2005 Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon •Schmidt Ranch Vineyard
California: Napa Valley: Oakville
What we say
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Mission Codename: No More Fooling Around
Operative: Agent Red
Objective:Revisit our friends at Swanson Vineyards and acquire a limited allocation of their amazing Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon.
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Swanson Vineyards
Wine Subject: 2005 Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker: Chris Phelps
Swanson Vineyards is located in Napa Valley’s Oakville AVA. The Oakville AVA, centrally located and adjacent to Napa Valley’s famous Rutherford AVA, was established in July 1993. Oakville is considered on of the most diverse AVA’s in the Napa area and grows some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in California.
Wine Spies Tasting Profile:
Look – Dark and deep purple with ruby red streaks that shine through its dense but clear core. Along the edges the color becomes a purple garnet hue. When swirled, tightly spaced slow color-laden legs cling to the side of the glass before descending to the wine below.
Smell – Bold in intensity with classic Cabernet aromas of spiced and oaky black cherry and other dark fruits. Layers of black licorice, toasted vanilla (oak) and subtle herbal and savory spice notes linger and meld with the rich fruit.
Feel – Solidly structured and almost chewy, but still showing elegance, this dry full-bodied wine is smooth, rich and expansive on the palate with finely grained firm tannins, lively acidity and hints of dusty and dark minerals.
Taste – An abundance of dark fruit, including black cheery, red currants, blueberry and blackberry are integrated with flavors of toasted vanilla oak, dark chocolate notes, wild black licorice and a subtle earthy and herbal component.
Finish – Extremely long, this wines’ dusty structured fine tannins last for an eternity as the fruit, spice, herbal and fruit components gracefully fade.
Conclusion – The 2005 Swanson Vineyards Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon is a superb and classic Napa Valley wine with big, bold, rich and expansive aromas and flavors all framed by a bold but elegant structure. One of the finest wines we’ve featured fro Swanson, and among the finest Cabernet we’ve tasted this year.
WINEMAKER INTEL BRIEFING DOSSIER
SUBJECT: Chris Phelps
WINE EDUCATION: Son of wine lovers, UC Davis, University of Bordeaux (that’s in France)
CALIFORNIA WINE JOB BRIEF: 12 yrs. Dominus, 7 years Caymus, 7 years Swanson
WINEMAKING PHILOSOPHY. My approach to making wine is clearly influenced by the 2 years+ I spent in Bordeaux, because I was trained to be flexible. It all comes down to maximizing what a particular section of a specific vineyard has to offer. I need to be light on my feet. It’s not about me, it’s about channeling the essence of the vineyard.
WINEMAKER QUOTE: It is an outrageously enormous privilege to be living and working here in the heart of Napa Valley. It’s very rewarding to be part of the winemaking renaissance here at Swanson.
FIRST COMMERCIAL WINE RELEASE: 1984 Dominus in 1986 (the 1983 Dominus was released a year later, in 1987)
AGENT RED: Greetings, Chris. We are thrilled to be showing your 2005 Oakville Merlot today. The wine is really fantastic. Thanks so much for the wine, and for taking some time to answer questions for our Operatives today. We are really impressed by your wines!
CHRIS PHELPS: I always appreciate hearing that, Agent Red. It’s a pleasure to go ‘covert’ with you today.
RED: Thanks, Chris. Was there a specific experience in your life that inspired your love of wine?
CHRIS: Well, yes, but more cumulative experience than specific. I grew up in Livermore, CA, a stone’s throw from Cocannon Vinyeards. My parents made a barrel or two of Zin or Cab every year when I was a kid. They picked the grapes with friends, and I helped with crushing, racking, etc. when I was old enough. I found it fascinating that the wine quality could vary so much, depending upon variety, grape source and vintage.Wine was often on the family dinner table, so I was able to taste when I was a kid, and I liked it.
RED: So, winemaking was really in your blood. Tell me, where did you learn the most about winemaking?
