Joseph Swan Vineyards

18 Jan

The Joseph Swan Vineyards is an interesting piece of history and an example of a winery that is a winery first and a tasting room second. Located 20 minutes west of Santa Rosa, Swan is in a cluster of wineries that make up the western cluster of Sonoma wine country. To the east are the wineries around the town of Sonoma (and towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood); to the north are the wineries around Healdsburg and the Michelin-starred restaurants around that area. Sebastopol and Forestville feel a bit more off the beaten path, less geared for tour buses and bachelorette parties. It still has a couple world-class places, like Merry Edwards and Iron Horse. But it still feels like an area where the business is farming not marketing.

Joseph Swan was one of the early pioneers of California pinot noir. He bought an old Zinfandel vineyard in the cool climate of the Russian River Valley and replanted it with pinot in the late 1960s. His plantings thrived enough that cuttings from his vines have been planted all over California as “Swan clones.” Swan was one of the early California winemakers that strove for a French, specifically a Burgundian, sensibility, with minimal intervention and a sense of terroir.

While Joe has passed on, his stepdaughter and her husband carry on the legacy.

Turn into the winery and its tiny parking lot and you see things set up for the business of winemaking, not for greeting a horde of tourists.

The vineyards here are not for show, but are the original plots of land Swan bought in the 1960s.

The tasting room is spare and utilitarian. Barrels are stored high because they need the storage space, not because they want to create ambiance. There’s no Italian marble here; just a basic wooden barn/shed with a simple counter for pouring.

They have a fairly large stable of wines — four pinots, three Syrahs, four Chardonnays, and a couple surprises. I found them a little challenging to drink when new because they tend to run high in alcohol. I think this is at least in part because Swan worked hard to make his wines suitable for aging. But I’m sure it is also a style-thing.

The wines are a great value, with nothing over $40 and their single vineyard pinots at $35 and $38. The Trenton View pinot is probably the signature bottling, as it is where the “Swan clones” cuttings have been taken. I found it too aggressively grassy and hot. The Great Oak Vineyard pinot is a bit more balanced to me. The productions are tiny — less than 200 cases of the Trenton and the Great Oak — so unless you’re planning to visit the winery, you’ll probably only come across the Cuvee de Trois, which is made at about 1600 cases.

The folks in the tasting room were very nice. Except for maybe the busy season, the winery has something like 4 full-time employees, so whoever is pouring for you probably also works the forklift and helps sort grapes. They were glad to pour through most of the lineup and talk about the various vintages.

This is what Napa and Sonoma must have been like 30 years ago, when wine was not big business and the tasting rooms were just a hobby for the winemakers. Next time you’re planning a Sonoma wine trip, it’s worth taking a left and visiting Swan.

Joseph Swan Vineyards
2916 Laguna Road
Forestville, California 95436

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