Winemaker of the Week: Chris Phelps of Swanson Vineyards!

In the world of wine, it is not uncommon for winemakers to spend the duration their careers in their country of origin. In the Old World especially, centuries of tradition and familial ties often hold sway over the need for worldly exploration. Occasionally, however, the opportunity to explore both worlds presents itself as was the case for winemaker Chris Phelps of Swanson Vineyards (pictured above) in California’s Napa Valley.

Born in Livermore, California, Phelps took an interest in two things early in life: wine and all things French. In pursuit of his passions, this bona fide Francophile studied both enology and French at UC Davis and upon graduating, made the move to France to continue his vinous studies at the University of Bordeaux. As part of his practical experience he landed a position as winemaker during the 1982 harvest, one of the most storied vintages in Bordeaux history. During this time, Phelps was mentored by two of the most well-known names in this world-renowned wine region, Christian Moueix and Jean-Claude Berrouet and his relationship with these men resulted in a winter spent living and working at Château Pétrus. After six months at the legendary estate, Moueix hired Phelps as winemaker at his new project in the Napa Valley, Dominus Estate. This position signaled Phelps’ return to California where he would incorporate his skills acquired in France with his existing knowledge to create Bordeaux-style, Meritage wines. Phelps remained at Dominus for over ten years, followed by a stint at Caymus where he crafted their renowned Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon. It wasn’t until 2003 that he joined Swanson Vineyards which, “felt like coming home,” due to the winery’s historic focus on Merlot which he became intimately acquainted with during his time on Bordeaux’s Right Bank.

Recently I had the pleasure of having lunch with Phelps at Joseph’s Wine Bar & Cafe in downtown Delray Beach, Florida while he was in town promoting the latest releases of the Swanson wines. The bespectacled Phelps was very engaging and when asked how he would describe his winemaking style, he responded, “it’s more about what I don’t do…like use too much oak, add tannin, add acid or color, or sweetness enhancers.” He also added, “I’m not an interventionist winemaker, I channel the vineyard into the bottle and express what the vineyard is trying to do. I try to make honest wines.”

We began the tasting with the 2011 Swanson Napa Valley Pinot Grigio ($18) which was under screwcap, “perfect for a wine meant to be consumed young and fresh,” added Phelps. And it was exactly that, young, bright and fresh with aromas of Meyer lemon and peach which continued on the palate along with hints of tropical fruit and a refreshing acidity. In addition to Pinot Grigio, this wine is 9% Chardonnay giving it nice weight and roundness which thankfully sets it apart from your standard issue, vapid Pinot Grigio. Completely stainless steel fermented, this wine is a delightful Summer selection, perfect for pairing with warm weather fare such as peel-and-eat Gulf pink shrimp or raw oysters on the half shell.

Our second white wine was the 2012 Swanson Napa Valley Chardonnay ($36), which displayed aromas of green apple, citrus and an enticing minerality very reminiscent of Chablis. On the palate, flavors of lemon, apple and peach accompanied a food-friendly acidity and delightful, mouth-coating viscosity. In addition to stainless steel, this wine also spent some time in French oak (95% neutral, 5% new) which, in Phelps capable hands translates to an excellent balance between oak and fruit in the finished wine. While delightful on its own, this Chardonnay is a fabulous food wine and I found myself instantly envying a woman at the next table who had ordered the baked Brie.

Artwork in the Swanson Vineyards Salon

Our first red wine of the tasting was making its vinous debut, the 2011 Swanson Cygnet Napa Valley Merlot ($22), a blend of 78% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon which had spent 16 months in oak barrel (70% American, 30% French). The resulting wine had fragrant aromas of juicy black fruit and spice as well as mouth-filling flavors of blackberry jam, ripe black cherry, cassis and spice cake. The Cabernet Sauvignon adds just the right amount of structure and tannin to pull this wine back from the brink of hedonism and it will definitely appeal to fans of juicy, fruit-forward Napa Valley Merlot. Phelps certainly accomplished his goal of making, “a wine that is easily enjoyed on its own or as an accompaniment to a variety of foods.”

Next up was the 2010 Oakville Merlot ($32), a Swanson classic which is stylistically different from the Cygnet Merlot. In addition to the Merlot, this wine is also 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot, which was aged for 18 months in 50% French and American oak barrels (33% new). The result is a wine with a core of black fruit including blackberry and plum accompanied by notes of espresso, baking spices and firm tannins. The Oakville Merlot was well-balanced with great structure and as Phelps explained, “it was balanced when it came off the vine!” This wine will definitely benefit from a few more years of bottle age, although it was pretty delicious the day we tasted it.

We finished with the 2010 Alexis Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($69), a wine which debuted with the 1994 vintage and is named for the Swanson’s eldest daughter. While this wine was initially a Cabernet/Syrah blend, it has been reimagined as a Cabernet Sauvignon since 2005. The Bordeaux purist in Phelps thought the Syrah took away from the varietal purity of the Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2010 Alexis is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot aged for 21 months in 100% French oak barrels (60% new). This well-made wine serves up a complex array of black fruit, spice, cassis and espresso which envelops your palate, coating it with a lovely balance of fruit and tannin which delightfully lingers after each sip. While delicious now, this wine will also age with grace for the next 10-15 year and is perfect for pairing with roasted or grilled meats such as lamb chops with rosemary or filet mignon.

The Swanson Vineyards Salon

All the Swanson wines in this post are available at The Wine Atelier (click here for more information) and in addition to tasting their delightful wines, I’ve also had the pleasure of visiting Swanson Vineyards in the Napa Valley. The beautiful Swanson tasting salon, decorated in the style of an 18th century French parlor, definitely warrants a visit next time you’re in town. Who knows, you might even see the elegant Elizabeth Swanson in the courtyard tending to her garden while the ever-dapper Clarke is looking after the winery. If you feel like indulging in a real treat, book a private, curated tasting which pairs the Swanson wines with caviar, cheese and chocolates from around the world!