2021 Spring Newsletter and Releases
I know that we were all hoping that things would have returned to some semblance of normalcy by now but sadly that is not the case. After being totally shut down as far as visiting and tasting goes, we were unexpectedly and with no warning, allowed to reopen for outdoor tasting and sales. I say unexpectedly the county had just informed is that the shutdown imposed in December was being extended for at least another month. We are not complaining but we are unsure how long the relaxed rules will be in place. Due to the inclement weather, we will be tasting under cover on our crush pad for the foreseeable future. We hope that you will find time to visit. We will still be tasting by appointment only. Appointments can be made through our website, swanwinery.com. If you find yourself in the area without an appointment, we still may be able to fit you in. You can call us at 707.573.3747. Please be aware that we will have minimal staff and might not be able to hear the phone ring if we are pouring for visitors but leave a message with your phone number. If we are very busy, we might not be able to return your call quickly and for that we apologize.
If you do visit our winter weather may be mild by the standards many in the country see but it can be chilly so, please dress accordingly. Outdoor heaters have become nearly impossible to obtain as restauranteurs have emptied the supply chain. It is always advisable to check the weather the day of your visit. A good site is: https://www.wunderground.com/hourly/us/ca/forestville/95436
New Releases and Barrel Tasting Time!
With the new reality we are living in our way of doing business has changed greatly. For many years now we have held most of our wines back for extended aging before release. The reasons are many, but they are mostly based on my years of buying and drinking wine. I got seriously interested in wine right alter I got out of the Navy. I had some interest but became immersed because of two close friends. None of us had much money. I was working but also going to school full time but still found a way to buy wine when I could. I wanted to learn as much as possible so I read whatever I could and then tried to find bottles of what I had read about to taste. There was only a fraction of the labels available now, so it was a little easier to focus on a type or a region. If you wanted to learn the classification of Bordeaux and then taste the wines, even the first growths were within reach. Grower Burgundys were few but there were plenty of negotiant houses whose wines really did taste like the villages or vineyards they came from. There were plenty of California wines but even with the large number of varietals and generic wines made, there were almost no vineyard designated wines, so it was much easier to get an understanding how was different from say Santa Cruz Mountains cab. There were rieslings and chenin blancs, chardonnays and gewürztraminers, a very few sauvignon blancs but also generic white wines much better than the grocery store jug wines, often made from old vine French columbard and other now mostly shunned grapes, often from old vineyards. Red wines in the Napa Valley were not just made from cabernet sauvignon, but from many other grapes including valdigiué (then called Napa Gamay or just gamay. Zinfandel was, most due to the pioneering efforts of Ridge Vineyards, available from almost every region of the state. Merlot and syrah were hardly on the radar but pinot noir was, even if it was planted in all of the wrong places. But the greatest think of all was that finding wines with bottle age, often extended. bottle age, was easy. There was a drug store in Napa that had on the shelf at least 6 vintages of Beaulieu Vineyards George de Latour Reserve on the shelf at all times. If they sold out of one more was available from the winery at or close to the release price. And they weren’t the only one. Many of the other longer tenured wineries also had older vintages available. If you wanted to try European wines with age, Esquin Imports and Connoisseur Wines (originally founded in Berkeley by George Linton). in San Francisco. There were others as well that regularly had stocks of the old, the rare and the sometimes very expensive but there were plenty of opportunities to taste history at an affordable price and understand the benefits of aging wine.
I mention this as it played a big part in how I viewed wine. I think it finally became encapsulated when Joe Swan said that for a wine to be great it had to be vin de garde, French for to keep, referring to wine meant for aging. While I don’t think that is literally true, I think that aging wine certainly has its place. However, except for a handful of wine drinkers, mostly with collectors with enough disposable income to be able to buy special wines upon release and store them properly, either in their won cellars or in commercial wine storage units, most wine today is drunk shortly after purchase. Ours has become a much more mobile society. People change jobs and move more. Younger people have less need of “stuff” as it becomes a hinderance to changing jobs and domiciles, and, until the pandemic shut us down, travelling. Many others, at the ends of their careers and having their children leaving home to embark on their own life journeys, downsize or even sell their homes in order to travel, from one KOA campground to another or one cruise to another. Buying wine with the sole purpose of aging it has become a bit of an anomaly.
