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JOSEPH SWAN: A CALIFORNIA WINE LEGEND

John Tilson • 7/15/12        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

THE MAN AND HIS WINES AND THE CONTINUATION OF HIS VISION

Recently, I attended a dinner that featured 17 different wines from Joseph Swan Vineyards. It was organized by The Rare Wine Company with the wines almost entirely from the Joseph Swan Vineyards library.

Held at The Murray Circle Restaurant at Cavallo Point in San Francisco, it was a memorable evening with very good food and the wines were superb. But, first I would like to provide a bit of history about Joseph Swan and his wines. Then I will update that to the present which includes the story of Rod Berglund, Joe’s son-in-law, who has carried the torch brilliantly since Joe’s passing in January, 1989.

Joe was an airline pilot who bought land on which to retire in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma in 1967. The land included some very old Zinfandel vines that dated back to the late 19th century. A self trained home winemaker, Joe’s first commercial wine was the 1968 Estate Zinfandel which created a stir amongst a lot of us for its intensity, balance, and purity. (I still have a bottle or two in my cellar and we had the wine at this event.) Later these vines were ripped out and on the advice of his friend, the legendary BV winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, Pinot Noir and a little Chardonnay were planted in 1969 and later in 1972. André thought this location would be ideal for Burgundian varietals. At that time there were very few Chardonnay or Pinot Noir vines planted in the area. Most of the vineyards were made up of mixed “black” varietals which were planted by the Southern Europeans who had settled in the area. Joe made his first Pinot Noir in 1973 and his first Chardonnay in 1974. From the very beginning the vines produced very low yields (around 1½ tons per acre, but often less) and grapes with very high natural acidity. Native yeasts were used for fermentation and natural wine making techniques were employed and these practices continue to this day.

Joseph Swan (middle) with Andre Tchelistcheff (right) and Joel Peterson of Ravenswood (left)

The name “Trenton” was established a number of years later for the estate vineyard. Trenton had been the name of a town that once existed in the area. Joe continued to make Zinfandel from purchased grapes as well as a few other wines into the 1980s. The wines he made were extraordinary. My good friend, Ken Burnap, was the founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards, which today is operated by his long time partner Jeff Emery (to read my article on Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards today and Quinta Cruz which is Jeff’s new venture click here). 

Ken introduced my friends and me to Joe Swan’s wines at the Hobbit Restaurant which he founded in Orange, California and is still going strong today (to take a look at their website click here).   My friends and I drank a lot of Joseph Swan Vineyards wines there with Ken. We were fortunate because production of the Joseph Swan Vineyards wines was very small and Joe was very selective about the people that he chose to sell wine. Joe Swan’s background is utterly fascinating. I encourage you to read the history as written by Rod and Lynn Berglund (Joe’s son-in-law and daughter) that appears on the Joseph Swan Vineyards website by clicking here

It was in this period of the mid 1960s into the mid 1970s that my friends and I would meet some of the true icons of the newly remerging California wine industry. For Burgundian varietals these included people like Joe Swan and Ken Burnap as well as Dick Graff at Chalone Vineyards (and later briefly at Mt. Eden Vineyards which emerged in 1972 from what had been the old Martin Ray estate). A bit later, there were people like Josh Jensen at Calera (to read my article on Calera click here) and later Jeffrey Patterson who arrived in 1981 and carried on the tradition at Mt. Eden Vineyards (to read my article on Mt. Eden Vineyards click here). These Burgundian varietal pioneers, combined with others making Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and old vines field blend red wines, constituted the nucleus of the new renaissance in California wine. They included people such as original founders of Ridge Vineyards Dave Bennion and Dick Foster (and a bit later Paul Draper who has brilliantly guided Ridge Vineyards since joining the team in 1969) who made the first  commercial Monte Bello Cabernet in 1962 (to read my article on Ridge Vineyards click here), Joe Heitz, who founded Heitz Cellar in 1964 and  made his first Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet in 1966, Bob Travers who made his first Cabernet at Mayacamas Vineyard in 1968 (after working for Joe Heitz in earlier years), Pete Minor, who first planted vines at Ritchie Creek on Spring Mountain in 1967, and later Al Brounstein at Diamond Creek Vineyards (to read my article on Mayacamas Vineyards, Ritchie Creek Vineyards, and Diamond Creek Vineyards click here) and Warren Winiarski at Stags Leap Wine Cellars who made their first Cabernet in 1972. My friends and I wound up becoming involved with all of these people and their wines after first discovering the great Inglenook Cabernets from the 30s, 40s, and 50s (still some of the best California Cabernets ever made) and the wines of other pioneer wineries like Hallcrest Vineyuards (to read my article featuring the old wines of Hallcrest Vineyards click here)  and La Cuesta. And, the Chardonays and Pinot Noirs from Hanzell Vineyards (to read my article on Hanzell Vineyards click here) which was founded by Ambassador James D. Zellerbach and produced its first wines in 1957.