CHRIS: I learn more about winemaking every day! There is so much nuance in winemaking, which consists of hundreds of details, some of which might seem insignificant, but can really affect the final product. I was fortunate to me mentored by many colleagues along my career path, starting with Mike Martini at Louis M. Martini in 1980. I graduated from UC Davis in Enology, then continued my education at the University of Bordeaux. Those years in academia, coupled with the key internships I did at Martini, Chappellet and in St. Emilion / Pmoerol as I cut my winemaking teeth, were very formative years.
RED: It sounds like it! What is your winemaking style or philosophy?
CHRIS: In a word, minimalist. If the fruit, at the time it is picked, is physiologically ripe and balanced, intervention through winemaking techniques is minimized. Speaking of red Bordeaux varieties, since we are tasting the 2005 Swanson Oakville Merlot today, I’m looking for perfectly ripe fruit, but avoiding super-high Brix levels, which lead to some of the very stylized wines produced today, which need huge doses of input by the winemaker. If the fruit is handled correctly, it is possible to coax the optimum extract out of the must, and produce a wine which honestly reflects the terroir from which it came. My job as a winemaker is precisely this: to form an honest interpretation of what a specific vineyard site in a specific vineyard is trying to tell me. I hope that makes sense to you…
RED: Your focus is on Merlot, and we applaud that. We are really happy to see Merlot doing so wonderfully. Tell me, what makes Merlot so unique?
CHRIS: So nice to preach to the choir when it comes to Merlot. Merlot is uniquely a ’winemaker’s wine’. It suits my minimalist approach to winemaking perfectly. Grown in the right climate, in the right soil, with the correct conditions that dictate terroir for Merlot, it is one of the best varieties to work with. Color, aromatic expression of fruit, balanced acidity, silky, ripe tannins – the key attributes we are looking for – come very naturally to Merlot. Even grown under less-than-appropriate conditions, Merlot yields a decent, quaffable wine, and this is also the problem with Merlot, which is part of its uniqueness… there are a number of Merlots, from hot climates, with deep soils better suited to corn or tomatoes, which are not unpleasant, but have nothing to do with great Merlot. We know at Swanson that the clayey-loam soils in Oakville are optimum for this variety, and we take full advantage of this. When it comes to Merlot, terroir is everything. In Napa, there are sites on Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, in Oakville, in Carneros that are perfectly suited to the production of ultra-premium Merlot.
RED: And you happen to make your Merlot in one of them! What wine or winemaker has most influenced your winemaking style?
CHRIS: Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker for Ets. JP Moueix in Libourne, France. After being the winemaker for Petrus and a number of other Moueix properties on the Right Bank of Bordeaux for 44 years, he has ‘retired’, staying on in a consulting role for Petrus in Pomerol, and Dominus, here in Napa. During my 12 years as the first winemaker at Dominus, he had a significant influence upon my approach to winemaking.
RED: How long have you been making wine?
CHRIS: My first stint was 6 months in 1980 at Martini. I became a ’winemaker ’ in 1984, when I joined the team at Dominus. I remained there for 12 years, before moving to Caymus for 7 years. I have been at Swanson for 6 years.
RED: Who do you make wine for?
CHRIS: Chuck Wagner at Caymus gently reminded me from time to time that I should not make wine for myself, and this was an important lesson. I don’t fixate on ‘who’ the wine is for, per se, but it does get factored into the overall picture. I am conscious of the fact that Clarke Swanson would like me to be producing wines that appeal to consumers, critics, bloggers, etc. At Swanson, as in my previous winemaking roles, I strive to make the absolutely best wine possible, given the fruit sources and other resources I am given to work with. I’m sure this sounds cliche, but it always seems to work out. The wines are not just for the critics, not just for the consumers, not just for me. Wine should be universal. We’ll need to sit down and discuss this question more over another bottle of Merlot…
RED: Any time. It would be a great pleasure. Tell me, what makes the Napa Valley so special?
CHRIS: As I am reminded every time I return to the Valley after being away (I’m sending these notes from Chicago, where I am spending 3 days helping promote Swanson wines), Napa Valley is a place of unique natural beauty. And it is still the Mecca for ultra-premium domestic winegrowing.
