“[S]oil of nearly absolute perfection in every particular”: An Historic Tasting of Joseph Swan Vineyards
Joseph Swan Vineyards is located in the Russian River Valley. This valley lays north-west of San Francisco reaching within miles of the Pacific Ocean. Named after the Russian-American Company this area has been home to vineyards since the settlers first planted vines in the early 19th century. The modern history of wine production only dates back to the 1960s. This is when local growers began switching to cool climate grapes. Amongst this group, Joseph Swan is recognized as a pioneer in the production of Pinot Noir. I recently attended a tasting dinner of Joseph Swan wines as the guest of Mannie Berk, The Rare Wine Co., at the Tribeca Grill in New York City. This tasting featured a deep lineup of vintages from six different decades which focused on the flagship wine the Trenton Estate Pinot Noir. Two weeks after the dinner I tasted several more wines at the winery. Incredibly, only two people have produced these wines, Joseph Swan and his son-in-law Rod Berglund.
My glass of the 1973 Trenton Estate Pinot Noir that evening was a gorgeous wine combining both youthful aromas and bottle aged complexity. It was poured from magnum, which undoubtedly contributed towards its state. I kept recalling how the vines were only planted four years prior. It also reminded me strongly of the 2011 Trenton Estate Pinot Noir. I asked Rod about this similarity and he expressed that regardless of vintage and viticultural practices the nature of Trenton Estate shines through. He feels there is a real move toward the center of winemaking in the valley and thinks the next generation is going to develop and highlight the terroir of their vineyards. Joseph Swan did this from the beginning with the 1973 vintage. Rod recollects that only one bottle and four magnums of the 1973 are left in the old stone cellar. The 2011 vintage is fortunately still available at the winery and perhaps just a small bit at the Rare Wine Co. I strongly recommend you seek out this unique and timeless wine before it disappears.
In 1967, Joseph Swan paid $43,000 for 13 acres, a two story barn, an old farm house with a cellar, and a few other buildings. He purchased the estate from Florence Entzminger who was the daughter of Philip Glass, the first postmaster of Trenton. The house itself had once been the old post office, telephone exchange, and general store for Trenton. Surrounding the house were old Zinfandel vines dating back to the 19th century. It was these particular vines which provided the fruit for the first wine to bear the Joseph Swan label, the 1968 Zinfandel. The wine was made and stored in the cellar of the house. No one knows how much was made but our particular bottles came from the old cellar.
The origins of the Zinfandel vineyard can be traced to the late 19th century. The estate is located just east of Forestville near the area which is still known as Vine Hill. In the early 1880s William Hill of New York purchased 6,000 acres of the El Molino land grant. Here he planted 200 acres of vineyard in the Trenton area. It is said that the small town of Trenton developed as a result. The area known as Vine Hill was subdivided into 50 farms of which 27 were settled by the spring of 1885. Philip Glass became the first postmaster of Trenton in November 1887, a position he kept until retirement in 1898. In 1891 it was recorded that 19 different people were mostly growing Zinfandel exclusively to be made into wine. These vineyards ranged from eight to 65 acres in size. The vineyard of Philip Glass contained 27 bearing acres of Zinfandel and Burger vines which yielded some 16 tons of fruit. It appears that William Hill produced his last vintage in 1891. The following year no wine was made and the winery was leased to Dresel & Co. The number of acres bearing fruit must have continued increasing. Two years after Miller & Hotchkiss enlarged the Trenton Winery they leased the William Hill winery. That same year in 1893, Philip Glass’ vineyard had shrunk to 23 bearing acres but it yielded 65 tons of fruit. Philip Glass was amongst the handful that produced wine. To do so he employed some 3,000 gallons of oak and redwood cooperage.
The greatest Pinot Noir Joseph Swan ever drunk was Kanaye Nagasawa’s 1946 or 1947 Fountaingrove. Another great bottle was from a nearby vineyard and dated back to the 1940s. Despite these successful efforts Joseph Swan is considered the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley with the intention of making wine. At the time there were not very many good Pinot Noirs. Hanzell and Martin Ray were making good wines but it was not yet a proven combination of grape and location. Andre Tchelistcheff told Joseph Swan to plant Burgundy grapes because it was a cool area so in 1969 the Zinfandel vines were pulled out. The vines were beginning to fail and with Zinfandel everywhere there was no point in keeping them.