And, what was the common thread running through all of this? That’s simple. We were following the string of great wines made from grapes grown in great vineyards with low yields and noninvasive winemaking by people who were obsessive about quality. These were the wines we loved and bought, drank, and cellared. Our quest began in the late 1960s and by 1979 I was ready to launch The Underground Wineletter with a little help from my friends (to read that history click here).

So it is within this background that Joseph Swan made his mark early on. Later, in 1987 Joe’s daughter, Lynn, married Rod Berglund, a very skilled winemaker who had made wine at La Crema Vinera (where I first met him) and then later La Crema. Rod joined Joe in 1988 and soon gained Joe’s respect as he fully adopted Joe’s philosophy and methods.

 

Rod recounts that Joe was never satisfied and was always trying to make things better. But, this was by making sure that yields were low and that the grapes were harvested before getting over ripe. This started from the beginning. When Joe first went to the nursery to select his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir root stock he was asked what type of root stock would he like to buy. He said “the one that produces the lowest yields”. And after the vines were planted Rod says Joe would go through vineyard constantly. One of the things he did was to “tag” vines that were setting too many grape clusters or clusters that had too many grapes. These were then later pulled out and replaced with vines that would produce lower yields! Today all this effort has resulted in a Pinot Noir now referred to as the Swan clone.

Joe also hated high alcohol wines. In fact, his very first wine, the 1968 Estate Zinfandel,  carried the designation “Light Wine” across the top of the label.  Rod says that after 1982 Joe rebelled even more against the “bigger is better” theme and focused even more on wines that were lighter.  But, Joe  liked wines that were balanced AND flavorful. And, at the end of the day, he made wines that he liked to drink and that would also age and improve for 30 years. This is “old school” that has been over shadowed in the last 20 years by “new” methods and techniques that stress high extract and high alcohol. But, Rod is sticking to his guns and making wines that I am sure would put a smile on Joe’s face. Even though Rod has now been at it for some 25 years he is increasingly being joined by others who believe in the principle of balance that is now re-emerging with a new wave of young wine growers and wine makers (to read my article on balanced wines and a history of California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir click here).          

 

 

So with that here is the line-up of Joseph Swan Vineyards wines from 1968 to 2009 presented in the order served at the dinner:

 

1975 Joseph Swan Vineyards Chardonnay Estate Bottled Sonoma.
This is the second vintage for the Joseph Swan Chardonnay which was made from vines planted only a few years before. And, oh my, what a wine it is! Golden in color the wine has a stunning faintly floral perfume with gorgeous hints of  hazelnuts and coconut. It is intensely flavored with citrus fruit accented by coconut and hints of hazelnuts. Balanced and vibrant with a long crisp finish this is simply a remarkable California Chardonnay now approaching 40 years of age – Extraordinary.  

2009 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Sonoma.
Dark in color this wine has a lovely perfume of berries with floral spice notes. It is rich and supple with lots of fruit accented by hints of spice and a faint floral undertone. Structured and balanced this Pinot Noir should evolve beautifully over time – Outstanding Plus. 

2007 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Sonoma.
With a deep color this is a gorgeous Pinot Noir that has finesse, flavor, and balance. The perfume is lovely with floral spice notes and hints of cherry fruit. On the palate the wine has great elegance and shows spice and cherry fruit with floral undertones. Despite the elegance this Pinot Noir is deceptively rich with a long lasting finish and should age effortlessly for many years – Outstanding Plus.  