RED: Nice to hear someone else call Napa ‘Mecca’. What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone that is considering a career as a winemaker?
CHRIS: Seek a mentor or mentors who are willing to share what they know. Plan on internships in different international wine regions. Study, sure, but not to the exclusion of lots of practical experience. You must be willing to get your hands dirty.
RED: And stained purple. What is occupying your time at the winery these days?
CHRIS: We are in the middle of bench top red blends – Cab and Merlot – for the 2009 vintage. Plus a lot of record-keeping; even winemakers have a lot of paperwork.
RED: Ahead of schedule. I wonder what that’s like. Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today
CHRIS: The 2006 Alexis is 100% from the Schmidt Ranch Vineyard, on a nice little piece of well-drained benchland up the hill from Brix Restaurant. 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot. Rather than fining and filtering to take the hard edge (2006 Cab tannins are pretty hard) off, we found that metering the perfect amount of Merlot made the wine superbly balanced. Classic ripe black and red currants on the nose. Black Licorice and briary black cherry on the palate. The tannins are silky and firm enough to handle another 5+ years in the bottle. I really like it, in case you can’t tell.
RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?
CHRIS: Aged rib eye cooked over hot coals of aged grape canes. I’m not kidding.
RED: In your opinion, what makes the [REGION] so special?
CHRIS: The terroir at the Schmidt Ranch is phenomenal. From the well-drained alluvial soils to the distribution of Cabernet and Merlot in the vineyard, to the microclimate. I’m not sure where to stop.
RED: Please share one thing about yourself that few people know
CHRIS: I’m an Indigo Girls (folk-rock duo) groupie. I love to get to as many shows as possible. Emily Saliers (one of the IGs) has become a good friend, and she loves wine.
RED: What is your favorite ‘everyday’ or table wine?
CHRIS: Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve made a barrel or two of home wine every year, kind of like my folks did. In addition to being the communion wine at our church in St. Helena, this is our everyday table wine.
RED: You’ll have to tell me your secret formula one day. How would you recommend that people approach your wines, or wine in general?
CHRIS: Keep an open mind. Minds are like parachutes, they function best when open. Drink what really appeals to you, not what someone else thinks you should like. Always be open to trying new wines.
RED: If you could choose any one wine to drink (regardless of price or availability), what would it be?
CHRIS: I would love to try the 1961 Petrus again; I’ve tasted it out of both 6 liter and 750 ml format, and it was phenomenal.
RED: If I come across a bottle, I promise to share! What is the one question that I should have asked you, and what is your answer to that question?
CHRIS: What are my favorite Napa Valley producers? It’s actually a tough question, and my answer varies, but Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Provenance, and Honig are always on the list.
RED: Thank you so much for your time, Chris, and for the extensive answers. Our Operatives love getting to know our winemakers and I appreciate that you spent this much time with me today.
CHRIS: Thank you for spending time with me, and for your insightful questions. Is your name really Agent Red?
RED: I could tell you, but, you know…
Wine Spies Vineyard Check:
The location of Swanson Vineyards can be seen in this satellite photo.
What the winery says
Awards & Accolades:
94 Points – Wine & Spirits – “Plush cherry and wild blueberry flavors give it a polished feel, while the savory details of the fine-graine tannin add dimension and energy.”
92 Points – Wine Enthusiast – The 2005 shows classic Napa structure, with hard but near-perfect tannins and
lush, oak-sweetened black currant, cherry and dark chocolate flavors.
91 Points – Connoisseurs’ Guide – Peppery spice, hints of dried herbs, a whiff of creme brulee and plenty of rich, well-extracted, ripe curranty fruit are comfortably combined in both the outgoing aromas and deep, nicely layered flavors of this big-bodied, well-balanced youngster…that is bound to age very well.
90 Points – Wine Spectator – Delivers subtle, complex black cherry, currant, spice and cedary oak notes that
are well-structured and well-proportioned, gaining depth and richness and ending with a nice touch of toasty oak.