The year the Zinfandel was ripped out the vineyard was first planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Joseph Swan continued to produce Zinfandel while his young vineyard matured. To do so he purchased fruit from other vineyards for the 1969-1976 vintages. The Zinfandel sources moved around throughout the years. One source became the Mancini vineyard. This parcel of Zinfandel was planted in 1920s. It is separated from the Zeigler Vineyard by only a street yet these vineyards were always harvested differently. In fact Frank Mancini, when he was 87 years old, thought they had always been different.
The soil descriptions of the late 19th century Trenton vineyards typically note “sandy loam” with a few “gravelly loam”. These most likely refer to the modern Goldridge fine sandy loam and the Altamont gravelly fine sandy loam. Today the Joseph Swan vineyard is noted for its Goldridge soil. This soil was originally deposited by an ancient inland sea several million years ago. Cody showed us samples of the soil obtained when the vineyard was ripped prior to replanting. They were yellow in color with fine sand grains that could easily be scraped off with a fingernail. The marine origins were indicated by complete shells some two to three inches in width. The soils of Philip Glass’s vineyard were noted as “sandy loam” and “adobe”. The Trenton vineyard lies at the edge of a complex geologic pattern. Rod noted that adobe is generally the by-product of volcanic activity on the east-side of the Sonoma valley and that there is almost no clay in the current vineyard. However, back in the 19th century the vineyard was at least 10 acres bigger. Rod postulated that when the family owned other land the adobe might be related to the cinder cones located on the other side of the Trenton hill.
An additional block of vineyard was planted in 1974 just south of the 1969 block. That same year the present winery was built, affectionately called “the tin shed.” The tin shed is located just inside the estate entrance near the top of a hill. The building sits relatively low with a crush pad and shading trees on one side and wooden lattice work bordering the vineyard sides. Access is gained through thick wooden doors. There is an intimate feel inside no doubt due to the bounty of fruit from the last two vintages. The wooden and stainless steel barrels of wine were stacked three high, past the red I-beam in the ceiling which signifies more typical volumes. On the wall is the historic photograph of Joel Peterson, Joseph Swan, and Andre Tchelistcheff. Joel Peterson interned with Joseph Swan from 1972-1976 and helped build the tin shed. It is here that he produced his first two vintages of Ravenswood wine. Joel believes the photograph was taken in 1974 capturing Andre Tchelistcheff holding a vine suffering from Pierce’s disease.
Until recently the 1973 vintage was believed to be the first commercial release for Pinot Noir but this honor is actually owed to the 1972 vintage. Accordingly to Rod, he was approached by a friend who worked with Joseph Swan in the early years and still has three bottles and one magnum of the 1972. Rod has not found the bottling records but knows it was sold over at least a several month period. Not too much could have been sold for the three year old vines bore a very small crop. The 1973 vintage would then represent a more commercial volume of production.
Joseph Swan planted Chardonnay when he first planted the vineyard in 1969. The first commercial Chardonnay was the 1974 vintage. He could not get any new French oak barrels so he bought some Bourbon barrels. He prepared the barrels by scraping them out. For his first vintage he fermented the Chardonnay in these barrels. Joseph Swan soon learned you could not really scrap everything out. The alcohol of the wine was higher than expected from just the grapes. Rod said it was an interesting wine, not quite Maderized and while others liked it, Joseph Swan did not. The 1975 vintage was the first Chardonnay vintage where Joseph Swan felt he hit it right. It probably helped that he did not use the Bourbon barrels. The first few Chardonnay vintages were all non-malolactic wines with naturally high acidity. This style was not typical for California at the time. Joseph Swan produced two different lots of Chardonnay in the 1980 vintage, one underwent malolactic fermentation and the other did not. Unfortunately both lots were bottled with the same label.
In the early years everything was bottled from barrel and not tank. At first they used to bottle both in regular size and magnums. The magnums came from different warehouse so they were more expensive than regular bottles. Joseph Swan would bottle the best barrels later and give these bottles to his best friends and those who supported him. In 1980 he bought a bottling tank so everything from that vintage forward is consistent. Rob figures the early barrel variations which Joseph Swan originally noticed are no longer as evident due to the age of the wine. The early vintages were finished with unbranded corks. It was not only a lot harder to get equipment and materials back then; there were a lot fewer choices. By the mid-1970s the corks were branded. Rod feels this was probably done because Joseph was often in France and observed the practice. In the 1980s many of the early wines were recorked with branded corks. The reason and extent of this is not known but believed to be limited to the library wines from the early 1970s.