Although we have no intention of changing our winemaking philosophy which is to produce the best wines we possibly can from the best sites, allowing the characteristics of the site and the vintage to take center stage over winemaking, we do realize that the world has changed in how wine is perceived. We hold most of our wines back for extra time in bottle before release, doing some cellaring so those who do not have the luxury of laying wines down to experience what a little bottle age can do. This worked especially well for our restaurant clients around the world as they were often looking for “library” wines that they could put on the list, often at much higher prices as they had been cellared. We offered them the same option but at a much lower price. However, the restaurant business world-wide has been devastated and may never return to normal.
One of the downsides of later releases is that most critics are not interested in tasting older vintages. They want to focus on what is new and we are generally way behind the cycle and don’t want to submit wines for review that either are not ready for prime time or won’t be available for a year or more. Nothing more frustrating than reading about something you would like to try only finding out you cannot get it. (I know how I felt when I found out that after binge watching the first three seasons of the BBC drama series Peaky Blinders that I would have to wait a year or more for the next!).
We have been tasting through many of our library wines as well as unreleased wines over the last year (not being able to go out much means you have to find other things to do and this seemed like a good option). What we have been finding is that while almost all of the library wines that we have tasted have ranged from very good to really exciting, there have been some that have not lived up to our expectations. As a wise person once said, there are no great wines only great bottles. We have also found that may of the wines we have held back for later release drink well from the day of botting. Although some are clearly to tight and really need time, others are delicious from day one even if they don’t yet have the complexity and nuance that develops over time. As a result of this year of research we have decided to gradually move up the release dates of most of our wines. While it will take time to catch up to the rest of the wine world, we hope to be able to do what we have done with our futures program for some time. We release the futures wines within a year of bottling to those who purchased them and, since most who bought futures tasted the wines from barrel shortly before bottling to decide when they want to drink them. The balance of the wine we have been holding back for release at a later date. The good news for everyone is that we do not engage in the practice of having allocations that if not taken means that the wine will not be available later (way too complicated for us!). We have an extensive library but will now also have more than one vintage of some wines so those who want to refill their stash or simply try a bottle with a little more age alongside a current release will be able to do so. Of course, not every wine will be available in older vintages, but we do have at least a small stash of many of our wines. If there is a particular wine that you do not see listed on our website, send us an email to Cody@swanwinery.com and we will see if we have it available. With over 50 years of winemaking, we have accumulated a lot of wine over the years. Lynn has been bugging me to drink the cellar as we have way more wine, both ours and purchased wines, than we will probably ever be able to drink. My solution is to stop trying to stock our personal cellar with wines that need 20 years (someone showed me an actuarial table) and yes, to continue sampling the library to see how the wines are doing, and, where we have more than a few bottles, to begin letting some of them leave home.
2020 Vintage Review
The great fires of 2020 wreaked havoc on our entire community but was especially cruel to winemakers as many of the problems associated with the smoke are just now becoming fully revealed. Countless tons of grapes were either left unpicked or were rejected at the winery as being too affected by smoke to make sound wine. Fortunately, most growers had some level of crop insurance and were at least able to offset some of their growing costs. There were wineries that didn’t not crush at all and others, us included, that took in some fruit but chose to leave other fruit behind. The means of determining the level of smoke taint compounds in grapes and wine is very sophisticated and expensive but at least it was a tool that gave you some idea of the risk factor going in, with the risk ranging from unlikely to almost surely a disaster. However, the sheer volume of samples sent in for testing overwhelmed the local labs and turnaround times went from a few days to weeks. Some wineries resorted to sending samples to labs in Australia and British Columbia. The lack of available information made any chance of making decisions based on hard numbers nearly impossible.
