WCBN-MR-53-2-Joseph-SwanRussian River Pinot Pioneer Joseph Swan: Now, as ever, true to terroir
by Karl H. Kazaks
FORESTVILLE, CA – The weathered gray sign, softened by patches of green and orange lichen, practically disappears into its surroundings. It is a simple sign; a post and an arm, beneath which hangs the engraved board announcing “Joseph Swan Vineyards.”
Driving down Trenton Road, just off of River Road (a major east-west thoroughfare bisecting the Russian River Valley), you might miss the mottled sign, might not notice the small winery tucked aside the rows of vines.
Yet the sign embodies the spirit of Joseph Swan: A winery making wines to last, which declines to chase passing trends, instead remaining true to a philosophy that has stood the test of time.
“That’s exactly why this place is so successful,” said Assistant Winemaker Chris Spradling. “We haven’t changed.”
“It’s been very, very consistent,” added Master Sommelier Jim Rollston, “in a way not others have.”
Today, owned by Rod and Lynn Berglund, the winery began when Joseph Swan, an aspiring winemaker and planning-for-retirement airline pilot, bought a small farm in Sonoma County in 1967. The land had some vines, which provided the fruit for Swan’s first wine, a 1968 Zinfandel.
At the advice of Beaulieu Vineyard’s winemaker André Tchelistcheff, who felt the site was suited to cool-climate Burgundian varieties, Swan uprooted the Zinfandel vines and planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the estate, as well as a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Swan continued to make wine, using purchased fruit, while his estate vineyard matured. His production facility in the first years of the winery’s operation was the basement of the farmhouse that came with the property.
During Swan’s career as an airplane pilot, he had tasted a number of long-aged European wines and wanted to make wines in the same style. So, from the start, he was committed to making wines according to a traditional, European method.
The result was site-specific wines that reflected the character of their originating vineyard. Many were vin de garde.
One Pinot Noir from the time period, Berglund recalled, “was so tannic and backward I thought it would never come around. It actually blossomed into a beautiful wine. It just took 25 years to do it.”
Swan quickly built a following.
“It was one of the first cult wineries in Sonoma County,” Rollston said.
In the early 1970’s Swan built a small, utilitarian winery, still used today by the Berglunds. One of the people who helped build the winery was an intern, Joel Peterson, who made his first vintage Ravenswood at the Joseph Swan winery, in 1976.
In recent years the winery has produced around two dozen finished wines. The whites include several Chardonnays, Grenache Blanc (including an orange wine version), Viognier, and Gewürztraminer. The reds include more than half-a-dozen Pinot Noirs, a couple of Syrahs, a number of Zinfandels, Cabernet Sauvignon, plus in recent years Tannat and Petite Sirah.
The number of vinified wines is far higher than the number of finished wines, as Berglund harvests his estate and source vineyards successively, with multiple passes to ensure each cluster is harvested at optimal ripeness.
“Rod works at a scale that not a lot of wineries do,” said Rollston, who worked his first ever harvest at Joseph Swan, as an intern in 1995.
Back then, even though the total number of wines made at Joseph Swan was fewer than the number being made today, the winery was, as it had long been, highlighting single-vineyard wines.
“At the time, not many other people were focused on vineyard designate bottling,” Rollston recalled. “Making site-specific wines, vinification of specific lots – not many people have a track record like that.”
“Rod picks to site and ripeness,” said Tom Fredericks, owner of neighboring Trenton View Vineyard.
“Rod’s palate is just so incredible,” said Jim Jordan, who together with his wife Sandra Poysa own Great Oak Vineyard. That vineyard, located in the Russian River Valley’s Middle Reach neighborhood, includes nine acres of Pinot Noir (half Dijon clones and half Swan clone) and one acre of Syrah. As with the Trenton View vineyard, Joseph Swan gets the entirety of the Great Oak production every year.
“His way of tasting fruit while it’s still on the vine and telling what it’s going to do,” Jordan said, “I find pretty outstanding.”
Berglund began making wine in 1979 at what was then called La Crema Viñera (today La Crema). He married Swan’s daughter Lynn in 1986 and began making wine with Swan in 1987, which ended up being Swan’s last vintage. Swan fell ill in 1988 and died the following year.
In its almost 50-year existence the winery has had only two winemakers: Swan and Berglund.
Like Swan, Berglund is committed to making wines, which reflect the vineyard, exhibiting terroir.
“Joe Swan was ahead of the curve. He took his inspiration from Europe,” said Rollston, who re-turned to the winery in 2000 to work a full year with Berglund.
“Rod is the same,” he continued. “He looks to Old World benchmarks, looks to their aesthetic frameworks. His wines are different, but that framework is behind it.”
“Rod considers himself more of a midwife than a winemaker,” Spradling said, “to give you an idea on his philosophy of it all.”
Today, the winery makes about 6,500 cases of wine.
“When I first started 10 years ago we were making eight or nine wines,” said Cody Sapieka, the winery’s General Manager. “Now we’re making around 30.”
Some of those wines are micro-production, such as the orange wine from Grenache blanc and the Tannat, but the fact that the winery’s production is growing is a testament to the reputation Berglund has among vineyard owners: They want to see their name on a bottle of Joseph Swan wine.
“We have access to really great vineyards,” Sapieka said.