Joseph Swan had a particular vision when he started out. In 1980s his perspective shifted and he felt if a wine was not a vin de garde, it wasn’t worth making. He spent a lot of time drinking “ancient” wines and also took periodic trips to France with Kermit Lynch. Joseph Swan wanted to make wine that was so bitterly hard and tannic, that it would take 20 years before one could drink it. Once a year Joseph Swan would cook dinner and have many people over to taste his wines. He always asked everyone to take notes about the wines which he would review afterwards. Despite the profusion of notes Joseph Swan would describe his wines using five words, “showing fruit” or “drink or hold”. Helen Turley came over when the 1984 Pinot Noir was first served. Some said 1984 was the greatest Pinot Noir Joseph Swan had ever made. Rod thought it was the worst wine Joseph Swan ever made, that it would never be drinkable. Joseph Swan did not know, concluding it will either be good or it never will be. Rod felt it took 20 years before it was drinkable. Joseph Swan’s final vintages in the 1980s continued to be backward and meant for the cellar. Rod first worked with the 1987 vintage then took over the vineyard and winery upon the death of Joseph Swan in 1989.
The viticultural practice has changed three times throughout the estate’s history. Rod likens the origins to Burgundy but with a Californian sensibility. There was 12×12 foot spacing at first so a tractor would fit. Then it was reduced to 6×10 with Rob going further to 1m x 2m. Rob could have gone tighter due to low yields. Joseph Swan originally bought trellising equipment but abandoned it. The vines would grow up to the top of stake then the tops cut off. The spurs would keep growing off creating arms which Joseph Swan did not like it. He had envisioned three stations at the top, middle, and bottom. Joseph Swan would kneel before the vine and view it in an attempt to see ahead two years in the future. He was the only would who could visualize this growth such that a stations would not shade those below. It took forever to trim the grape vine because he kept looking at it and pruning was often finished in June. Rod recalled that Joseph Swan pruned vines so severely, that he was always fighting the vines. He always wanted lower yields.
Rob pruned the vineyard one time when Joseph Swan was sick. The picking crew could not figure out the method and he realized he could not prune the vineyard himself so adopted a trellising vertical shoot positioning system. Rob leaves more wood out there so more can grow and vine can put energy into growing naturally. He will train a cane down one or both ways on the wire so that the canes come up between wires. This provides a thin curtain so light reach all of the clusters. Rod had to change his practice facing vine decline due to the old vines not producing well. He switched to cane pruning so the 2011 vintage of Trenton Estate is sourced from roughly 80% cane pruned vines. Rod lets the barrels develop individually until blended for bottling. This allows him to believe the cane pruned vines have better quality wine.
The 1973 was included because of Rod’s recent experience. One evening Josh Reynolds came to the winery during the barrel tasting weekend. He brought scores of bottles to taste. Rob kept opening up older Pinot Noir until it was late and he thought no one would appreciate them. He recalled there was still some 1973 magnums and thinking it was a dead vintage, brought them up. Upon pouring the wine everyone sobered up and thought it was wine of the night.
The 1997 vintage yielded the biggest crop they had by far even though he thinned half the crop off some vines. The yields were 1-0.75 tons. The 1997 Pentagon originated from two barrels of wine aging in 100% new oak. Rod thought he might be able to detect a difference in the 25 barrel blend if they were left out so he figured if he could not really notice he would bottle them separately. That left the issue of coming up with a name since they never released a Reserve. He settled on Pentagon, somewhat as a joke but also from the irregular five-sided section the fruit came from. This block was surrounded on two sides by Chardonnay. Tom Rocchioli had a three-cornered bock and the Octagon block wine was named after octagon house. Rod continued the pentagon theme by pricing it at $55.55 per bottle and limiting availability to three bottles per person. As for the label it was based on black t-shirts that had a red swan for visibility. It turned out this was the only time he bottled a second pinot noir. In 2007 Rod thought he could do it again for he had a good, decent sized crop. He had two barrels from the same block but when he took them out of the blend it made a difference. So Rod included them in the final blend.