The biggest risk was to red grapes. Pinot noir was especially hard hit. Syrah, which has a natural background level of the compounds responsible for smoke taint higher than other grapes was nearly impossible to evaluate unless you had several years of tests which would tell you if it was elevated or not. White grapes seemed to be less affected. White wine making, such as we practice, using whole cluster pressing which separates the juice rapidly from the skins, further reduced the risk factor. The only white grapes we did not harvest was gewürztraminer as it showed moderate to high levels of the offending compounds. We also did not make an orange wine from the grenache blanc as skin contact was verboten. We did pick much of our Estate syah from which we made rosé. We will soon be sending samples of all of our wines out for a second round of testing, this time to a lab that can measure not only the free form but also the bound forms of the various offensive volatile compounds. Since the bound forms can become free over time, which means that they can be perceived, it gives us another risk factor to look at. Many wineries are simply relying on sensory evaluation, as in many cases, that is more than enough to lead to the destruction of the wine. So far most of our wines seem to be ok but we are going to do our best to make sure that we do not bottle wines that we will later have to dump. All this being said, there will undoubtedly many good wines from the vintage. Just a lot fewer than we had all hoped for. If you are interested in knowing more about the subject, there are plenty of online resources. One that gives a good overview is from Australia where they have far more experience with fires than we do. www.awri.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Sensory-impact-of-smoke-exposure.pdf.
New Releases and Barrel Tasting
First, as you are probably aware, there will be no Wine Road barrel tasting this March due to Covid. The plan is for it to be scheduled later this year, probably around Memorial Day. For us this is a near impossibility as the last of our 2019 wines, exception of the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, will have been bottled. The Wine Road is planning, instead, a library wine weekend where everyone will have to secure a reservation at the wineries that they wish to visit. We are still deciding if that will work for us but have decided that we want to forge ahead with our own version of barrel tasting. It won’t be the same as in years past as we will have to do it according to the COVID restrictions which means tasting will be by appointment only and you will be served the wines while seated. We may pull the wine directly from barrel for you or may pour from carafe depending upon logistics but otherwise it will be the same as any other barrel tasting weekend. 2019 was a very small vintage for both the syrahs and the zinfandels. We will have only two zinfandels, Zeigler and VHSR-Redux. Due to a communication error, we did not make a Banfield in 2019. Much like Joe Swan forgot to tell the Teldeschi’s that he wanted to buy their zinfandel again in 1970, I just assumed that we would be getting fruit until I went to check the grapes and found that the vines were empty.! At least I am in good company with that. Fortunately, the Banfield will be back with the 2020 vintage if it passes the smoke taint protocols. We will be tasting barrels along with bottled wine the last weekend of February and the first two weekends of March.
2015 Chardonnay Kent the Younger
When Ritchie Vineyard was first planted it was very much old school with 12’ between rows. For years Kent looked at what he viewed as wasted space that could have and should have been planted to grapes. Not wanting to remove and replant perfectly good grapes, he came up with an unusual solution: plant another row between the existing rows. The problem was that 6’ row width would entail buying all new equipment as the spacing would be too tight for his existing tractors. His ingenious solution was to split the difference and plant a row three feet out from the existing rows, leaving 9’ for tractors. Being close to the other row meant that when spraying the distance was small enough that the spray would be able to reach the other vines from either side. When these vines were still young, they had a bit of second-class status and he priced the fruit at a lower price for the first couple of years. The first year we made wine from Ritchie Kent offered me some rows of the old vine fruit along with some of the newly planted younger vines. We kept them wines separate which pretty easy as they ripened at different times. The younger vine rows we worked with were all planted to an old Wente selection, one that produces small clusters of uneven sized berries. From that first vintage it was apparent that while the younger vines carried enough of the hallmark Ritchie character, they were different enough to warrant separate bottling. Partly due to vine age but also possibly due to their location in the vineyard, they ripened earlier with lower sugar levels and a brighter, less lush mouthfeel more focused on minerality than opulence. Jump forward to this vintage and as a winemaker much wiser than I once said, site trumps everything!
As true as that is in 2015 the vintage character gave her a run for her money. The telltale character of the vines is still there but it is much more opulent than usual with some ripe peach and a toasty note joining the usual citrus rind and wet stone character. Although not as big and
rich as the Ritchie Old Vines it is still a mouthful. The winemaking did not change. Whole cluster fermentation to limit extraction from the skins followed by fermentation in French oak (for KTY we only used barrels with enough age to virtually limit the barrel character but still impart roundness and richness), a complete malo-lactic formation and aging sur lies for many months. The additional time in bottle has allowed it to showcase a lot of complexity. 124ccasesbottled in September 2016.
