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Joseph Swan: The Man and His Wines
By Ed McCarthy
Apr 22, 2014
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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. 

Swan bought a 13-acre farm in the Russian River Valley in 1967.  Joe’s farm had old Zinfandel vines, and Swan began making his incredible Zinfandels in 1968.  In 1969 he officially founded his winery.  In 1974, when Swan built his own modest winery building, which he called “the Tin Shed,” Joel Peterson apprenticed with Swan, and Peterson made his first Ravenswood Zinfandel in 1976 at Swan’s winery.

At the urging of the legendary enologist André Tchelistcheff, Joe Swan planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines on his property. Tchelistcheff assured Joe that the terroir was ideal for these varieties.
Ironically, 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.

I was fortunate enough to meet Joe Swan a few times during the 1980s.  Have you ever met someone who left an indelible impression on you, someone you will always remember clearly the rest of your life?  Joe Swan was that kind of guy:  An original.  He was blunt, brutually honest, and his own harshest critic.  A self-taught winemaker, he followed his own path.  His goal was to make wine that he enjoyed drinking; selling the wine was always secondary.  In fact, he never made more than 2,000 cases of wine a year, even though demand for his wines increased steadily as wine lovers discovered them.  Most of the wine Joe Swan made was sold through his mailing list.  Joe deliberately kept his wine production low because he wanted to handle every aspect of his winemaking personally.

Joe Swan was born in North Dakota.  His parents were teetotalers.  An avid reader, Joe became fascinated with the winemaking process early in life.  But he developed other interests; he was an artist, and in the 1930s he learned how to fly.  He became quite proficient at flying, and trained young men to fly for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.  After the war, Joe joined Western Airlines as a pilot, a position he would keep until 1974, when he retired at the age of 59 to devote his full time to winemaking.

I had heard stories of Joe Swan and his wines; even as early as the early 1980s, he was becoming a legend.  Joe made quite a few trips to Europe, especially Burgundy, to see how they made their wines.  His travels also took him to Piedmont, Italy, where he met and became friends with Alfredo Currado and Luciana Vietti Currado at the Vietti winery.  I had become good friends with the Currados, who took my wife and me to visit Joe Swan in Sonoma, at his modest, no frills winery.  I wanted to buy some of Swan’s wines, but he had none to sell--all sold out.  But at least he let us taste his wines.  From that day on, I became a big fan of Joe Swan and his distinctive, long-lived wines.  Over the next few years, I was able to buy some of Swan’s almost impossible to find wines from the 1970s and ‘80s, but I never owned more than 10 bottles.  They’re long gone now, but they were consumed with great pleasure. They were all damned good, especially the Pinot Noirs.

Today, the winery makes about 5,000 cases a year, mainly Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay.  The owners of Joseph Swan Vineyards are Rod and Lynn Berglund.  Lynn is the daughter of the late June and Joseph Swan; her husband Rod has been the winemaker since 1988.  Joe Swan, his father-in-law, passed away in January,1989, at the age of 74.

Rod Berglund has been carrying on admirably with Joseph Swan Vineyards.  Having Joe Swan as a teacher couldn’t hurt.  Joseph Swan’s wines are still not easy to find, but at least they are more available than in Joe Swan’s days.  Pinot Noir is the primary wine.  Joseph Swan Vineyards’ best Pinot Noir--made from the property’s oldest vines--is called Trenton Estate (named after the small town of Trenton, the actual location of the winery).

A few weeks ago, Rod Berglund came to New York to conduct a tasting of 16 wines from Joseph Swan Vineyards, going back to 1968.  There were 14 Pinot Noirs, one Zinfandel, and one Chardonnay.  Eight of the wines were made by Rod Berglund, and eight were made by Joe Swan:

Joseph Swan Chardonnay, 1975:  This is an incredibly good Chardonnay, especially considering the fact that it is 38+ years old. Its color is medium-to old gold, like old gold coins.  It did not undergo malolactic fermentation, and its acidity is keeping it still very lively.  It has very good length with a creamy texture. The 1975 was Joe Swan’s second commercial Chardonnay, following the 1974.  95
 
Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noir, 2011:  The 2011 vintage was colder than usual.  The wine is spicy and delicate, with high acidity.  A surprisingly good wine from a difficult vintage.  It should be very fine with a few more years of aging.  92

