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That's what you can do

the grace of a swan Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

CP:  (con'd) At the time I came, the general manager was Stu Harrison, who got Opus One off the ground and really understands brand-building.  We were able to work with the ownership to maintain a focused three-pronged approach — Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Alexis (which at the time was a proprietary blend but is now a Cabernet) — because with his entrepreneurial spirit, Clark Swanson was always wanting to try new things, including varietals.  But you can't really build quality unless you're consistent with the product mix!  So, while we do make a number of other wines in small volume for direct sales, we're really sticking with these three core wines.  And what we've done to improve them over the last six years is really derived from my personal approach to wine, which is that you should be honest with the terroir and the site you're working with, trying to coax what you really believe that vineyard can and should do.  Then, at the same time, it's important to be honest and direct with the varieties themselves, because in winemaking we can oftentimes do things to obscure those qualities — using lots of oak, leaving residual sugar, mixing in other varieties, etc.  Overall, I believe our approach has worked well for the evolution of Swanson, this renaissance of the brand that I think I've been a part of over the last six years.

Swanson Winemaker Chris PhelpsSwanson Winemaker Chris PhelpsSwanson Winemaker Chris Phelps

NM:  So, it sounds like your work at Swanson has underscored the importance of your values as a winemaker.  What would you say are some of those values?

CP:  Ultimately, it's about the people, and the prospect of working with these people felt good.  It's about the quality of what's going on and the potential of harnessing that commitment to quality, and I believe that's definitely the case here at Swanson.  Plus, I think most winemakers worth their salt will admit that they're never satisfied; we're always looking for some edge to make things better.  We don't have a very high-tech winery here and I didn't have one at Caymus either, but you don't really need a high tech winery.  A lot of this is based on intuition.  It's been said that winemaking is both an art and a science, and I certainly believe that.  One reason women make good winemakers, I think, is that they're not hesitant to use intuition, whereas men tend to rely on data and empirical notions.  But it's really important to be able to say from your gut what a wine tastes like.  When it comes to major decisions like when to pick [the grapes] and how to blend [the base wines] — but even the more minor decisions — being able to rely on intuition is very important.  The winemakers I admire the most tend to shoot from the hip.  And so, here at Swanson specifically, I think there's still a lot of untapped potential; I think the wines have been elevated, but they're somewhat under-recognized.  We just have to find the medium for the message.

The Swanson Vineyards Portfolio

NM: And have you learned anything during your tenure so far that has made you re-evaluate prior assumptions about winemaking?

CP:  The first word that comes to mind is flexibility.  After twenty-five years as a winemaker, you can easily lose your ability to be flexible; you develop a set way of doing things.  But I think at Swanson I've rediscovered the ability to be flexible.  For one thing, vineyard sourcing has shifted in the six years I've been here; I'm working with a different set of vineyards today than I was when I got here.  And in a way that has kept me sharp!  You could look at it as a point of frustration, but if you can be light on your feet and respond in a carefully considered way, you can use that to your advantage.

NM:  Tell me more about that shift in vineyard sourcing.  What has been both rewarding and challenging about working with growers and sourcing their fruit, both which you feel is universal in your experience and which you feel is unique to Swanson?



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