Joseph Swan Celebrates 50 Years of Great Winemaking

black and white swan with background

Many of today’s wine drinkers might not have heard the story of Joseph Swan, but you probably know of a winery named Joseph Swan Vineyards in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Before there was a Burt Williams and Ed Selyem making cult Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley, there was Joe Swan, producing elegant Pinot Noirs in his winery near Forestville in the RRV. Before Joel Peterson became renowned as a premium Zinfandel winemaker, there was Joe Swan.  His legacy live on today and his winery, named for the man himself, celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year.

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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 Swan’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.

content-oldworkingIronically, Joe Swan used to complain about his Pinot Noir, saying “the damn grape” was far more difficult to make good wine with than his Zinfandel.  Today, his name is associated mostly with Pinot Noir.  Some have referred to him as the “Godfather” of great Pinot Noir wines in California.  Joe really put the Russian River Valley on the map as the home of great Pinot Noir and special Zinfandel.

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. 2009 marked 30 vintages for Berglund, the last 21 of which have been at Joseph Swan Vineyards.

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.”

Rod crafts four consistently fine Pinot Noirs: Cuvee de Trois, Saralee’s Vineyard, Trenton View Vineyard (young vines) and Trenton Estate Vineyard (the Joseph Swan estate vineyard). The 2006 vintage from the Trenton Estate Vineyard was the 34th commercial release from these vines. Cuvee de Trois was launched in 1999 as a blend of excess grapes from three vineyards. Today, it accounts for 40 percent of the winery’s production. Small lots of several other varietals are produced including old-vine Zinfandel, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

The winery’s Trenton Estate includes some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the Russian River Valley. Yields are very low which in part accounts for character of the wines from this vineyard. It is planted largely to the Swan clone, more correctly referred to as the Swan selection. A portion of the newer block planted in 1996 contains six Dijon clones.

Current Releases:

2014 Joseph Swan Vineyards ‘Kent The Younger’ Chardonnay Russian River Valley $45/b         

WSI93+ points Nose of Meyer lemons, wet stones, and crushed oyster shell, there is also a bit of the classic bright pear and exotic tropical fruit that is the hallmark of this vineyard but it is framed by brilliant acidity. A great oyster and shellfish wine

2013 Joseph Swan Vineyards ‘Cuvée de Trois’ Russian River Valley $39/b

WSI93 points Light in color, with depth and clarity, this wine shines with dusty black cherry and pomegranate flavors and an ethereal texture of tension and earthy acidity. Clove and orange zest touches dot the long finish. Pale ruby colored, the 2013 Pinot Noir Cuvée de Trois gives a maturing nose of dried cherries, potpourri and forest floor with hints of leather and spice box. The medium-bodied palate offers evolved red berry preserves and earthy flavors with soft, silky tannins and great freshness. Delicate and mature, this is drinking beautifully right now. 

2014 Joseph Swan Vineyards ‘Trenton Estate’ Pinot Noir Russian River Valley $75/b  

WSI93+ points This is a complex wine, jammy and funky in pomegranate and orange notes that are acid-driven but not lacking in fruit or spice components. Soft and silky on the palate, it conveys a twinge of sandalwood to round things out on the long finish.

2012 Joseph Swan Vineyards ‘Bastoni Vineyards’ Zinfandel Fountaingrove Sonoma County $35/b  

WSI93 points Located in what I refer to as the Riebli Valley, just a few miles east of Hwy 101, this sight has been farmed by the Bastoni family since 1906. Martha Bastoni and her husband, Russ Messanna currently farm it. Although the old vines are gone, the replants are going strong and are meticulously cared for: Deep ruby color. Although we have only been making wine from this vineyard for three years, it exhibits what I have come to view as a classic Bastoni nose of deep blue tinged fruit, like a cross between boysenberries and blueberries. There is also a slight hint of cooking spice, perhaps cardamom, and much less pepper than we see in the lower Russian River Valley zins. Good but not overwhelming tannin and acidity and medium to full body.”

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