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noir, 2009:  Perfect climate conditions in this vintage produced this excellent Pinot Noir with a velvety texture and great concentration.  It is drinking well now, but is a bit young.  It will be very long-lived.  93

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noir, 2007:  Another good vintage with ideal conditions.  It has a gentle, delicate texture, lively acidity, and is a bit less tannic than the 2011 and 2009.  It’s just wonderful to drink now, but it will clearly age very well.  94

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noir, 2006:  This wine has lots of energy and great depth, with extraordinary length on the palate.  Like almost all Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs, it has lively acidity.  Another very fine Pinot Noir that will even improve with time.  93

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noir, 2000:  This was the first in a series of excellent Pinot Noirs that is truly ready to drink now.  It is as rich as the 2007 Trenton Estate, which it resembles. It has floral aromas with black fruit flavors, supple and soft on the palate.  91

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate “Pentagon” Pinot Noir, 1997:  The “Pentagon” Pinot Noir was selected from Trenton Estate’s best barrel in the 1997 vintage.  The 1997 is an extremely well-balanced blend of fruit, tannin, and acidity.  It is rich and concentrated, with long palate length.  It tastes younger than the 2000 Trenton Estate, and still has a long future.  93

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noir, 1995:  This was the first Pinot Noir in the tasting that showed some signs of aging.  Having said that, the 1995 does have great concentration.  But it is a bit too tannic and hard.  89

Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noir, 1992:  For me, the 1992 was the loveliest Pinot Noir of the tasting so far.  It is complete, with black olive notes, sweet fruit, lively acidity, and a long finish.  A show- stopper. Outstanding wine.  It shows no signs of aging.  95

The retail price of the current Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Pinot Noirs is in the $55 to $60 range, very reasonable for wines of this quality.

The following wines were made by Joseph Swan:

Joseph Swan Estate Pinot Noir, 1985:  This is the third time I have tasted the 1985 Swan Pinot Noir this century (previous times, 2001 and 2005) and it has not changed much.  It is a beauty right now, fleshy and energetic, with strawberry fruit flavors and lots of concentration.  In 2005, I described it as “amazingly fresh.”  I don’t know how long the Swan 1985 will live, but it’s at a great stage at this moment.  96

Joseph Swan Estate Pinot Noir, 1984:  A supple beauty, with aromas of green olive and forest floor.  Very Burgundian in style, with great depth.  It seems captured in time.  In the year 2000, when I last tasted the 1984 Swan Pinot Noir, I rated it even higher than the 1995, but now I would give a slight edge to the 1985.  95

Joseph Swan Estate Pinot Noir, 1983:  One of the greatest virtues of the 1983 is that it is still tasting so young, with aromas of black olive and nuts, lively acidity and a long finish.  But it is rather fragile compared to the 1984 and 1985.  91

Joseph Swan Estate Pinot Noir, 1982:  The 1982 is a lovely Pinot Noir right now, with plenty of tannin and acidity. It is still fresh, with lots of depth and a delicious, long finish.  92

Joseph Swan Estate Pinot Noir, 1976:  The 1976 Pinot Noir is the kind of wine that made Joe Swan a legend.  It is glorious and majestic, a powerhouse that is supple at the same time. It has a long, sweet finish. It shows absolutely no signs of aging.  98

Joseph Swan Estate Pinot Noir, 1973 (magnum):  The 1973 is very fresh, partially because it is in magnum, I’m sure.  My first impression of this amazingly young, 40+ year-old wine with lots of acidity is that it was the wine of the night.  But going back to the 1976, I decided the 1973 was second only to that fabulous wine.  97

Joseph Swan Estate Zinfandel, 1968:  What a treat and an honor to be able to taste the first wine that Joe Swan made!  Again, my first impression of this 45+ year-old Zinfandel was that it is so young!  It is rich, with sweet fruit and lots of acidity.  A truly beautiful wine that appears to be ageless.  95

The last time I saw Joe Swan was in the late 1980s, just a couple of years before he died.  The International Wine Center, a wine school, was putting on a Zinfandel tasting in New York.  To our surprise, Joe Swan came all the way from California to New York to pour his Zinfandels.  We were so touched by this generous gesture from this great man.  Joe Swan…what a guy!