2006 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Sonoma.
This vintage produced a lovely Pinot Noir of great elegance that, dare I say, has a decidedly Burgundian character. The wine has a very nice color with a faint amber tone and a lovely floral berry perfume with herbal and spice notes. It has elegance and lovely balance with complex flavors just now developing. Hints of herbs and spice are intermingled with floral undertones and a very supple underlying fruit. Quite different than either the 2009 or 2007, but no less fine – Outstanding Plus.  

2000 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Sonoma.
With a deep color this wine has a lovely plummy spice tinge perfume and supple sweet plummy fruit. It is rounded and flavorful and shows a lot of harmonious fruit with a nice finish. This is probably at its best now, but should keep for an extended period – Outstanding.   

2002 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Sonoma.
This Pinot Noir has a deep color and a lovely berry perfume with floral spice notes. It is balanced and very flavorful with lots of pure fruit and floral and spice undertones. This should continue to age beautifully – Outstanding Plus.   

1997 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Vineyard “Pentagon” Russian River Valley.
Only two barrels of this wine were made. It was a one time bottling made from grapes that came from a small part of the vineyard. Truly this is the black swan of the family and it is a stunning Pinot Noir. It has a deep color with an amber edge and gorgeous spicy perfume with a myriad of fruits and floral accents. The wine has great intensity and balance with lots of pure fruit showing a faint exotic spice nuance. With richness and depth this wine is delicious now but one can only imagine what it might be in another 10 years or so – Extraordinary.  

1995 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Sonoma.
This wine was one of the most backward of all the Pinot Noirs presented despite its age. With a deep color just amber at the edge the wine has a subdued perfume with hints of berries, spice, and earth. It has nice fruit with a spice tinge and a faint earthiness. The wine remained closed after ½ hour in the glass. It will be interesting to see how this wine evolves – Highly Recommended.   

1992 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Trenton Estate Sonoma.
This is a gorgeous Pinot Noir. With a deep color it has a great perfume of berry fruit and a kiss of spice with floral mint undertones. The fruit is supple and rounded with great balance and the wine has complex flavors showing hints of spice and mint with a fain underlying hint of green olive. It should be a real long distance runner – Outstanding Plus.   

1985 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled  Sonoma Coast (Magnum).
Now over 25 years old this is a gorgeous wine that seems fully mature without a sign of  fatigue. It should keep for many more years. The color is deep with just a tinge of amber at the edge and the wine has a gorgeous floral perfume with hints of spice. Supple and lush it is elegant with great balance and lovely flavors – Outstanding Plus.  

1984 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled Sonoma.
Initially this wine was quite closed, but with some air it began to open. Still it is very firmly structured and if the fruit holds it could be better with more time. The color is deep with an amber tone and a amber edge and the wine has a gorgeous floral perfume with hints of spice and an underlying autumn forest quality of dried leaves and underbrush. It is crisp and still very fresh with nice spice tinged fruit underneath. This deserves the benefit of the doubt as it was improving with air and probably would have been better had it been decanted for an hour or so before serving. Such is the nature of old wine. One never knows exactly what to expect until after the wine is opened. Nonetheless, a really nice wine – Outstanding.   

1983 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled Sonoma.
With a deep color just amber at the edge this wine has a lovely floral woodsy perfume with berries and spice nuances. Elegant and rounded it has a supple fruitiness accented by floral spice nuances and a faint underlying woodsy quality. Seemingly, this wine is at a peak, but there is no hurry to drink it – Outstanding.   

1982 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled Sonoma.
This is a really gorgeous Pinot Noir at its peak of maturity. It has a gorgeous floral perfume accented by a faint woodsy spice quality. Very elegant and balanced the wine has finesse and gorgeous fruit accented by  floral, woodsy, spice tinged nuances – Outstanding Plus.    

 

1976 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir Estate Bottled Sonoma.
This was the third vintage for the Estate Bottled Pinot Noir. Now approaching 40 years of age, it is a remarkable wine. The color is dark with an amber tone and an amber edge and there is a stunning perfume of cassis, plum, spice, and mint with an underlying dusty woodsy quality. The wine still has intense plum and cassis fruit which is accented hints of  exotic spice and mint. The wine is balanced and has great intensity, depth, and balance. Surely at a peak now, but with no sign of fatigue this is a Pinot Noir that may very well see the half century mark in fine shape – Extraordinary.   

