Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tastings | Swanson Salon

After our epic meal of a lunch at The French Laundry (post to come soon!), Marcus and I drove around on St. Helena Highway for a bit before making our scheduled stop at Swanson Vineyards.

For the two of us, I made an appointment for a "Bon Vivant" tasting at the Salon at Swanson Vineyards, "a formal tasting experience exploring the breadth and depth of our cellar" advertised on its website.

When I turned into Manley Road, where the Swanson Salon is located, I had missed the entrance, originally thinking it was a private driveway. In fact, it was the right one! Luckily, someone down the road was able to point me back there!

When I turned into this private-looking driveway, I had to ring in to the reception to confirm my reservation at the Salon. Such an interesting touch to the whole experience, adding a little tasteful pretension and exclusivity!

Once we confirmed our reservation, the opened the gates to this beautiful lot, surrounded by gorgeous wildflower gardens.

Once we parked, the salonnière (i.e., the keeper of the Salon), Rosemary Walls, welcomed the two of us with two glasses of Swanson's Rosato, a 2010 rosé made with Sangiovese grapes. For me, it had a really nice peach aroma to it, which I love in a summer wine. It is very fruity all around--for taste, it is dry on the palate and surprisingly full-bodied. There are tastes of bing cherries on the finish. Per our Salon tasting host, the Rosato works well as an aperitif and pairs very nicely with lighter fowl, especially turkey, chicken, and Cornish game hen. I couldn't help myself--I picked up a bottle of this refreshing wine on my way out!

Outside of the Salon is a beautiful courtyard with antique looking patio furniture and fixtures.

Outside the entrances to the Salon (left doors) and the Swanson Sip Shoppe (right doors), a "whimsical shoppe" that "showcases sips of Swanson Vineyards' finest library of vintages paired with the perfect morsel."

The Sip Shoppe features its own tasting menu, offering different tastings to sate any palate!

A lemon tree just outside the Sip Shoppe.

Sip Shoppe tastings are served in charming glass “Dixie” cups, mini Riedel Os, and tiny crystal cordials in 1.5 ounce sip sizes.

Advertised as a "candy store for adults," the Sip Shoppe also "showcases carefully curated gifts and select wines available by the case and the bottle." Its interior is "from the vision of some of America’s finest talents." Swanson Vineyards' partners include retail genius Andy Spade; renowned illustrator Jean-Philippe Delhomme (as previously mentioned); interior designer Thomas Britt; illustrious chocolatier Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut Chocolate; singer Vanessa Carlton and her exclusive stationery line (unique to Swanson Vineyards); avant-garde florist Torryne Choate; and renowned California painter, Ira Yeager.

More of the beautiful goodies offered at the Sip Shoppe.

Let's rewind a little bit before I proceed to the Salon tasting. I had first heard of Swanson Vineyards through Oh Joy!'s design blog. Joy had blogged about the whimsical wine maker last September, and I fell in love with its illustrations and "Modern House Wine" collection of "occasion" wines (what a brilliant idea)! After perusing the website, I stumbled upon something that couldn't have been more perfect at the time. An explanation regarding this little something requires me to backtrack into the annals of my personal history (well, maybe not that far back)!

I don't think I've mentioned here on Four Tines as to how Marcus and I met. A little over a year ago, we both met on a little dating site called eHarmony (I guess not so little, haha). I signed up on a random Sunday afternoon, just as a little experiment to see what dating was like via the interwebs, and I honestly didn't expect anything to come of it. After thoroughly completing a somewhat confusing personality test, I began to fill in the required fields of my dating profile. That was when I was determined to be different and original, which meant that no matter how much I love long walks on the beach and similar cliché activities, I would go the route of mentioning things that were truly "me," as a way for me to stand out from other possible matches. One of these little things I had disclosed was that I keep a list of words that I like, listing a few of my favorites, which include crestfallen, nosedive, crepuscular, and lovelorn.

One of my good friends told me that I shouldn't include something so arbitrary like that. "It isn't a good idea, Stefie," she said. "You might scare them away." I'm glad I went with my gut, not heeding that advice at all. Little did I know that the inclusion of this little tidbit about myself would be my key to finding the guy I've been search for all along--the one who knows exactly how to hold my heart (you can thank Sara Bareilles for that beautifully written line).

I had barely been on eHarmony for twenty minutes, and there he was--Marcus, my first match. Tall, mysterious, and one for loving to try new food--he sounded very promising. After answering round of standard questions on both ends and following the proper steps on eHarmony in less than a day, we finally started exchanging real messages via e-mail. The first thing he said to me after greeting me hello was followed by this: "Before I say anything, there's something on your profile that I just have to point out because the coincidence is just too awesome not to mention. 100% serious--I also keep a list of words that I like, and 'crepuscular' has been #2 on my list since high school (#1 being 'effervescence'). I almost couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that."

Needless to say, I only went on one "first date" using eHarmony (with my first match, no less!), and we've been happily together ever since, attributing the crazy serendipity of how we met to one beautiful word: crepuscular (essentially meaning "resembling twilight"). With that being said, this whole story has a point, I promise--it brings me back to how Swanson Vineyards comes into play, i.e., how I stumbled upon something in its online shop that relates to our love for the word crepuscular.

Swanson produces a dessert wine called Crepuscule (French for "twilight"). Crazy, right?! It was so hard to keep this a secret from Marcus. I knew we had discussed a possible visit San Francisco and the Napa Valley in the near future at that point in time, so I didn't want to spoil the surprise by simply blurting it out. I wanted him to experience it firsthand with me, both through vision (seeing the French equivalent of the word on the bottle) and taste (experiencing the delightful sweetness of Swanson's premiere dessert wine). And if we didn't make it to California as planned, I figured I would just order a bottle for us to enjoy back in New York for our one-year anniversary at twilight (yes, I'm indeed a sucker for puns--sue me, haha). In either case, it required me to keep it a secret, which was so freaking difficult, because I wanted to share it with him so badly. Nevertheless, I remained strong in keeping it a surprise. Luckily, we did make those plans for San Francisco and the Napa Valley after all, and after coordinating with the lovely people at the Swanson Salon, I was able to arrange for a tasting of the Crepuscule (more on that shortly).