4 Stars / Excellent – Restaurant Wine – A supple, nely balanced, full-bodied Cabernet, with excellent depth and length. It tastes of blackcherry, cherry, toast, vanilla, cedar, and black currant.
About This Wine:
2005 is a classic Oakville Cabernet vintage, so it is no surprise that this wine exhibits such heady aromas of ripe blackberry, cassis, black licorice and mocha. The mouth has superb structure, with plenty of the fine-grained, round, ripe tannins we have come to expect from the Schmidt Ranch vineyard. Lingering notes of black cherry and cassis on the palate. The 2005 Alexis Cabernet promises to be enjoyable for at least 20 years following release.
The Vintage: The 2005 growing season debuted with wet weather, followed by a moderately dry March. Ample rainfall extended well into spring, resulting in relatively late bloom and fruit set. Unseasonable precipitation in early June led to a fairly cool, pleasant summer, with very few heat spikes. Initially, there was a concern in September that cool weather and morning fog would not allow adequate time for a somewhat larger than normal crop to mature fully. However, a seemingly endless Indian summe
albeit later than usual, presented the conditions necessary to achieve optimum ripeness for our Oakville Cabernet. The long growing season encouraged the development of very ripe aromas and tannins at ideal sugar and acid levels.
Vineyard Notes: This wine was sourced exclusively from the Schmidt Ranch vineyard, located along the Oakville benchland on the western side of the valley, along the Mayacamas mountains. The well drained alluvial soils produced a small crop of intense, concentrated fruit.
About The Winery:
We are a family winery founded on a passion for evolving the existing standards of wine and food. In the 1950s, long before founding Swanson Vineyards, the Swanson family introduced the first lifestyle product, Swanson frozen dinners, which helped women get out of the kitchen and enjoy life.
In 1985, at his 25th Stanford University reunion, W. Clarke Swanson, Jr. was inspired by a tip from a fraternity brother and successful vintner to purchase a parcel of vineyard land on the Oakville Cross Road in the heart of Napa Valley.
Clarke immediately hired André Tchelistcheff, one of the century’s most influential winemakers, as a consultant to help determine how to make the best use of the vineyards. For André the answer was to plant the then relatively unknown variety merlot—a move that would shape the future of Swanson Vineyards.
The family continues to expand the simple and sensual pleasures of life through Swanson Vineyards. With an eye toward quality, relevance and innovation, the next generation is enticing a whole new audience with a progressive approach to wine, food and the good life.
About The Winemakers:
By the summer of 1987 the vineyards were replanted, and André made another influential suggestion—to hire the young novice talent Marco Cappelli to oversee winemaking. Marco, a first-generation Italian-American, was 26 and hired based on André’s gut instinct. It was a wise decision; Marco’s distinctive wines became the founding flavors of Swanson Vineyards.
For the rest of his life André lent his visionary talents to our winemaking pursuits, meeting with Marco biweekly and consulting on matters of the vine and winery. Marco remained Swanson’s winemaker for seventeen years, after which he purchased his own vineyard in the California Foothills. Marco is currently making four dessert wines for Swanson, which include Angelica, Crepuscule, Arsene, and Les Trois Filles.
In 2003, Swanson Vineyards was fortunate to obtain the talent of Chris Phelps as its new winemaker. Chris has had an illustrious career in the wine industry, first as winemaker at Dominus for twelve years and at Caymus Vineyards for six years. His wines are more refined and sophisticated than ever, yet they remain delightfully accessible and approachable—the perfect embodiment of our trademark decadence with a wink.
Wine Type: Red Wine
Vineyards: Schmidt Ranch, Napa Valley
Composition: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Brix at Harvest: 25.8
Harvest Dates: October 15-27 (Cabernet); October 7 (Merlot)
Vinification: Extended maceration; Malolactic in barrel; Unfned and unfltered
Maturation: 22 months in French oak (60% New)
Bottling Date: May 8-11 2007
Alcohol: 14.8% by volume