Both 2007 and 2009 were no thinking vintages. The 2009 vintage was an easy and wonderful vintage. The 2011 vintage is the current release for the Trenton Estate Pinot Noir. It was a very cold vintage but Rod feels cool vintages are to their benefit. The 2011 came from primarily older vines but some younger vines as well. The 2011 has some grapes from vines replanted in 1990s. So this blend represents a lot of Swan clone vines as well as all five Dijon clones. Joseph Swan made Rob promise to graft all vines over to Dijon clones after his death. Rod could not do this. He thinks of the vineyard in terms of areas and not clones, such as where the vines are on the slope. Thus he can pick by ripeness parameters. Rod feels the clonal differences becomes secondary after a few years and that the site is more important in the Trenton vineyard. This is highlighted by the Trenton View wine. In the Trenton View vineyard the upper part of the hill has similar soil to the Trenton Estate. The lower part transitions to valley floor and tastes more like Saralee Vineyard which is valley floor. Steve Heimoff once tasted this wine and said it was like “Trenton Estate Jr.” Rod feels the estate character came through from top and the pretty aspect came from the bottom.
We began with bottles of a Hungarian pétillant wine made as an homage to Huët’s Pétillant. These bottles had aged in Mannie’s cellar for roughly two years. It was an appropriate start for Rod, once by chance, made a wine from Furmint. The tasting notes are organized by type. Those from the Rare Wine Co. dinner are augmented by notes taken during a subsequent winery visit and from bottles purchased from the winery. These later notes are indicated below. This is the second Joseph Swan dinner hosted by the Rare Wine Co. You may read about the previous event in John Tilson’s Joseph Swan: A California Wine Legend. I highly recommend you take the time to read through Rod’s newsletters. He recent writings on balance, feral yeast, and grape seeds ring true to his voice.
2009 Királyudvar, Tokaji Pezsgő, Henye, Brut
The nose smells of some age with yellow fruit and some toast. In the mouth the round yellow fruit becomes honied then dry spices came out. There were small, fine and firm bursting bubbles which became still towards the finish as maturity and toast notes came out. The acidity came out as well as riper flavors with dry minerals. There was a dry, textured minerally aftertaste. Drinking well right now.
2012 Joseph Swan, Faux Pas, Trenton Estate
Tasted at winery. Tropical notes come through on the nose. There was some weight to the racy flavors that became creamy towards the finish. It had both supporting acidity and some toast.
2011 Joseph Swan, Chardonnay, Ritchie Vineyard
Purchased at winery. The flavors of ripe lemons existed in a glycerin body that was rich in feel yet had grip. It showed a little toast in the finish. This was best on the second night.
1975 Joseph Swan, Chardonnay
From the darker bottle with the sound cork. The color was a clear, light amber. The nose was slightly stinky with almost piercing aromas and low-lying petrol. In the mouth this was clearly a mature wine due to the subtle flavor of nuts towards the finish. There was some density to the flavors as well as watering acidity. Others reported the second bottles had apple flavors and good acidity.
2012 Joseph Swan, Rosé, The Vineyard Next Door, Russian River Valley
Tasted and purchased at winery. Slightly stinky at first the nose cleared off to reveal cherry aromas. In the mouth were cherry flavors nearly reminiscent of a ripe, rather light red wine. There was a round mouthfeel with slightly earthy notes and a delicately textured ripe finish. This drank best with extended air.
2011 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
Second bottle purchased at winery. The nose was very aromatic and beautiful with continuity in the mouth. There were cherry fruit flavors with acidity inside before the flavors morph from red to blacker red. The fruit was very clean and took on some tannic grip with air. Drinking well now but will mature.
2010 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton View Vineyard
Tasted at winery. The young fruit revealed elegant Pinot Noir aromas. The tart red fruit was simpler than the Trenton Estate. There was a citric note before the black and red flavors of the finish. It left an impression of black minerals.
2010 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Great Oak Vineyard
Tasted at winery. The nose was tight with robust aromas of darker red and black fruit. In the mouth the tart red fruit became blacker with rounded edges and integrated acidity. There were some tannins evident in the back end.
2009 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
The nose was subtle and tight revealing some dark aromas. In the mouth were riper, richer dense young fruit. The flavors were more assertive but good. There seemed to be less acidity with respect to the fruit.
2007 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
The nose returned to the likes of the 2011 vintage with fresh, concentrated red fruit. In the mouth were brighter and redder flavors that showed more tannic grip and good acidity. The cherry flavors made way to a larger and darker, assertive finish with lots of grip.
