Joseph Swan Vineyards: A Classic
Sometimes we have a tendency to get caught up in the “Pinot of the Moment” mentality where we
chase the latest Pinot maker who has received a high score from one of the prominent wine critics. We
often ignore our California heritage Pinot Noir producers whose pedigree is proven and worthy.
Joseph Swan Vineyards is just such a producer. No marketing hype here, no samples submitted for
scoring, no overblown wines made to satisfy the wine press. Just honest, good Pinot that reflects the
sensitivities and goals of the winemaker.
I have written extensively about the legacy of Joseph Swan (PinotFile, Volume 5,
Issues 25 and 28). In 1967, at the age of 45, Swan was working as a Western Airlines
pilot when he bought a run-down Zinfandel vineyard, barn and house on
Laguna Road in the Russian River Valley. The house on the property had at one
time been a general store for the tiny town of Trenton that is no longer in existence.
The area, called the Laguna Ridges, is only a few miles from Westside Road, but
the climate here is much cooler, foggier and wetter than the Middle Reach area to
the north. He planned to farm grapes and make wine after his retirement. Swan
began a replanting of the vineyard to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet in
1968. This was at the same time that Joe Rochioli planted his famous East Block of
Pinot Noir at Rochioli Vineyard (although only a few miles apart, there is no written
record that they knew much of each other’s intentions). The original Pinot Noir field clonal selection
was from Mt Eden (via France, Paul Masson, and then Martin Ray). The vines prospered and produced
very good Pinot Noir and the cuttings from the vineyard became widely distributed to other vineyards
as the Swan clone or selection. There are now twelve different clones in the Joseph Swan Trenton
Estate Vineyard, including some DRC suitcase clones given to Joe as a gift many years ago.
The first vintage of Joseph Swan Pinot Noir was 1973 and was produced with consultation from the
legendary Andre Tchelistcheff who was a friend of Joe’s. Subsequently, Swan made a string of outstanding
Pinot Noirs from his vines. Despite their high quality for the time, Swan was such a perfectionist
that he never was satisfied. He traveled to France every year to improve his winemaking techniques.
He experimented with whole cluster fermentation, manual punch downs, and the use of new
French oak barrels - all techniques that were unusual for California winemakers in the early 1970s. His
legacy will include his popularization of the old, Burgundian winemaking methods, his search for better
clonal material, and his openness to new idea.
Joseph Swan passed away in 1989, but his legacy and vineyard lives on thanks to the talents of Swan’s
son-in-law, Rod Berglund. Rod became a winemaker in 1979, largely due to Swan’s encouragement.
Rod married Swan’s daughter, Lynn in 1986 and help Swan with his last harvest in 1987. He has taken
over management and winemaking at Joseph Swan Vineyards and has continued the tradition of
excellence that Joseph Swan was known for. The personification of Joe has been retained in the
winery’s wine club which is called “Joe’s Drinking Buddies.” Rod has continued Joe’s espirit de core
by maintaining the philosophy that “While consumers are demanding that wines deliver flavor, there
seems to be a growing number of people who are embracing the concept of wines with food, who
understand what it takes for wines to age gracefully, and who are looking for elegance and complexity
instead of sheer power. The age of chocolate and vanilla may be coming to an end! Hurray for 57
flavors! It is a thrilling time to be a wine drinker.”
I recently tasted two recent Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noirs beautifully crafted by Rod Berglund.
These are wines of great breeding that have a heritage at heart. I encourage you to sample and
explore the wines of this legendary producer. The wines produced here also age extremely well. The
1999 Joseph Swan Vineyards Mancini Ranch Zinfndel is just now entering into its peak stage of drink ability and should hold at this level for many more years. A few case are still available at the winery.
2003 Joseph Swan Vineyards Cuvée de Trois Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
13.6% alc., $23.
This is the most popular wine in the winery’s lineup and sells out quickly after release each year. The
first year of production was only 100 cases, but this has gradually been ramped up to 1,100 cases. It is
a blend of lots including grapes from the young vines of the estate Trenton Vineyard and other vineyards
including Saralee’s Vineyard. It is meant to be an easy drinking Pinot from the time of release
and is not as complex as the vineyard designates.
What a nice surprise! Very lovely berry, raspberry
tea and spice aromas and flavors. The aromatics are flat-out terrific.
Not at all overblown, no alcohol or tannins to spoil the party. Very good
acid kick at the end. If you like Pinot Noir, this is your cup of tea.
2002 Joseph Swan Vineyards Trenton Estate Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
14.2% alc., $40.
Terrific aromatics with a
little spicy cherry, cola and toast. Nicely-weighted pure, sweet fruit
with a gentle oaky edge and a lively finish uplifted by bright acidity.
This wine is not a voluptuous wine in the full-throttle California sense,
but it is thorough satisfying and really what Pinot should be but so often
falls short. Not surprisingly, it is a winner with food.
Joseph Swan Vineyards has just announced their 2007 Spring releases. There are three Pinot Noirs
offered: 2004 Cuvée de Trois, 603 cases ($24), 2004 Great Oak Vineyard, 96 cases ($35), and 2004
Trenton Estate 327 cases ($45). No allocations here, but the wines do sell out quickly. 10% discount is
offered on case purchases. There are also Zinfandels of great merit. The informative website is
www.swanwinery.com, and do sign up for the newsletters which are well written by Rod Berglund.
The phone is 707-573-3747. The tasting room is open from 11:00 to 4:30 Saturday and Sunday and
Monday and Friday by appointment.