2004 Swanson Merlot, Oakville, Napa

People travel all sorts of roads to get to Napa Valley. Napa is a refuge for those who can afford to pay for their dreams (with both time and money), and is therefore a place that many choose to reincarnate themselves as winemakers or winery owners after quite storied careers elsewhere. It is also a place that some families begin new legacies for their younger generations.

The Swanson family comes to wine, rather uniquely, through what some might consider the antithesis of Napa’s California cuisine: frozen TV dinners. Yes, Swanson Frozen TV Dinners. If that four word phrase doesn’t ring a bell, then you weren’t alive in the 1950’s or you haven’t watched any television from that era either. Billed equally as a revolution in food science, a liberator of women from the kitchen, or an example of everything wrong with the American diet (depending on who you talk to) there’s certainly no denying that these near-instant meals dramatically affected the lifestyle of millions of Americans. Not to mention the fact that this product was one of the most phenomenal successes in the history of American entrepreneurship. C.A. Swanson & Sons sold a mere 5,000 TV dinners in the first year after their introduction in 1952. One year later, they sold 10,000,000 of them, and when the company was purchased by Campbell Soup Company three years later, it had 4,000 employees and 20 food processing plants around the country. If that success doesn’t qualify for the overused adjective “meteoric” I don’t know what does.

These days, life moves at perhaps a more leisurely (but no less successful) pace for the Swanson family, who founded their eponymous winery in 1985. The family owns and farms a large swath of nearly 300 vineyard acres in and around Oakville in the Napa Valley, and produces about 27,000 cases of wine per year, the majority of which are from the grape that Americans now seem to love to hate: Merlot. The fact that their wine may now be somewhat out of fashion does not seem to have bothered the Swansons, nor their winemaker, Chris Phelps, who together keep proving the idiocy of such an aversion year after year.

Phelps knows a think or two about Merlot. Trained in both French and Enology at U.C. Davis, and then further at the Institute of Enology at the University of Bordeaux, Phelps cut his winemaking teeth under the tutelage of Christian Moueix, who would then invite him to become winemaker at Dominus Estate from 1984 until 1995. From there, Phelps went to Caymus Vineyards for several more years before joining Swanson in 2003.

Swanson Vineyards produces a remarkable limited range of wines, especially compared with some of their neighbors in the valley. Merlot makes up over half the winery’s production, with the flagship Alexis Cabernet, a Pinot Grigio, and a rose completing the portfolio. The winery also produces a series of wines that are only available in their “tasting salon” which is an appointment-only tasting “experience” which I have not yet had the opportunity to try.

Swanson is best known for their Merlot, and for good reason, as it is consistently one of the best examples of the varietal made in the valley. The wine is made from grapes grown on the estate’s vineyards just off the Oakville Crossroads in the middle of Napa Valley. The alluvial, gravel filled clay that covers the valley between Highway 29 and the Silverado trail is quite similar to the soils of Bordeaux’s Right Bank, where some may argue that Merlot is lifted to its loftiest heights of perfection by such wines as Petrus and Le Pin. The grapes are harvested by hand, destemmed, and undergo extended maceration before finishing their second fermentations in French oak barrels, 30% of which are new. The wine is aged for approximately 22 months before being bottled without any fining.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has an alluring nose of chocolate covered espresso beans. In the mouth it is smooth, and glass-like, with rich plum and black cherry flavors that grow deeper and darker towards a lingering tobacco note in the pleasant finish. This wine, as usual, can easily persuade anyone that Merlot is worthy of attention, if not adoration, in the right hands.

Food Pairing:
This wine is a beautiful accompaniment to spiced meats such as these pan-seared rib-eye steaks with porcini and rosemary rub.

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $25

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.