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the grace of a swan Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Bunches of Swanson Merlot GrapesCP:  (con'd) But I think things are definitely shifting again.  And so, here I am picking riper Merlot — because before I arrived there'd been a lot of overtly green tea, almost herbal characteristcs in earlier vintages of Swanson Merlot, to the point where I frankly felt it was defective.  I also toned down the new oak and took the heavy toast out of the picture, so that it's now more about balance and celebrates the idea of Merlot specifically, rather than of just a big red wine.

NM:  Clearly, then, market forces and consumer demand have a tremendous impact on your production decisions, even as they may not jibe with your own values as a winemaker.  How would you sum up that push-pull in your own experience and how do you ultimately balance it all to achieve quality and maintain the production of commercially relevant wines?

CP:  Early on at Caymus, Chuck Wagner asked me to blend the '97 and '98 Caymus red wines.  I remember the '97 being very easy to blend; everything just fell together.  But the '98 I struggled with.  So, he pulled me aside during that process and said, "You know, you're not making these wines for yourself; you've got to get over that."  And I was like, "The heck I'm not!  Of course I am!  It's all about me!"  {chuckling}  At the time I didn't see it, but he was right to put me in my place and remind me that as winemakers we have obligations: to synthesize all the input we get from critics, to be out buying other wines to taste, and to talk to more people and have them taste our own wines.  So, that was sort of a pivotal moment.  Because since he told me that, I've become a little more thoughtful about what I'm doing as a winemaker.  It's important to stay in touch with what's going on.  While you need to have points of differentiation in making the wine for a brand, you also need to be responsible about context and think about how your brand fits into the market.

NM:  It sounds like your work, when done well, reminds you to be humble!  Overall, how has your experience at Swanson added to your professional winemaking repertoire?

"As a winemaker, you never want to rest on your laurels; you're always wanting to take it up a notch."

CP:  It's been very fulfilling, and I'll tell you why.  It feels to me that even though I was thrown into a completely new situation with a whole bunch of different variables, I've been able to accomplish what I was asked to do — what I've asked of myself as well — and to elevate everything to another level.  With the team I have in place, we've changed vineyard sources and a number of other things, but it's been fulfilling because as a winemaker, you never want to rest on your laurels; you're always wanting to take it up a notch.  And I feel that in six years we've really done that; I think the wines are good.

Now I want to somehow elicit an increased response from the marketplace.  And there are signs of that happening: I travel around the country, especially during the first six months of the year, doing wine dinners and promotional work, calling on buyers and the like, and I do see signs of recognition for the brand — more so than just six years ago.  I'm confident in these wines and would rather the wines speak than me, but I don't mind helping them along and I feel that's my task now, to help the wines find their voice.  Bucking the trend with Merlot and dealing with the fluctuation in grape sourcing and other factors, to have still achieved all this is fulfilling.  The next challenge is to build awareness of the Swanson brand, and I feel very much a part of that.  Because with the discretion of the Swansons, as the winemaker I've become, by proxy, the voice of the brand.

Swanson Vineyard TrellisingNM:  In retrospect, throughout all your work in wine, what have you learned that you've been to apply in general to your life as a human being?

CP:  Over my twenty-five years as a professional winemaker, I've had the real gift of being mentored by people who actually continue to mentor me today: Christian Mouiex and his winemaker at [Château] Pétrus, Jean Claude Berrouet (who just retired), from back in my Dominus days; Chuck Wagner from Caymus; and Clark Swanson, here.  They've all provided a lot of mentoring — I could have a long conversation, and you could even write a book, about each of them!  Thinking about just one of them, Jean Claude, a really fascinating person, one thing I learned is that tasting a wine is just like meeting a person.  As winemakers, we're trained to be hypercritical of a wine when we first taste it; we immediately form a first impression.  But just as with meeting a person for the first time, why not give that wine a chance?




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