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Field notes: Joseph Swan and Jayson Woodbridge (Hundred Acre)

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It’s easy to make a splash in the wine biz in California if you have a few hundred million in spare change to invest in a fabulous winery designed by a famous architect, then hire a famous consulting winemaker, put out a $150 Cabernet that goes on to be the top lot at the Napa Valley Auction or Premier Napa Valley, and then hire a top of the line P.R. firm to spread the word about your fabulosity.

It’s hard to make a splash when your “winery” is a dumpy little wooden barn on “the wrong side of the hill”, you have no budget for P.R. or much of anything else, and you don’t even make Cabernet. But it can be done, and for proof you need look no further than Joseph Swan Vineyards.

I’ve been a Swan fan forever. I began tasting their wines (not for review, for sheer enjoyment) in the 1980s. I still remember a dinner at Chez Panisse at which Swan’s winemaker (and Joe Swan’s son-in-law), Rod Berglund, brought down a bunch of old wines for a tasting, for which Alice Waters prepared a magnificent meal (lamb, if I recall correctly). Those wines had aged perfectly even though some of them were 20 years old. (I covered the winery extensively in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)

I reviewed a bunch of their latest releases yesterday and was again reminded just how good and authentic Swan wines are. Few wineries in California have such a good track record across so many varieties. I’ve given consistent high scores to Swan Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Viognier, Chardonnay and even to a Tannat I loved last year. Can you name another winery that performs so well in so many kinds of wine? Off the top of my head, I can’t. The reason, I think, is because Swan is very careful to source their grapes only from the coolest parts of the Russian River Valley, and the best vineyards. It’s also because Rod is a hell of a winemaker. His Pinot Noirs are probably his best wines; I gave his the 2007 Trenton Estate 97 points, and at $52 it’s less than a lot of Pinots that aren’t even as good. You could call it Burgundian because it has such great acidity and a mushroomy thing going on that’s obviously pure terroir, but I think I’m going to stop referencing wines as “Burgundian” because, after all, the correct word to use is “Russian River Valley-an” or “Trentonian” or some other word that’s about our terroir, not theirs.

So kudos to Joseph Swan Vineyards and Rod Berglund. They’re still going strong after all these years.

* * *

I’m headed up to Napa later this morning to hang with Jayson Woodbridge, the owner/winemaker at Hundred Acre, Layer Cake and Cherry Pie. I want to see how his vintage is coming along (and to see him, too. Fascinating guy). We chatted briefly on the phone the other day and he was excited. Now, vintners are always “excited” about the latest vintage, or so they claim when talking with ink-stained wretches like me. I think they’d find something positive to say if an asteroid hit Napa Valley right in the middle of harvest. “The Asteroid Vintage of the Century!” But I agree with Jayson’s take. The rainfall of the first and second weeks of October was a drag and everybody was scared witless by as much as 4 inches that drenched Sonoma and Napa. But they’re dancing in the cellars over the weather that followed: two weeks of absolutely gorgeous, drop dead beautiful weather, dry, sunny and warm. No big heat at all, just mild, breezy conditions that will dry out the ground and the leaves and grapes still on the vine. I think this could be a tough vintage for the coolest coastal locations (Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, for example), where growers could experience mold and unripeness, in addition to severely short crops. But the star of the vintage might just well be Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritages, although the best will be produced in miniscule quantities because of this low-yielding year.

  1. “Can you name another winery that performs so well in so many kinds of wine?” Dr. Gary Eberle?

  2. Ray, I like Eberle’s wines but they’re not in the same league as Swan.

  3. Joseph Swan Pinot Noir are usually beautiful wines. even when they barely have color (a trait I love), the nose and mouth make up for it. I found a new producer at POTR last weekend, Baliwick, that uses quite a bit of the transparent Swan clone and they were some of the best I tasted that day.

  4. Love the shout out for Swan, been in love with the wines 20+ years and a Benchmark pinot noir for dang sure….jury is still out on the napa harvest however, excited works for now. Great to see cloudless days Cheers and stay safe in your City! McD

  5. Tom Kampmann says:

    I visited Rod & Alice in 2009, and for dinner Rod opened a bottle of 1980 Pinot Noir Sonoma. It reminded me of some outstanding ten-year-old Clos de Vougeot Pinots and had SUPERB qualities – typical for Rod’s art of winemaking !

  6. thank you for the great note on the winery. most people don’t remember my dad, but i agree; rod is one hell of a winemaker! didn’t like the part about the dumpy little wooden barn, but obviously i am in total agreement with you.

    thanks again for the great shout out!
    sandi swan

  7. Dear Sandi Swan, I just meant that the Swan tasting room is no Castella di Amorosa! But that’s a compliment.

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