A trio of pinot noirs
First up, 2015 Pinot Noir Catie’s Corner
I have written about the story of how these vines came to be, but it is so deeply personal I need to tell it again.
Shortly before Saralee’s passing from ovarian cancer, she asked me to stop but for a visit. She was home from the hospital but in spite of her dire circumstances was as energetic and engaged as ever. She was on and off the phone, conferring with people that she had involved in her many projects, giving them guidance on how to proceed after she was gone. In the middle of the visit, she said she owed me an apology. I could not fathom what she might have to apologize for as she had done so much for me over the years. Then she spilt the beans. They had uprooted some of my pinot noir vines at Catie’s Corner as the little knoll it was planted on was where they had planned to build their new house. The only problem with the story is that I had made wine from all of their other vineyards but never pinot noir from there. When I mentioned that she said “Oh, didn’t I tell you? Those Swan selection cuttings I asked you for were for you. I knew that you would want me to grow some pinot noir for you here”. It was so Saralee. Most years, at or near harvest, she would call and tell me that she had more grapes for me. Gewürztraminer, marsanne, roussanne, pinot gris, syrah, zinfandel, pinot noir, tannat, grenache blanc, viognier, and sauvignon blanc (musqué) all came from her over the years. (As it turned out they never did build the house but bought a house on the adjoining property instead).
Some were only quick visitors, others refused to leave. And so it came to be that we added this wine to our mix. Sadly, she never got to taste the wines made from the grapes she planted for us.
Of our three new pinot noirs this is most undoubtedly the prettiest, with part of that being the vintage. For those of you that are aware of the Russian River Valley neighborhoods initiative, the vineyard is located in an area between two vastly different neighborhoods, it is on low rolling hills on the western edge of the Santa Rosa Plain the just east of the Russian River on the eastern edge of the Middle Reach. If it were to be considered its own neighborhood, we would probably refer to it as Windsor Hills. What it shares in common with the Santa Rosa Plains neighborhood is the pretty red fruit. From the Middle Reach it has more structure and a bit lusher mouth feel. This vintage, which Cody has declared his favorite one so far, it shows loads of dark red fruit and a bit of the Swan clone signature wood spice. Medium bodied with good but not overly present acidity and a bit of a tannic backbone. It drinks wonderfully today but for those who are so inclined it should gain complexity and nuance over the next several years. 118 cases bottled in August 2016.
2014 Pinot Noir Trenton View
From the vineyard literally next door. It was once described by a wine writer as being a junior version of our Trenton Estate Vineyard. There is probably more than a little bit of truth to that since it Is indeed adjacent to the winery although it is a little lower in elevation and often ripens a bit later. And, until recently was planted entirely to Dijon clones of pinot noir whereas our vineyard, which is much older, is predominately Swan. However, both carry the characteristics of the Laguna Ridge neighborhood. Bright red fruit, high natural acidity which brings brightness to balance the rich fruit. Good but not overbearing structure and a bit of the smell of a forest after the first winter rains. This year’s Trenton View is darker and carries more weight than previous vintages. Part of that may be due to vine age and part of it to vintage variation but there seems to be a progression over the last few years from lightly pigmented but beautifully aromatic wines that were more red fruit, often pomegranate with a bit of rhubarb, to darker cherry with more spice and a bit less acidity. The picking criteria has remained the same, so it is simple an expression of the vineyard. I tasted it with our neighbors, Tom and Karen who grew the grapes blind. They did not identify it but really excited when I told them what it was. I then broke my own rule and told them if I had tasted this wine in Burgundy, I would not have felt that it was out of place or character. It is mighty dangerous when you tell a grower that their wine is “Burgundian” as they soon have visions of dollars instead of sugar plums dancing in their heads. Kudos to them for growing such wonderful fruit. 301 cases and a few magnums bottled in September of 2015.
