Swanson Vineyards is a small premium winery under the radar of most first time visitors to the valley. There are absolutely no signs for the winery even when you are in front the the winery itself, so be sure to get directions. They have one of the most intimate and personal sit down tastings you will find in Napa Valley. Many Napa wineries have a wine bar which of course separates you from the pourers – the more personal ones offer seated tasting at a rectangular table, but tastings at Swanson are around a circular table which lends itself greatly to conversation and getting to know the others in your group. Their luxury tasting room is one of the more elegantly decorated rooms in the Napa area. Inspired by culinary salons in 18th-century Paris; this is old world elegance at its “new world” best. The “keeper of the salon” is called a Salonnier and Swanson’s very articulate Salonnier is first class.
Swanson was founded in 1985 by Clarke Swanson and his wife Elizabeth. During Clarke’s studies at Stanford he was introduced to the Napa Valley during weekend trips (he also has MS degree in Journalism from Columbia University. And later he would visit Northern California during business trips and would take side trips to Napa. There is a reason that Swanson focused on Merlot that despite being located in Rutherford (an appellation known for premium Cabernet Sauvignon). Iconic winemaker and viticulturist Andre Tchelistcheff made this recommendation early on.
In 2015 Swanson Vineyards was sold to Santa Rosa based Vintage Wine Estates. They have become a significant player in the wine worlds of Napa and Sonoma – with the acquisition of a number of winery properties and vineyards in both counties. In Napa, as of our latest update – in addition to Girard, they own Clos Pegase, Cosentino, Delectus, Swanson and the former Napa based Cartlidge & Brown.
As of our last update, Swanson Vineyards owns approximately 140 acres in the Napa Valley; they also source grapes from outside of Napa. Their vineyards are located next to several famous Napa producers including Opus One and Dominus. Swanson farms as sustainable as possible returning any cuttings back into the soil, planting cover crops for additional nutrient load, and never using herbicides on weeds, rather removing them the old fashioned way, with shovels.
Visitors can choose from two tastings: the Salon Tasting, a sit down experience led by a salonnière (host) which provides an in depth look at their rarer wines paired with delectable delights included and the Sip Shoppe Tasting which explores limited production wines paired with chocolates.
Despite making a diversity of wines, Merlot is probably the wine they are most known for and still comprises the bulk of their production. They are one of Napa’s larger producers of estate grown Merlot. The 2004 is a delightful wine, one that fills the palate with concentrated ripe fruit flavors; it is supple in the mouth and well balanced showing sweet delicate tannins on the finish.
In regards to Merlot, Swanson acquires new wood staves for their oak barrels and age them outdoors in the elements on one of their local vineyard sites. When they have been aged properly they will take the staves to a cooperage for the barrel construction. This is very unique; most wineries will purchase entire wine barrels. This is just one more attention to detail and part of the extra quality control.
Their Alexis – named after Clarke and Elizabeth’s daughter (who incidentally is married to Trevor Traina who served as Ambassador to Austria under President Donald Trump – not the first Napa vintner ambassador to Austria connection – see Kathryn Hall of Hall Winery). This wine is generally a well rounded and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon. They are also one of relatively few Napa wineries to produce Napa grown Pinot Grigio (although the grapes for this varietal come from outside of the Napa Valley). For those who enjoy lighter styled wines, be sure to try their Rosato of Syrah, a dry wine that is one of the better rosé’s we’ve tried of this varietal. This can be the go to every day wine for pool and patio parties or pre-dinner sippies.
And dessert wine enthusiasts take note of their premium sweet wines. Most Napa wineries who make a sweet wine just make one or two. It is always a treat to find a Napa based winery that has a special emphasis on sweet wines. Swanson has employed Marco Cappelli for over 20 years. He is now their dedicated dessert wine maker. For the first few years, the famed vintner and soils expert Andre Tchelistcheff provided additional wine making expertise. As of our latest update to this review, they make 5 different dessert wines – all are made in very low quantities including the delicious Minuit Black Muscat. Out of the more then 950 Napa winery reviews posted on this website, this is only the second time we’ve seen this grape being used in Napa.
The Angelica is our favorite of their dessert wines we have tried over the years. Perhaps a bold statement, but this is one of the most exceptional dessert wines made from a Napa based winery that we have tried. It is created from non or slightly fermented Mission grapes with the addition of brandy. Certainly the first churches to enjoy this grape as altar wine or miners in the California gold mining camps never enjoyed such a rich wine as this from the Mission grapes. The grapes for this wine are sourced from a historic vineyard in Amador County first planted in 1856.
The latest release (at the time of this update) is a non vintage which spent 10 years aging in neutral oak and was bottled in December 2014. The sexy packaging (black box, elegant bottle, extra glass topped wine cork) matches the opulence of the product. Aromatically the wine is rich with notes of toffee, caramel, and black fig. This wine is perfect for those dessert lovers who crave complexity of flavor mirrored with sugar. We originally wrote about this wine for a piece we contributed to Robb Report highlighting some of Napa’s best dessert wines.
Some of their dessert wines are made from grapes that have Botrytis rot; these grapes are covered with ugly grey spores which might discourage one from drinking wines made from these ‘rotting’ grapes. Despite Botrysized grapes initially being visually quite unappealing, in the end, they produce wines rich in aroma, flavor and color. This type of rot only naturally occurs during some years when conditions are favorable. Some wineries will artificially spread these spores, not Swanson. If this rot does not naturally occur in the vineyard, Swanson will not make this wine. The trick with these type of wines is to always ensure balance, avoid producing cloyingly sweet wines, temper the sweetness with acidity and be sure they have the structure to age gracefully. Swanson does an excellent job with these considering their attention to detail in their vineyards and wine making expertise.
The Swanson name may sound familiar; Swanson frozen meals (the TV dinners) were popularized starting in the early 1950’s – the company’s roots actually date back to 1899. For more information, to schedule a visit or to signup for their mailing list, visit: www.swansonvineyards.com