Friday, April 23, 2010

A Media Tasting Event at Swanson Vineyards, Rutherford, CA

By: John M. Olney
Phone: 707-299-9548
Web site:

Copyright, all rights reserved by
Wine Country Marketing and Promotions,
1370 Trancas St., #409, Napa, CA 94558
Phone: 707-299-9548
Web site: /

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 Media  Tasting Event

Double click on the picture-map below to enlarge it
and roam around the valley.

 Swanson Winery and Vineyards are highlighted in red.

(Copyright map reproduced by permission of Swanson Vineyards, Aril 22, 2010.
Further reproduction with advanced permission of Swanson Vineyards only)

But before featuring the tasting event, let me give you some history of the winery site and its owners
Swanson Vineyards (  ) is located on a narrow side road, named Manley Lane, on the west of Hwy 29., in Rutherford which is just south of St. Helena, California. The site was originally occupied by the Cassayre-Forni Winery (founded in the mid-1970s and closed in the early 1990‘s).

The current 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. Swansons 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 Swansons 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 April 21, 2010 Media Awareness Event

Swanson Vineyards ( ) has been quietly undergoing cosmetic surgery with the addition of what is being called “The Sip Shoppe.” It is immediately adjacent to the original tasting room labeled “The Salon,” and occupies the area formerly used for bottling. Let me get to wine tasting event that we were invited to and then I’ll come back to “The Sip Shoppe” in a short while.

Today, eleven of us representing rather unique sectors of the media trade, were gathered in “The Salon “ to taste Swanson wines with winemaker Chris Phelps (  ), who joined Swanson in 2003. Attending media invitees were:
Autumn Millhouse, blogger and author, (  )
Fred Swan and wife Eva, NorCal Wine, ( )
Jim White, Napaman, ( )
H. Annette Hanami, blogger, frelance writer, Wine Muse, (  )
Daedalus Howell, dhowell media group, ( )
John Olney, Wine Blogger & Historian ( )
Ziggy Eschlimann, radio show host (KRSH Santa Rosa/nationally syndicated, ( )
John Cesano, wine blogger,( ) with friend, Fred Albrecht
Mary Orlin, blogger and videographer, On Line Media, ,(  and

Representing the winery were:
Mr. Clarke Swanson, winery owner, (
Chris Phelps, Swanson Winemaker, (
Julie Ann Kodmur, Publicity/Marketing ( ) who was coordinating this event.

As we entered the winery at the classic “The Salon” room, we were offered the first of many wines we would taste; a wonderful 2008 NV Pinot Grigio. As Winemaker Chris would later share with us, he would prefer that the varietal was called by the French name, Pinot Gris, (PG) than the Italian. Ever since Chardonnay’s were being made with too much malolactic fermentation (MF) making them very milky (also known as “buttery) and they were over oaked, I have preferred either Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio and Swanson’s PG is right up there in the top labels I desire. Lots of fruit making it very refreshing while it lingers in my mouth before the inevitable swallow. Hate to see it go but alas there is yet another sip to be taken! However, it disappoints me when the bottle seems to have evaporated just when I wanted yet more. Go figure!?

Next in order was a Merlot tasting of the 2005, 06 and 07 vintages. I particularly liked the 2006. That is not say that there was anything objectionable with either the 2005 or 2007, it is just that the 06 matched what my palate liked the most. Next favorite was the 07. As it breathed, it kept getting better. Because of that, I went back to retry the 05, but it still wasn’t the merlot for me.

Now we moved into the Cabernet Sauvignon, vintages 2005 through 2007, with anticipation at least from my standpoint. These Cabs are named, “Alexis,” after the Swanson daughter, Alexis Swanson Traina ( , who performs at the winery as the Creative Director.

There are some pictures of “The Salon.”  Double click on the picture-map below to enlarge it

Mr. Clark Swanson, II is the gentleman seated near the center of picture, at the back table.
Seated to his left is H. Annette Hanami.  That's Swanson winemaker Chris Phelps standing
and checking his tasting notes.

We took a break to now go next door to experience “The Sip Shoppe.” For this portion of the show, Shawn LaRue, Salonnier, provided us with an explanation of what Swanson Winery was going to implement. My overall immediate impression was that I was entering a circus tent. Now please, understand that I mean no disrespect to Swanson Winery owners and management, but we just exited the rather classic elegant Salon and within a few small steps we were in a tent-like decorated room with bright white and red narrow strips running vertically from the floor to the peaked ceiling.

Now let's look at some pictures of “The Sip Shoppe.Let me reiterate, I have no objection to the d├ęcor of “The Sip Shoppe” whatsoever. It is just that to me it is such a shape contrast to the image that Swanson Vineyards presents through its ‘The Salon” tasting and education sessions.

If I didn’t know about “The Salon” and my visit took me from the parking lot into “The Sip Shoppe” without a stop at the other tasting room, I wouldn’t know anything different and visa versa. But, the two rooms are only a few feet away from each other. Right outside the door way is  a lovely courtyard.

Swanson does plan to offer a limited food menu that can be paired to the wines being tasted in 'The Sip Shoppe.”

I guess my concern is how will Swanson keep visitors from wandering back and forth between the two co-located tasting rooms and wondering why they were taken to one room but not the other.
Double click on the picture-map below to enlarge it

That's Shawn LaRue, Salonnier, on the right

I’m guessing, but I think the plan is that the more formal and thus pricey wines will be offered in the traditional and classic Salon tasting room while the more casual tastings will be offered in the whimsical "The Sip Shoppe" and patio area. I am truly looking forward to visiting Swanson to experience a tasting in “The Sip Shoppe” when it opens in late spring/summer.

From this room, we were escorted into the barrel room where Chris was about to spoil us rotten with tastes of 2008 Merlot (Oakville), 2008 Alexis - Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, 2009 Chardonnay (Oakville) and 2009 Zinfandel (Napa Valley). In each varietal tasting, everybody present was only complimentary to Chris and Swanson Winery for what they were producing. Just a couple of comments here.

Again, I was particularly fond of the Chardonnay which had no MF thereby eliminating that “buttery quality which I despise in Chardonnays as well as those which are treated to lots of influence of oak, because these treatments seem to cover up the taste of the grape.

The Cab is a wine I’m going to be looking forward to when it is bottled and released. Great nose and lingerer on my palate until the next sip. Another wine that I’ll be happy to see released will be their 09 Zin which was full bodied yet very comfortable as I let it sit in my mouth before swallowing a small amount.

We closed out the media event with a very enjoyable lunch prepared by Chef Shannon Kelley, Knickerbocker’s Oak Avenue Catering,(

Winemaker Chris paired this lunch with the 2008 Salon chardonnay and 2008 Rosato of Syrah. As I said before, I fully enjoy his Chardonnays since you can actually taste the fruit. I have yet to develop a palate for Syrah so the Rosato was still a different and unfamiliar taste to my palate. This has nothing to do with the quality of Chris’s wine but rather my inexperience with the varietal which I just have not warmed up to yet.

Chris then paired the dessert of Country Apple Galette with his 2005 Tardif, Late-Harvest Chardonnay. What a marvelous finish to a wonderful educational and promotional event.

Congratulations to Swanson Vineyards for giving this media group the opportunity to better understand their winery, their wines and their plans for the future. A job well done, guys and gals, thank you very much.

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