The Right Advice: Clarke Swanson purchased his “Oakville Cross Road” property in 1985. At the time, he hired Napa’s foremost winemaking authority, Andre Tchelistcheff, as his chief technical consultant. Andre’s first assignment was to advise Clarke on which varieties to plant. Upon close examination of the site, Andre singled out one primary variety, namely Merlot. Clarke took his advice and introduced that variety in the vineyard. Merlot thrived, as predicted, and over time Swanson has gradually increased its estate plantings. As a result, Swanson is currently Napa Valley’s largest single producer of estate-grown Merlot.
The Right Philosophy: The unique character of Swanson Vineyard’s Merlot is the result of a strict focus on the estate-grown concept. Between Swanson’s two Oakville properties, the winery cultivates just over 50 acres of Merlot, and has complete control over all aspects of winegrowing. Many of Swanson’s vineyard workers have tended the same vines for over a dozen years. The Swanson estate philosophy is virtually identical to the domaine philosophy, which sets apart most of the premier properties of Europe’s renowned wine regions. Quality control starts from the ground up!
The Right Focus: Swanson is among a handful of producers in Napa Valley for whom Merlot is a genuine priority. Today, 65-70% of Swanson’s entire wine production is devoted to the variety. The winery makes only two other wines, and in relatively small quantities. Because Merlot is Swanson’s lifeblood, Swanson is dedicated to doing it right. From quality-oriented vineyard practices to time-consuming winemaking techniques, no expense is spared in making the best Merlot possible. This includes the unusual practice of open-air seasoning for four years of the specially-selected oak used in Swanson’s proprietary barrel program.
The Right Place: Oakville has emerged as one of Napa’s foremost red wine appellations. Swanson grows its Merlot entirely within the boundaries of that A.V.A. The majority of Swanson Merlot comes from our “Oakville Cross Road” Vineyard, located just across the Napa River from Opus One, across the road from Silver Oak, and down the street from Groth, PlumpJack and Rudd. A smaller portion comes from Swanson’s other Oakville property, along benchland adjacent to the western Mayacamas foothills.
The Right Bank: Swanson was well-advised to plant Merlot on its “Oakville Cross Road” vineyard. Given the vineyard’s proximity to the Napa River, which has altered course numerous times over the millennia, the soils consist largely of a rich clay/loam base. Not coincidentally, it is the clay soils of Pomerol and proximity to the Dordogne River which contribute to Merlot’s extraordinary character there. Clay, which is generally cooler and has good water retention ability, warms up early in the spring, yet is cooler in the fall, and is the basis for most top Merlot terroirs. This unique combination of the right soil and the right climate accounts for the aromatic, ripe, complete expression of Merlot at Swanson Vineyards.
The Right Winemaker: The addition of Chris Phelps to the Swanson Vineyards winemaking team has greatly strengthened our Merlot program. Following enology studies at U.C. Davis, Chris studied at the University of Bordeaux and completed an internship in St. Emilion. During Chris’s Bordeaux experience, Christian Moueix (often referred to as Mr. Merlot!) and winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet became mentors, an association which allowed Chris to work and live at Chateau Pétrus for a winter. Following his time in Bordeaux, Chris spent 12 years as winemaker at Dominus, Moueix’s Napa property. Prior to joining Swanson Vineyards, Chris served as red wine winemaker at Caymus Vineyards.