For example, the winery makes two Chardonnays from Kent Ritchie’s fruit. The Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay is a rich, full wine, with depth and complexity and vibrancy derived from a variety of fresh fruit flavors. Kent the Younger, made from a younger block of Chardonnay, is not as weighty. It’s fermented only in older oak (the Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay sees about one-quarter new oak barrels) and has more of a Chablis-like appeal, while still showing Sonoma’s signature level of ripe fruit.
A new Chardonnay in Joseph Swan’s lineup is the Hawk Hill Chardon-nay. From a vineyard in Freestone, the site has a marine influence and relatively cool climate, so much so that fruit from its vines takes so long to ripen it is usually picked later than the Syrahs and Zinfandels grown else-where in the Russian River Valley and used by Joseph Swan.
The wine, which spends 10 months in neutral French oak, shows tart, crisp fruit flavors and a sense of transparency that is simultaneously impressive and subtle.
Hawk Hill’s owners, Bill and Margaret Yarak, are impressed with how Berglund handles the fruit from their vineyard.
“He’s one of the most creative winemakers I know,” Margaret said. “The way he crafts the wine – he’s special.”
Just under half of Joseph Swan’s production is Pinot Noir; with the largest production wine the Cuvée de Trois Pinot Noir, a blend from a number of vineyards.
“It shows the terroir of the neighborhood,” Spradling said.
Rollston, in his life as a sommelier, has found success pairing the Cuvée de Trois with lighter white meat dishes, as well as fish dishes, especially those incorporating mushrooms, as such foods pair well with the sois bois character of the wine.
The region in which Swan Vineyards is located is known as Trenton and in the early part of the 20th Century, the farmhouse at Swan served as the area’s post office and general store. Today, Swan Vineyards is referred to as Trenton Estate. The neighboring vineyard, Trenton View produces fruit solely for Trenton Estate. Though in close proximity, the two vineyards each offer up unique flavor.
The 2011 Trenton View Pinot Noir shows the quality of the neighboring vineyard. According to Berglund, wines from the Trenton View tend to be light in color (as was the case in 2011). In part this is due to the fact that Trenton View is a little lower than the Trenton Estate vineyard and tends to collect cool air. The nose and palate on the 2011 Trenton View Pinot Noir are quite full of life, with penetrating notes of raspberry and other light red fruits, along with pleasant scents of spice and per-fume.
The Pinot Noir from Trenton Estate tends to be darker and richer in color than Pinot Noir from Trenton View, showing more of a black cherry as opposed to a tart red cherry quality, with more ripeness and roundness and more weight, as well as more concentration. Rollston likes pairing this wine with duck and game.
One reason the wines from Trenton Estate and Trenton View differ is be-cause of the differences between the sites, but another reason is the clones in the vineyard are different.
Trenton View uses Dijon clones. Trenton Estate has a mixture of clones, including some of what is now known as the Swan clone. This vine type (purportedly from the Romanée-Conti vineyard, by way of Paul Masson and Martin Ray) makes very small berries. Though its color concentration tends to be only medium-dark, its flavor concentration is very full, with an earthy, dark-fruit quality.
These qualities attracted the attention of vine-growers and winemakers in the 1990’s, as consumers developed an appreciation for deeper, richer Pinot Noirs.
In addition to Pinot Noir, the winery also makes sizeable amounts of Zinfandel and Syrah.
One source of Zinfandel is Russ Messana’s Bastoni Vineyards, in Sonoma’s Fountaingrove appellation. Messana appreciates the way Berglund handles his fruit.
“He makes potent wine,” Messana said. “I’m impressed with his wine-making ability. He does a lot of stuff the old-fashioned way.”
For example, all of the winery’s reds are allowed to spontaneously ferment. (Some whites are inoculated. All whites go through lees stirring.) The cap is punched down manually. About 20 percent of the Pinot Noir is fermented whole cluster, and every year Rod makes one barrel of whole cluster Syrah as well.
In contrast to the winery’s early years, when it pioneered mailing list marketing, today the bulk of its production is wholesaled, within California and to markets such as New York, Florida and Texas. A small amount is also exported to Europe.
Despite Joseph Swan’s relatively low profile, the winery has been and remains a standard bearer for a certain winemaking philosophy; the dedication to making wines of character, wines of place, wines which show precision, elegance and balance, wines of individuality, wines of impact.
That the wines of Joseph Swan can at the same time be elegant and impactful is a testament to what Berglund does with his selection of world-class fruit.
As the writer John Gilman put it, in an email exchange, “Rod is one of the finest winemakers in California these days.”
The fact that his grower suppliers are so committed to working with Rod also speaks volumes.
“We have implicit trust for Rod, great esteem for his winemaking techniques,” said Jim Jordan, owner of Great Oak Vine-yard. “We think he does a great job with the fruit.”
It’s not just growers who appreciate Joseph Swan wines. The wine drinkers of the world also appreciate what comes out of a Joseph Swan bottle.
Or so Master Sommelier Rollston has noticed in his years of pouring Joseph Swan wines.
“The character of the wines is really singular. In particular, with the Pinot Noirs, there’s a distinctive aromatic quality that people respond to. The wines are very much living and expressive, very much different. Not so much that they’re more ripe or less ripe, but that they’re really, really personal. People respond to that.”