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the grace of a swan Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

The Swanson Vineyards WineryCP:  When I arrived in 2003, we were at about 85-90% estate fruit.  Today, it's closer to 50%.  We sold a Cabernet vineyard recently, so things shifted and it was really up to me to come up with a solution for that.  And it turned out to be a great opportunity because instead of relying on that one source for Cabernet, I've got eight right now, which is even more exciting.  As far as working with the growers themselves, it's all about relationships.  Even in cases where we don't own the vineyard and are just buyers of a commodity, we are — of course, in different ways and in varying degrees — intimately involved in relationships with our growers.  We work very well and quite closely with them.  Of course, it's not the same as if we owned those vineyards ourselves, but it comes pretty close!  I think the best grower-producer relationships in the [Napa] Valley are the ones where you do have that high degree of intimacy.  For example, we buy Cabernet from the owner of the three acres of vineyard surrounding the winery here, so if we notice that some of the leaves need to pulled or something, we almost hate to make the phone call because they're going to be hurt that they didn't catch it first!  And because of our close relationships, we're having a great deal of success coaxing the best possible fruit out of these vineyards.  It takes a little more work — all good relationships take work — because there's an inherent inconvenience in having to deal with other people, but that's also part of the richness to the whole enterprise.

NM:  You've been making wine for two and half decades, and it's all been right here in the Napa Valley.  Given that, you've witnessed changes in many facets of the industry here: the physical landscape, the market demands, and trends in viticulture and winemaking.  What would you say is the most significant change you've seen?

"I think the change in style has something to do with the climate; I don't think you can explain it entirely with clones and rootstocks."

CP:  I'll answer that in terms of the Bordeaux varieties because I think that's the heart of the matter here, mostly Cabernet and Merlot.  The biggest change has been stylistic.  In 1999, there was a big shift; it was the first year where, almost across the board, we went to a whole new degree of ripeness, to higher levels of alcohol, and to a more over-the-top style in the wines.  I've talked to others who have also been making wine for over twenty years and found that many of us, in tasting fruit to become wine, are looking for the same parameters: flavor balance and the disappearance of greenness, in terms of the pyrazines responsible for vegetal flavors and also in terms of the tannins.  While we can't go back in time, I really believe that I was looking for the same things twenty-five years ago.

I think that change in style has something to do with the climate; I don't think you can explain it entirely with clones and rootstocks, though they're part of it.  But a lot of the difference, I think, results from climate change.  Whether it's global warming or not, manmade or not, is purely incidental.  Regardless, I know something has shifted and I can't think of anything else to account for it.  And I believe this shift began in '99, which was a huge year both in terms of quantity and quality, and one where a lot of great Cabernets were made.  It got pretty darn hot that September, and that roasted a lot of fruit in the vineyards.  So, people who hadn't intended on making really ripe fruit bombs did — and then the style was well-received by critics and consumers!  Now, I'm not sure that a lot of these wines are aging very well and I harbor some great concern about that, but then you could come back and ask, 'But who really buys wine to age anymore?'  Because a lot of people want to drink their wines really young.

NM:  Across the board, among quality-driven wine producers and especially others in the media, I've heard concerns about this ripeness-creep, which many will agree is the most significant change the industry in California has seen in the last two decades.  Now, I imagine this issue might be especially alarming for you, given your grounding in Old World wine production.  To what extent do you feel that your early Bordelais training shaped your values as a winemaker and your attitudes of how a finished wine should be?

Swanson's Oakville VineyardCP:  Oh, I think it's undeniably significant!  Jean-Claude Berrouet was a huge part of my learning as a winemaker.  But despite concerns about ripeness, I think there's somewhat of a trend back to wines that have more balance and nuance, where it's no longer about 'more is better.'  My favorite wines are not those big fruit bombs and that comes largely from my early training.  But I'm not alone, nor am I extreme; there are other winemakers who are more so, who pick before the tannins are fully ripe and whose wines are sharp, short, and austere.




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