Page 1 of 7
Napa Producer Gracefully Weathers the Changing Tides of Merlot's Market Popularity
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Swanson Vineyards —
From its vantage point at the very center of the Napa Valley, Swanson Vineyards has laid witness to considerable change in the region's wine industry over the last two and a half decades of its own quality-driven wine production. Having first established its reputation during the heydey of California Merlot, a grape variety that has long since fallen out of favor, the brand has recently experienced some challenges in maintaining its market viability on the shifting landscape of New World wines. Now in its sixth year with long-time Napa veteran Chris Phelps at the helm of its cellar operations, the winery is looking to revitalize consumer awareness of a wine portfolio he has since imbued with greater balance and flair. I spent an afternoon with the winemaker, dividing our time between the buzz of his rustic operation in Oakville and the repose of an upscale restaurant in Yountville. He spoke candidly of how the last twenty-five years have seen considerable evolution in his own winemaking, significant changes to the business in Napa, and ultimately, unwavering grace in how the Swanson wine brand has handled the pendulum swing of Merlot's popularity in the marketplace.
The name Swanson has always been associated with entrepreneurial pursuits, beginning with owner Clark Swanson's father and uncle who founded the original Swanson company of packaged foods. Clark himself had been ambitiously involved in other industries until the winery became his real focus, culminating in 1985 with his purchase of the main vineyard in Oakville. That point marked the beginning of Swanson Vineyards' commitment to the quality winegrowing it continues to this day....
NM: How would you describe what Swanson Vineyards represents as a wine brand?
CP: I think it all comes from a place where quality is the driving force. That's the real common ground I have with Clark Swanson; he understands that. And that drive has been the case for me, first at Dominus, then at Caymus, and now here at Swanson. It's important on a number of levels because there are a lot of decisions along the way, from before you even plant the grapes to when you bottle the wine, where you can impact quality.
NM: What compelled you to come to Swanson and how had you changed the status quo?
CP: I came to Swanson in 2003. In a way, I was coming full circle because I'd been immersed in Cabernet Sauvignon for twelve years at Dominus and another seven at Caymus, whereas Swanson's focus has been Merlot, which has recently become a much maligned word — ironically, being the most ubiquitous red grape in the world and one that's often associated with quality. Now, for a winemaker there are basically three kinds of opportunities — you can go to a startup winery, one that's just out of the blocks and a brand new business where everything needs of be invented; you can go to a winery whose wheels are pretty well-oiled, to keep things running and make improvements where possible; and then there's the winery that has problems, where you go in to fix problems. But Swanson was a different case altogether because the wines were good and a lot of sound decisions had been made, though there was definitely room for improvement. Part of that involved building the brand, since it has been more or less under the radar. See, the Swansons are fairly humble folks and don't like to blow their own horn, and they wanted the brand to be one that's sought out rather than out in the open, waving its banners. So the question became, How can we build the brand and make it stronger in the marketplace, while at the same time improving the wines? We needed to take what was good raw material and build that into something more.