presentation at TexSomm, a huge gathering of sommeliers, writers, and others in the trade in Dallas, Texas, each August. The subject of the seminar and tasting was Classic California Wineries and he wanted to use our wines in the session. As a winery with more than 50 vintages under its belt it seemed like a good fit. However, his co-presenter told him he couldn’t use us! I asked if it was due to the fact that I had done some work with his wife and he said “Not at all. She just told me that you are not a classic winery”! I was a little puzzled so I asked him what disqualified us. The answer was that his co-presenter told him that we were not classic, but hip and cool! I was more than a little taken aback until he pointed out that we had made gewürztraminer, viognier, grenache blanc, tannat and valdiguie and orange wines among others. All were not mainstream wines for sure, but hip and cool? I guess I missed the memo. To me they are just interesting wines to make. I have always been fascinated with the wide array of varieties of grapes that grow in our region. Not every wine is destined to be profound. Some are just really fun and delicious and there is nothing wrong with that!
Why I mention this is that it led to my thinking about how I would define our winery and our philosophy. It is probably easier to define us by what we are not. While we are old, at least by California winery standards, we are constantly looking to the future. While we were an early pinot noir pioneering winery (Joe Swan made his first pinot noir from the Estate in 1972 and was, we believe, the first in the modern era to both grow and make pinot noir in what is now the Russian River Valley), we were also an early advocate of zinfandel as a fine wine (vs. generic table wine). Over time we expanded the number of wines we make, which is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself, but it added diversity and interest to what we make and in a few cases resulted in vineyards being saved from being replanted to whatever was in fashion at the time.
When the vineyard was first planted, it was planted with wide spacing between the vines, no trellising and farmed conventionally. Over the years we installed trellising, adopted what is know as VSP training (vertical shoot positioning) and converted to organic methods (not certified however). We tried no-till farming but had to abandon it because the gophers created Swiss cheese out of the soil, which greatly increased erosion. As a result we started planting nitrogen fixing, high volume cover crops, which we spade in, adding organic matter to the soil. We converted to hoeing the vine rows rather than using herbicides. When it became clear that this backbreaking labor was not only expensive but also hard on the bodies of those doing it, we purchased an in row-tilling device for our tractor. It takes out more vines than humans do with shovels but is still, in our mind, a better alternative than Round Up. We only spray with sulfur and a naturally occurring bacterium that is parasitic to botrytis. We have not fenced our property, preferring to let the native wild life have free rein.
In the winery, we were early advocates of many labor intensive techniques including fermenting red wines in small open top fermenters with manual punch downs of the cap and/or treading of the must. We have used French oak barrels from the beginning and bottle when the wines say they are ready as opposed to doing things to make them bottle ready when the calendar says it is bottling day. Most of our wines are fermented with the feral yeast that is present in the winery and undergo spontaneous malo-lactic fermentation with the malo-lactic bacteria already present in the winery and our barrels. We use very little SO2 but we do use it to protect the wine. We rarely fine the wines, but occasionally fine the white wine juice with bentonite, which has far less sensory effect on the finished wine. We have a filter but rarely use it. The exceptions being gewürztraminer and rosé, both of which are bottled very early to preserve their freshness but sometimes before all of the yeast has settled out. Even those are only very lightly filtered, as we want to only take out the chunks and not any of the flavors.
What kind of winery are we? Natural, in pursuit of balance, vegan, gluten free, dog friendly, hip, classic, traditional, cutting edge, dogmatic? The answer is all of the above (and more) except for the last one.
Our overriding philosophy is to make wines from grapes and vineyards that have something interesting to say: farming in a way that does as little harm as possible to the grapes and the environment as possible; to leave the land more alive and vigorous than when we started; to be good neighbors and to treat those who work for us or help us on our journey with respect; to be keenly observant when making our wines, using only the techniques and processes that bring out the best in the fruit that we work with; to work to achieve balance in our community, our vineyards, and our wines through common sense rather than dogma that relies on rules and numbers; to make wines that are true reflections of our time and our place, that give pleasure and value to those who drink them; and, above all, to always remain open to new possibilities and new discoveries.
In summation, balance is what is in the glass not what is on the label. Organic farming is best exemplified by how alive the farm is rather than a certificate that says you are doing the right thing and natural winemaking, except when it was a bad idea, is what Joseph Swan Vineyards has always done.
Barrel Tasting! March 6-8 and 13-15.
We are back in the barrel tasting group. After taking last year off due to very short crop of both zinfandel and syrah in 2017, we are back! As has become our practice, we will only be officially participating the first of the two weekends but will be here all three days (Friday-Sunday) both weekends. The second weekend we will still have our barrels out for tasting but will not be part of the official program. Our usual tasting fee will apply ($20 applied to a bottle purchase, waived for wine club members and a guest). We will have a limited number of our new releases and/or other wines to taste from bottle as well. This year we will be pulling three 2018 zinfandels as well as two very exciting 2018 syrahs from barrel.
