By James Knight
Know that there's more to the Napa Valley than one-road, well-traveled and chockablock-with-big-box wine ops. Day trippers, hot dates and holiday hosts alike need only apply a few simple suggestions for a fun, memorable experience: avoid weekends, find a family-owned winery, take the side roads, pay a few bucks more and avoid weekends. Just a piece down a rustic country lane off of Highway 29, Swanson offers two tiers of intimate, appointment-only or play-it-by-ear options that are a little more than just winetasting. Maybe a little bit of lotus eating.
Well, not lotus, per se, but caviar, Grana Padano Parmesan cheese, artisan chocolate bonbons—same idea. By turns whimsical, kitschy and quite elegant, the Salon is this working winery's colorful antechamber. Around a table centerpiece designed by estate co-owner Elizabeth Swanson, amid a 16th-century portico and fireplace and faux 17th-century portraits by artist Ira Yeager (who subtracts a few hundred years when he signs and dates his work), guests nibble from sea shells on the direction of a patient and personable salonnière.
Good time for a fun fact: the winery and the prototypical TV dinner indeed share the same heritage, but the time-saving brand was sold in 1955. Hoping to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1980s, W. Clarke Swanson Jr. instead became an early grower of Merlot on advice from wine legend André Tchelistcheff. Current winemaker Chris Phelps may poke his head into a tasting on the way to his office. Drolly self-effacing, Phelps was last seen in the Bohemian—as the centerfold model, he jokes—defending Merlot's tarnished reputation against a Sideways assault ("Merlot Fights Back," April 19, 2006). Behind door number two, the more informal Sip Shoppe is a candy-striped room stocked with $25 bottles of red wine labeled for all occasions, like "Mazel tov," "Thrilled for You," and "Expensive Christmas Wine," tagged with a supposed price of $150 (for full effect, don't remove the price tag). Let's hope that "Please Forgive Me" doesn't finish on a sour note! Tastings here also include small food pairings.
Spice, weight and texture typify the 2008 Pinot Grigio ($21) and the 2009 Chardonnay ($42), which, when paired with wild American caviar on a potato chip and crème fraîche, can naught but gain appeal. The 2006 Oakville Estate Merlot ($36) is Swanson's bread and butter, and what they like to call a "Cab lover's Merlot." Indeed, this Bordeaux-styled Merlot is dense with plum jam, lavender and leather, definitively finishing tight as a drum, round as a rubber ball. As for the 2006 Sangiovese ($75) and the 2006 Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), suffice to say that they're available for tasting, on a road well worth traveling.
Swanson Vineyards, 1271 Manley Lane, Rutherford. Sip Shoppe tastings available Thursday–Sunday 11am to 5pm; call ahead or ring gate. Tasting fee $15–$20. Salon tastings available by appointment, $60. 707.754.4018.
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