Swanson Vineyards

2010 Salon Wine Selection Viognier


California: Napa Valley: Oakville

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Mission Codename: Sweet Life in the Salon

Operative: Agent White

Objective: Visit Swanson to acquire their delicious demi-sec Salon Wine Selection Viognier

Mission Status: Accomplished!

Current Winery: Swanson Vineyards

Wine Subject: 2010 Salon Wine Selection Viognier

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.

Viognier, is a very shy grape that is difficult to grow and was once an endangered species worldwide. Today, skillful growers and winemakers tend the grapes with great care, closely monitoring their progress and picking at the pinnacle of ripeness. Viognier, when perfectly produced, is a delightful wine that can range from fully dry to demi-sec as is the case in today’s delicious example.

Wine Spies Tasting Profile:

Look – A stunningly bright and clear pale straw yellow with pale edges. When swirled, this slightly thicker wine settles quickly and leaves clusters of medium legs that cling to the side of the glass.

Smell – Redolent and bountiful aromas of bright and sweet citrus, tropical and tree fruit including mandarin orange and ripe apricot. And in aromatic floral notes of orange blossom, honey suckle, honey and soft sweet spice that beg for a sip.

Feel – Smooth and rich, this full-bodied white is demi-sec, but not cloying (sticky or syrupy), as it generously expands over the palate. A touch of minerality and acidity frames the ripe fruit and balances the creamy texture just enough.

Taste – Fresh, ripe and intense flavors of fresh apricot, mandarin orange and tropical papaya linger blends with the distinctive floral blend of honey suckle and orange blossoms found on the nose. A subtle touch of brown spice, bees-wax, wild honey and just a hint of minerality make their appearance as well.

Finish – Extremely long with the ripe and sweet fruit lingering as the floral, honey and spice notes fade leaving you with just the hints of the expressive fruit you just enjoyed.

Conclusion – The 2010 Swanson Vineyards Salon Wine Selection Viognier is one of the most unique wines we have featured, not explicitly a dessert wine but not fully dry like most Viognier, this wine will find itself at home from everything from appetizers of ripe and creamy cheeses, to breaking up courses on an extended dinner, to sipping after supper on a warm evening. Enjoy this wine tonight as it is perfect for summer or cellar for the next year or two (enjoy it young).

Mission Report:


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 2010 Napa Valley Viognier 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 Vineyards. 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, 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: 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 cliché, 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 a bottle…

RED: Any time. It would be a great pleasure. Tell me, what makes the Napa Valley so special?

CHRIS: Napa Valley is more diverse as an amalgam of different terroirs than we commonly acknowledge. Viognier and Muscat thrive in mid-Napa Valley. It’s not always just about Cabernet and Merlot, the varieties we typically associate with Napa. Viognier and Muscat prefer soils that are slightly more compact, and love the morning fog that we are experiencing right now. Our crop is a bit light, but that will translate into more concentration, which is never a bad thing.

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: Equipment maintenance – checking out our fruit sorting table, destemmer-crusher, press, etc. Not romantic, perhaps, but critical insurance that our ability to process our fruit in a timely manner. We’re also making sure canopies are being well-managed, removing leaves and lateral shoots to let in filtered light, but still protect the fruit from potential heat events.

RED: Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today

CHRIS: The Swanson 2010 Napa Valley Viognier is the most whimsical wine we make. Viognier from our Estate in Oakville, supplemented from more from Conn Valley, outside of St. Helena. A dash of sweet Muscat, also from our Estate. Chill it down – I like to serve it at about 50 degrees, and let it warm up a bit in the glass – and you have the perfect summer wine, hands down.

RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?

CHRIS: Easy – the best pairing is a 2nd glass of Swanson Viognier!! Last night I had a glass as an aperitif, then another glass with a cucumber-basil-tomato-feta cheese salad right out of the garden, with a fresh baguette; it was a dynamite combination. It went pretty well with the pasta Provençal, too…

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

About This Wine:

The 2010 Swanson Napa Valley Viognier is distinctively varietal in color and aroma. The appearance is a brilliant golden yellow. In the nose, surprisingly complex, with hints of apricot, peach and honeysuckle blossoms. The touch of sweetness provided by Muscat in the mouth, a mid-palate fleshed out by the addition of Chardonnay, and the fruity/floral character of Viognier combine to give a white wine of surprising aromatic complexity. We believe this wine, when well-chilled, to be a sublime aperitif, to be enjoyed in good company as a prelude to any meal.

Winemaker Notes: Normal winter and spring precipitation levels, coupled with cool early season temperatures, provided for nicely-paced shoot growth and fruit development. June was warm, but July and August were cool. September began with just enough heat to ensure optimum ripeness for our white wines. We hand-harvested quickly in the cold early morning hours on three separate dates over a one-month period. The fruit was cold-pressed immediately following harvest.

Vineyard: Grapes for the 2010 Napa Valley Viognier were selected from three diverse sources. 32% (Viognier and Muscat) was grown on our sustainably-farmed Oakville Estate, where our clay-loam soil and meticulous vine management consistently produce a small crop of ultra-premium grapes. 60% originated from a small block of Viognier at La Herradura Ranch in Napa’s Conn Valley; the remaining 8% (Chardonnay) were from the well-known Beckstoffer Carneros Lake Vineyard.

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.

Technical Analysis:




Harvest Date:

Alcohol: 13.0%

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