If you have futures to pick up you need not purchase a pass to the barrel tasting to visit. Your pickup will be your passport. However, if you do plan to pick up past futures or other purchases, please let us know in advance, so we can be sure and have your wine here when you come by.
Newly Released Wines
Not listed as we are awaiting labels but we will be releasing our 2019 Syrah Rosé very soon!
2017 Grenache Blanc Catie’s Corner
Grenache blanc originated in northern Spain but migrated north to the southern Rhone River Valley in France, where it became an important part of the wines of Chateauneuf du Pape as well as other villages there. In California, the bulk of the plantings are on the central coast, but, in my opinion, some of its finest wines come from right here in the Russian River Valley, where the wines are a little brighter with more delicate aromas and nicely balancing acidity,
We make two different wines from Catie’s Corner GB grapes each year; a traditional white wine in which the grapes are whole cluster pressed before fermentation in small stainless steel drums, and a second wine in which we treat it just like our pinot noir, with fermentation on the skins for up to three weeks before aging in older, neutral barrels. The latter is labeled Cuvée Orange.
Tasting notes (traditional):
Pretty aromas of hibiscus and delicate tropical fruit lead to rich flavors of bosc pear and white peach. It is rich but racy at the same time. A wonderfully satisfying white wine that is a delightful alternative to chardonnay. Not that we have anything against chardonnay, but it is certainly nice to have an alternative! 77 cases bottled
Tasting notes (Cuvée Orange):
Although the term orange wine refers to its being somewhere between and white and red wine, the wine actually has an orange tint to it! Aromatically it is also reminiscent of oranges. Not normal, typical oranges but some exotic, wild orange. There are aromas of flowers and herbs as well. Although I don’t think of the texture as being that much like a red wine, it is definitely fuller bodied, more viscous and more structured than a white wine. The flavors follow through from the aromas, with a richness that almost implies a hint of sweetness. An intriguing and utterly delicious wine! 79 cases bottled.
A tale of two chardonnays
2016 Chardonnay Cuvée de Trois
When relying on feral (native) yeasts for fermentation of chardonnay, you occasionally have barrels that are slow to complete. Such was the case in 2016. As long as there are viable yeast present and actually fermentation taking place (albeit slowly) we prefer to let nature take its course. Some barrels in 2016 really tested our resolve, taking nearly two years to complete their fermentation. In the end, we decided to create a small lot blend, using some of the Ritchie, Hawk Hill and our Trenton Estate wines The long aging on the lees had resulted in yeast autolysis, the same process that gives some champagnes their creamy bread dough notes, resulting in wines that were more about process than place .
Wonderfully rich and complex. The rich fruit of each of the three vineyards is there but the forward fruit has been modified and complimented with a wonderful, mouth filling impression of flaky pastry dough, sort of like a freshly baked apple and pear tart. The balancing acidity keeps everything in balance. This wine reminds me of a wine made by Matanzas Creek Winery back in the 80’s. They called it Journey, in reference to the long time it took from grape to bottle and the many changes it made along the way, from fresh and fruity to a dark place before it came out the other side as a totally different wine. Sadly, I was only able to taste it once as it sold out instantly, but I always felt that it would continue to evolve much like a grand marque champagne. I have no idea if I was correct but I am going to following this one with keen interest. 164 cases bottled.
2017 Chardonnay Trenton Estate
Our Estate vineyard, with vines planted in 1969 and a few years later, has always produced very singular wines. Some, such as the 1975 and 1977, are not only alive but still beautiful wines. In many years, however, the wines were awkward and clumsy in their youth. When Joe Swan did his annual wine evaluation dinners, he would often proclaim, upon tasting the most current wine, that it was time to rip out the chardonnay. However, when he tasted the prior years wine he would decide that on second thought, the wine was too good to do that! Things haven’t changed much in the ensuing years. A year ago I tasted the wine and thought that it didn’t have a future. It was closed and awkeard. This month though, tasting an open bottle over several days, I was reminded how special these vines truly are, producing in good years just over 1 barrel of incredibly complex and unique wine. Perhaps it is the vines age, the small berried, small clustered selection of chardonnay, the incredibly long time between fruit set and harvest or maybe just the spot of ground on which they are planted, but whatever the reason I have never encountered fruit quite like this.
