Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Tasting at Swanson Vineyard

Rutherford, California
4:00 PM, Sunday, December 22, 2007

Copyright all rights and privileges reserved
By John M. Olney, December 27, 2007
1325 Imola West, #409, Napa, CA 94559

Swanson Winery ( ) is located on a narrow side road to the west of Hwy 29. The site was originally occupied by the Cassayre-Forni Winery. Owners W. Clarke Swanson, Jr. and wife Elizabeth Pipes Swanson reopened the winery site in the year 2000 but have owned vineyards in the Oakville area since the mid-1980s.

In the 1950s, Mr. Swanson’s father and uncle developed the innovative “Swanson TV Dinners” (for some history click here: ) which revolutionized how American families could meet the time required to work, raise the family juggled with meal preparation, and watch a relatively new media called “Television,” which in those early days was mostly only available during the late afternoon and evening hours. Swanson's TV dinners were first advertised in 1954 and were immediately a hit with consumers who were just beginning to afford and appreciate Television (or simply, “TV“). Swanson was eventually acquired by the Campbell Soup Company which ranks fourth behind Nestle (makers of Stouffer's and Lean Cuisine brands) in a $4 billion industry today.

First the Swanson’s acquired 100 acres located along Oakville Cross Road (runs between Hwy 29 to the west and Silverado Trail to the east) and it is sandwiched between Opus One and Groth vineyards and wineries. The second purchase was the 40 acre vineyards formerly known as “Schmidt Ranch,” located against the Mayacaymas Mountain range to the west of Hwy 29 and between the famous Napanook vineyards of Dominus winery, and Far Niente and Harlan vineyards and wineries.

The tasting experience was held at 4 PM in what the Swanson’s refer to as “The House of Swanson,” which was “…Inspired by the great literary, political and culinary salons…” (From their website) in the tradition of 18th century Parisian style living. The salon features a lovely round table designed to seat eight guests but in our case we snuggled in 11 which our “salonnier,” Shawn la Rue organized on an impromptu basis with ease and without missing a beat in his excellent host style while making everyone feel most welcome and special.

The Salon Tasting Table

Shawn, our "Salonnist"

Shawn opened up the tasting session by informing us that: 1) this was the largest group that he has poured to since he started with Swanson, and 2) it was the final tasting session for the year 2007. We all then went around introducing ourselves while Shawn and his assistant (Pictured below) added more glasses and condiments for the six wines we would be tasting.

I was a guest of Cliff (pictured below right) who also brought his girlfriend Tony. That’s me to the right of Tony.

Others attending the session are shown the two pictures below.

Shawn started us off with a 2006 Rosato (Italian for Rose’) for which about 8-9 barrels (about 59 gallons/barrel) are produced per year which represents approximately 200 plus cases.

We them moved to the 2006 Pinot Grigio for which about 7,000 cases were produced. Shawn called this their “core white wine” representing about 12 percent of the total wine production at Swanson (about 25,000 cases plus). It was paired with crackers and a delicious cave-aged gruyere cheese from Switzerland. (If you would like to know more about this cheese, click here: The Swanson Pinot Grigio opened up well as I continued to swirl it and force off the alcohol and bring up the flavor of the fruit. I am particularly fond of Pinot Grigio’s and Sauvignon Blanc’s over Chardonnay’s every since so many wine producers moved into massive malalactic fermentation and heavy oak aging of Chards..

Next we tried the Swanson 2006 Chardonnay which was not listed on the little menu we were provided containing the wine and food pairings that we would be experiencing. This wine is only available at the winery and to its wine club members. It is estate wine - as are all the others - and only about an acre is grown, thus rhe production is very small; in the order of six or less barrels. To my surprise this Chardonnay was particularly refreshing to my palate as NO malalactic fermentation NOR oaking is applied to this wine. This was a very good tasting wine and one I would go back for more. My God, I could actually taste the fruit; how novel these days!

Now we moved on to the reds and their Merlot was first. This varietal represents about 80 percent of the annual Swanson output. We were offered their 2004 vintage with some Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon blended in. On their website, Swanson claims that they are “… Napa Valley’s largest producer of estate-grown merlot…” They produce approximately 15,000 cases of Merlot per year. The Merlot was paired with Mimolette Vieux of Lille, France. (If you would like to know more about this particular cheese click here: ). The wine had a nice rounded finish starting on the tip of my tongue and moving out to both sides. I found spices and coffee beans as I swirled and retasted. It totally opened into quite a fine wine.

We were then poured the 2004 Alexis, a Cabernet Sauvignon, named after their daughter Alexis Swanson Traina who is Creative Director at Swanson. I found this wine pleasant, but to my palette I preferred their Merlot. The Cab. was paired with Alexis Estate bonbons which were rich with a pleasant powdery curry sprinkled on to provide a nice contrast to the sweetness. I will have to try this Cab again before I make my final determination about how much I care for their Cab.

The above wines were produced under the winemaking talents of Chris Phelps who joined Swanson in 2003 (click here for more on Mr. Phelps: )

Our final pouring was the 2004 Minuit Black Muscat (pronounced like “men wee“) which is French for “midnight.” It is a fortified wine and thus falls into the “dessert wines” categories.. The winemaker for the Swanson dessert wines is Marco Capelli who was hired by the Swanson’s in 1987 to make all their wines. (click here for more on Mr. Capelli: ). It was as would be expected sweet and easy to sip.

Shawn thanked us for our attention to his presentation and reminded us that Swanson makes an additional 12 wines all of about one two six barrels each and that we should explore their website ( ) and to sign-up for their free mailing list to keep up with Swanson news.

(John M. Olney is our founder. You can examine his biography by clicking here: Biography To read his other articles, click here: Olney Articles You can e-mail him at