2016 Pinot Noir Trenton Estate
When we tasted this wine a year ago with the intention of releasing it, we deemed it to tight and closed in. I was a little concerned as I thought it was in the mold of many of the estate pinot noirs form the early ‘80s that took years to come into their own. What a difference a year makes! While still a bit tightly wound it nonetheless shows lots of the typical vineyard lush, spicy dark red fruit, great but not overbearing acidity and plenty of structure, all of which will become more layered and nuanced with time. Coming after the very rich and fruit forward 2015 it shows how much vintage comes into play as many of the 2016 Russian River pinot noirs that I tasted upon release seemed as if the desperately needed time in the bottle. The 2015 was almost an outlier in that it was so lush and forward and reminded me of vintages such as 2000. The 2016 is more in the mold of the 2011, which was a bit lean at first but had a solid core of gorgeous fruit that was just waiting to emerge. For anyone that is interested in seeing what I saw in that wine, we held more of that wine back than any one before it and will be releasing a few cases with this release. 213 cases and 12 magnums bottled January 2016.
2015 Zinfandel VHSR-Redux
This little patch of old vines located off of Vine Hill School Road produces, on average 2 barrels of wine per year. It is located in the Laguna Ridge neighborhood. Although there is a regional similarity between it and Zeigler, the soils and climate are quite dis-similar. Zeigler, which also old vine, zinfandel, is on the Santa Rosa Plain, where the soils are underlain by a shallow hard pan with colder winters and a slightly warmer growing season. The difference in climate and soils seems to be, at the core, why the VHSR has a bit of a brighter edge and a slightly less blackberry character. A comment was made Cody that he thought of chocolate covered blueberries. I had just commented that it reminded me of picking wild blackberries along the road as a kid. One for the box, one for the mouth! Medium bodied, bright and long. A delicious wine that once again will reward those who wish to lay it down for a few years. 38 cases 6 magnums bottled June 2017.
2016 Tannat Matthew’s Station
Tannat is one of those rare grapes that most people have never had to opportunity to try and most have never heard of. However, since we first made it, it has been one of our most requested wines. Originally from Southwest France, it is the national grape of Uruguay, accounting for approximately 1/3 of the planted acreage there. It has been in California since the 1800’s but was little know until Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles. They had originally intended to plant Rhone Valley grapes but their nurseryman in France thought that from what he knew of the climate of their region that it would be a good grape for their region. After the vines were declared free of quarantine and released them, they planted them but found that even though cuttings were available through the University of California-Davis, The TTB, which list what grape names can be used in this country, did not have it listed. They petitioned for its addition and began to produce a varietally designated tannat. Much of what is now grown in California originated from these first cuttings from France.
The soils at Matthew’s Station Vineyard, located on the eastern Santa Rosa Plain, are very heavy clay derived from the volcanic hills to the west which seems to suit this variety just fine. The odd thing about the vineyard though, which may or may not have to do with the soils, is that unlike tannat grown elsewhere seems to retain its acidity until later in the ripening cycle. This, combined with its very tannic nature, means having to leave it to hang on the vine until the sugars are very high and the grapes have begun to shrivel. The choice we have faced is either a wine with so much tannin and it is like sucking on a tea bag and n unripe lemon at the same time, or a wine with elevated alcohol that is still relatively tannic and still quite tar. The risk is that the low pH from the acid and the higher sugars sometimes make fermentation difficult. The 2016 took and extraordinarily long time to finish fermentation. Stylistically y it reminds me of some of the Ridge Vineyards zinfandels of old that were labeled late picked. I once asked Paul Draper what the difference between the late picked and late harvest wines were. He said the late harvest were sweet wines made by design. The late picked which were often but not always a little sweet was because they missed the picking window. We did not miss the picking window on this wine but stylistically it is like one of the drier vesions of those old Ridge LP zinfandels.
The aromas are very reminiscent of a freshly baked black raspberry tart. When tasting it the first thing you notice is not the very hefty 17% alcohol but the bright acidity and freshness. The tannins, while present are in perfect balance and not at all as fierce as they would have been if picked any earlier. I absolutely love this wine! I can’t wait to have it the next time one of our local celebrity chefs want to serve up some fire pit roasted wildebeest. Or maybe a dry aged New York steak. Or, if we start getting morels, some simply sauteed mushrooms.
65 cases bottled January 2019.