2006 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
The nose was youthful with primary fruit but developed darker, brambly notes of Pinot Noir. In the mouth were ripe, vigorous flavors of red and black fruit which showed ripeness. The acidity came out followed by black minerals, ripe notes, and an assertive finish.
2000 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
There was a rich, aromatic nose that clearly showed bottle age. The nose did fall off with air. In the mouth the flavors of strawberry jam were soft and enjoyable. There were attractive and expansive flavors of earth and mature red fruit.
1997 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Pentagon, Trenton Estate
The nose was fresh with menthol and blacker fruit. In the mouth were red, ripe cherry fruit that became blacker towards the finish. This was a bigger wine with ripeness returning in the finish. There was certainly structure inside.
1995 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
There was a fresh hint on the nose with raspberry and pastille aromas. With air the maturity came out along with perfume and leather. The flavors began with old wood and red fruit that was lighter in nature. It had watering acidity, grip from the structure, and old notes in the finish.
1992 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
This had ripe, grippy fruit, acidity, and very fine citric tannins. There was weight to the flavors which draped over the tongue.
1985 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
There were hints of menthol and freshness on the nose before it became sweaty. The red fruit leaned towards ripe, cranberry. The tannins were still there.
1984 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
There were attractive earthy, mature leather notes and still noticeable tannins. There was just a hint of ripeness at the front as well as acidity on the sides of the tongue. It was a little rough in the finish.
1983 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
The more subtle nose was complex with herbal aromas. In the mouth the drying structure matched the citric red fruit which became powerful, cranberry flavors in the finish. This was matched by powerful citric tannins.
1982 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
The nose was old with both maturity and complexity. The red fruit became lighter in the middle before the tannins came back out.
1976 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
This smelled very mature with bacon notes. The flavors were earthy with a vintage perfume hint. There was an old flavor profile in general with ripe cranberry and salivating acidity in the finish.
1973 Joseph Swan, Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate
The nose was fresh and still had aromas of primary fruit. In the mouth were fresh and very youthful flavors of red fruit. This was a light wine with, clean, lithe fruit and just a hint of leather and ripeness. A lovely wine that will surely last.
2006 Joseph Swan, Syrah, Great Oak Vineyard
Tasted at winery. There were heavy aromas of berries, spices, and dried flowers. The flavors were tight in the mouth with black and red fruit. The structure was evident with drying tannins before light flavors came out in the back.
2008 Joseph Swan, Zinfandel, Mancini Ranch
Tasted at winery. The nose was evocative of macerated, jammy berries. In the mouth the mixed berries had lipstick and powdery notes. This wine had a lot of texture, particularly in the finish where there were drier, red fruit flavors.
1968 Joseph Swan, Zinfandel
This was a markedly different, darker color. The nose bore older, vintage fruit and sour cherry. The flavors, as expected, were completely different. It began with leaner flavors then old fruit and acidity picked up.
 “…which gives the finest climate, for peaches, and nearly all other kinds of fruits, to be found anywhere. This, coupled with a soil of nearly absolute perfection in every particular, goes to make up the great Sebastopol and Forestville fruit region.” Journal: Appendix. Reports, Volume 3. 1893. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=bFQk-S_gjzQC&pg=PA1#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Haeger, John Winthrop. North American Pinot Noir. 2004.
 The majority of this post is derived from notes of Rod’s comments during the Rare Wine Co. dinner and subsequent emails. A few comments came from a brief conversation with Cody at the winery. Thus any mistakes are solely my own.
 Hutten, Penny. Forestville. Arcadia Publishing. 2008.
 Daily Alta California, Volume 38, Number 12740, 1 March 1885. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
 Daily Alta California, Volume 42, Number 13963, 23 November 1887. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
 Los Angeles Herald, Volume 25, Number 173, 22 March 1898. California Digital Newspaper Collection.
 Directory of the Grape Growers, Wine Makers and Distillers of California. 1891. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=n2zJGIYYMTQC&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
 The Vineyards in Sonoma County. 1893. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=8dZFwOpgr9EC&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Pacific Wine & Spirit Review. Volume 39. 1898. URL: https://archive.org/details/pacificwinespiri39sanfrich
 Pacific Wine & Spirit Review, Volume 34. 1896. URL: https://archive.org/details/pwsr34271895231896sanfrich
 Whitney, Milton. Field Operations of the Bureau of Soils, Volume 17. 1919. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=LxggrQn1ZzMC&pg=PA9#v=onepage&q&f=false