At first sniff the aroma might be mistaken for oxidation. Grilled almonds, crème brûlėe, and maybe reisling like petrol notes come to mind, but the color, straw with a hint of green, belies that notion. Along with these aromas there is an abundance of rich fruit, more stone fruit than the typical tropical or apple aromas you might expect. In the mouth it is very rich and powerful but with a mouthwatering edge of acidity. I think that this wine is magical but if you are looking for main-stream chardonnay sameness, this might not by your wine. 34 cases bottled.
Although not on the label, the fruit is from Dan Teldeschi’s Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley. Dan is the nephew of the grower that Joe Swan made his legendary wine from in 1970. It was labeled Gamay, as it was erroneously known at the time (also referred to as Napa Gamay), This was probably due to the grapes low maturing nature at low sugar levels. The light and fruity wines that it made resembled the wines of Beaujolais, France which is made from the non-related gamay grape.
Aromas of bright red cherries, with a hint of blackberry and pomegranate predominate. It is fresh and quaffable but with a hint of seriousness as well. It is a delightfully light bodied wine but still full of flavor. Sadly, it has become kind of hip and cool in the market. I like it because it is simply delicious no matter what others think! 92 cases bottled.
2016 Pinot Noir DNA
DNA vineyard one of the four contiguous vineyards here in Trenton that we source pinot noir from (Trenton Estate, Trenton View, and Sōlās being the others). All exhibit the characteristics of the Laguna Ridge Neighborhood in their lush middle richness, great acidity, dark red fruit and elements of oriental spice, but each has their own unique personality.
Dark red cherries and cardamom, rose petal and fresh forest floor. It is a bit plush, with the acidity being less predominate than its neighbors. A soft yet long finish is balanced by a bit of tannin. It is drinking very well now but should continue to drink well for the next 3-5 years. 72 cases bottled.
2016 Pinot Noir Saralee’s Vineyard
The wine is typically floral and red fruited but this year there is darker and denser, verging on dark cherries and berries. It is also richer and denser in the mouth with more tannin than we usually see, a characteristic that all of our 2016’s seem to have in common. Of all of the Saralee’s pinot noirs to date, this is probably the most unctuous to date. (I have been wanting to use that word for awhile now!). 249 cases bottled.
2012 Syrah Great Oak
Planted in the mid-1990’s, this low yielding vineyard has always produced wines on the wild side. However, with vine age, the wines have begun to tame down a bit. Although theyhave lost none of their power, they have just taken on a bit of grace.
Dark. Very dark. Dense but vibrant. Plums, saddle leather, bacon, lavender. Long. These are my first impressions. Sometimes first impressions are the best! 263 cases bottled.
I was recently approached by a very well meaning person who asked me if I was ok. I was not sure how to ask? My mental and physical health is fine, family and friends are ok. Our horses are even fine. So, I asked what they were inquiring about? It was about being a grape grower and winemaker. They had been hearing, and reading, that the wine industry was in big trouble. How the newest legal age generation was passing on wine, how the neo-prohibitionists were making inroads, how the new health conscious movement was making great strides (not, our gym is always a lot fuller the first two weeks of the year!), how there were too many vineyards and grapes were left unpicked (true, last year there were grapes that went unsold. It was, after all, the second large crop in a row and there is a limit to the number of tanks and barrels available and after all, someone has to drink all of that wine when we have a banner year), / After several very good years for most everyone in the wine industry, last year saw the continuation of a downward. I just attended a joint annual meeting of our country grape grower and winemaking organizations and was most interested in what the two keynote speakers had to say. The press lately has been focused, somewhat accurately, at all of the trials and tribulations of the industry in general. I was very pleased that one of the speakers started off his presentation with a depiction of a chicken. You probably know the one. The one who is crying out “the sky is falling”. He then pointed out that the sky was not falling, only that we are once again in a periodic down cycle. As Sir Isaac Newton postulated, what goes up must come down! Although I was not around when the granddaddy of the down cycles hit, the one called The National Prohibition Act, I have been through a few of them. Fortunately, none of them were of that magnitude. I have seen the real life panic of some who bought in while things were riding high, never suspecting that no matter where you were on the cycle it would not always be that way. I know more than a few grape growers who were seduced by wineries so desperate to get fruit in an up economy when it looked as if all a winery had to do was slap a label on a bottle and it would fly off the shelf, that they bid up the price of grapes so high that it created a mini gold rush. Combine that with short crop year or two and things can get a little crazy. If you were a new grower in Napa, The Russian River Valley or, pick a place, you thought it was normal to get a new BMW if the old one was dirty! He, and the other speakers, laid out many of the reasons. Among them is the fact that older wine drinkers are not being readily replaced by younger ones. The new just 21 generation (Z?), seems to be more interested in craft beer and cocktails. More people are interested in getting healthy (a very good thing), which entails more exercise, cutting calories and eating lighter.