1985 Joseph Swan Vineyards Zinfandel Sonoma (Magnum).
This wine was made from purchased grapes grown on vines planted in 1910. The yield was ½ per acre! It is a very elegant wine that could easily pass for Claret. The color is deep and there is a gorgeous berry perfume with just a kiss of spice and cedar. It is elegant, rounded, and supple with gorgeous fruit showing the faintest hint of  floral spice. Delicious is the operative word here – Outstanding.   

1970 Joseph Swan Vineyards Gamay Sonoma.
Some have called this the greatest wine Joseph Swan ever made and that is really saying something. It was Joe’s wife June’s favorite wine because it was so luscious and intensely fruity. Reportedly, that was the case for the first 20 years. But, after that, when she felt it began to taste more like wine, her fondness began to wane. I don’t remember every having tasted this wine before. But, what I can tell you based on this bottle is that the wine is stunningly fruity and lush today at over 40 years of age!
This Gamay has an amazing dark color and deep floral perfume redolent of blackberries and plums. It is incredibly fruity and lush, but there is a firm structure underneath. Flavorful and intense, the fruit is accented by an exotic floral nuance and the wine is simply amazing in all respects – Extraordinary.    

1968 Joseph Swan Vineyards Estate Bottled Zinfandel Sonoma.
This was the first and only year for Joseph Swan Estate Bottled Zinfandel. It was made from grapes harvested from vines planted in the 1880s. After the harvest the vines were pulled out. From 1969-1976 Joseph Swan Zinfandels were made from purchased grapes grown on another Sonoma vineyard and after that from grapes purchased from other vineyards.
This wine was a legend from the very beginning. This bottle was still great, but with a faint dryness on the finish. (Another bottle I drank within the past year showed beautifully with no sign of dryness and was even better!) Amazingly dark in color with a hint of amber the wine has a deep perfume of mint and blackberry fruit with floral spice undertones. Impressively rich with loads of fruit there is the signature mintiness that adds a wonderful level of complexity. This bottle with just a touch of dryness on the finish still is, nonetheless, remarkable and delicious to drink – Outstanding.    

 

What a stunning line up of wines! These wines are not only a great testament to the vision and genius of Joe Swan, but to the great job Rod Berglund has done in carrying on the tradition. Wines like these are wines that speak volumes about balance and complexity without the heaviness and alcohol that plague so many wines today. This is indeed, a great California wine story that hopefully will carry on in its present form without an end. Bravo Joe & Bravo Rod! In Vino Veritas!

 

 

 

 

 

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2 comments for “JOSEPH SWAN: A CALIFORNIA WINE LEGEND”

  1. Hi, I fell in love with a wine from California that I believe Mr. Swan created, and for many years I have longed for one more taste. In the late 70′s (1978) I worked for American Airlines and on one of my many flights to California for the weekend I found the Black Swan brand wine. I particularly found a special wine that I was told was difficult to make, it was a Pinot Noir Blanc, a white wine with just a slight pinkish tinge made from black grapes. It had a perfect blend of dry but not too dry, and not to sweet. I loved that wine. I was in a liquor store the other day and I saw some “Black Swan” wine, but to my dismay it was made in Australia so not the same winery. :( Mr. Swan if you get this please if you know where I can get any of this wine and not have to pay a fortune for it for I am not rich. Please get in touch with me and let me know,

    Posted by Janice Janet | April 13, 2013, 10:02 pm
  2. Hello Janice,
    I’m afraid the Black Swan wine you mention had nothing to do with Joe Swan wines. There was a Joe Swan special bottling of Pinot Noir made in 1997 with a black swan on the label. There were only 50 cases made. This is the only connection I know with Joe Swan wines and a black swan.
    Joe Swan passed away many years ago and since that time the winery has been under the direction of his son in law. I suggest that you contact them directly at http://www.swanwinery.com/ if you are interested in their wines. But, as I said they have nothing to do with black swan except for the one time bottling that I mentioned.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | April 15, 2013, 11:04 am

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