One of the walls of the Salon, decorated with gift packages made by Swanson. Love that box that reads "For The Person Who Has Everything"--so cute!

The fireplace that is on the opposite wall of the Salon. I love the starfish that line the fireplace mantel. There is also a bottle of Angelica, its rare nightcap made from Mission grapes.

We sat at a hexagonal table with eight other individuals participating in the tasting, all seated on the fanciest and elaborate of hardwood chairs and benches. Typically, a "Bon Vivant" tasting at the Salon consists of eight people, but they squeezed in two extra people at the last minute as a favor to one of the parties. It turned out to be a lovely and fun group!

Tasting notes!

The Swansons began their venture in the wine industry back in 1985, when Clarke Swanson, the proprietor of Swanson Vineyards, "purchased a 100-acre properly on Oakville Cross Road in the heart of the Napa Valley. He was fortunate to obtain the services of André Tchelistcheff, one of the 20th century’s most sought-after winemakers, as a consultant, and in the bold business style long associated with the Swanson name, planted Merlot in the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon country," making the Swansons one of the earliest producers of Napa Valley Merlot. Today, while its wines are extraordinary, the mission of Swanson Vineyards is straightforward: "to celebrate the simple pleasures in life, made better with wine." Even the eldest Swanson daughter, Alexis (also the Creative Director), says it best: "We take our wines very seriously, but passionately believe in glorifying the mundane, every way we can." Her role in the marketing and the creative side of Swanson Vineyards has "elevated the rudimentary wine tasting experience to an inventive concept" brought that includes by-appointment-only tastings, intimate branding and more recently the establishment of the Sip Shoppe.

Our Salon tasting host, Lynn, began the tasting with a little background of how and why this Salon at Swanson Vineyards came to be. First opened in 2001, the Swanson Salon was inspired by the Parisian salons of the late 1800s, where they were the places to gather at the end of the day to discuss various items, including the art that hanged on the walls of the room, literary fare, politics, travels, libations, and the like. It was in these salons of 19th century Paris where "educated discourse and passion for the good life reigned." Clarke, and his wife Elizabeth, wanted the Salon to be an "in-depth, involved experience" as well as a "destination for people who share passions for wine, food, and travel." The art on the walls of the Swanson Salon depict peasant and royal life, which I think is meant to say the Salon is for individuals from all walks of life.

It is the entrepreneurial spirit of Clarke Swanson paired with the creative energy of his wife, Elizabeth Swanson (given the all-encompassing title of "dream maker, tastemaker, opinion-maker, keeper of the most special fairy dust"), that makes Swanson Vineyards so special. It is clearly evidenced by the centerpiece of the Salon tasting table above--the burlewood and inlays of the table influenced by Mr. Swanson and the center candelabra and surrounding accoutrement" aptly placed by Mrs. Swanson--what those at the family winery refer to as "elegance with a wink." The angels on the table are surrounded by flowers picked directly by Mrs. Swanson from her garden outside the Salon.

It had been Mr. Swanson's dream to own a vineyard but one with their family's added sense of humor, humor that is affectionately displayed all over the Salon, the Sip Shoppe, and the brand as well. Most importantly, the Swansons wanted all wine tasting guests to feel as if they were walking into part of their home, as if they were being entertained by the Swansons themselves (which in essence, they are). This is definitely evident in the way guests are buzzed into Swanson Vineyards territory behind the rustic, wooden gates as well as being welcomed by the salonnière herself with glasses of Rosato to begin the Salon tasting.

As I didn't have a chance to snap photos of the beautiful vessels that hold Swanson's lovely wines, I found this painted rendering of its different wines and their respective bottles by internationally recognized illustrator, Jean-Phillippe Delhomme, as noted in Swanson's fact sheet and his informal bio here. This way, you can see which bottle refers to which wines we tasted during our "Bon Vivant" Salon tasting.

The first wine of the Salon (1, above) was the Rosato, a 2010 Sangiovese rosé from the Napa Valley, which Marcus and I tasted upon entering Swanson Vineyards.

The second wine (2, above) was the only white wine in the tasting--a 2009 Pinot Grigio from the Napa Valley. It is a screw-cap summer wine that pairs well with savory chicken, seafood, and light pastas. With this Pinot Grigio you will find aromas of lychee, ripe pear, and lemon zest as well as the taste of fresh Pinot Grigio grapes. The wine is also very long and smooth on the palate.

The third wine (3, above) was its Sangiovese with a 2006 vintage from Oakville in the Napa Valley--a wine that remains a Salon selection with no outside distribution. In fact, there are only five barrels produced per vintage! Lynn told us this is a great summer red wine that is best served slightly chilled. The Sangiovese is best paired with lighter dishes such as ceviche, jambalaya, caprese salad, and a pasta primavera. The wine is fruit-driven but also complex, giving off the aromas of dried cherries and raspberries as well as bright, multi-faceted tastes on the tongue, "with just enough oak to marry with the underlying fruit." I really enjoyed this wine--it had a round, complex flavor to it, giving it lots of character and potential with pairings. Accordingly, I picked up a bottle of the Sangiovese for Bill and Pam to enjoy since they weren't there with us!

The fourth wine (4, above) was its flagship Merlot with a 2007 vintage from Oakville in the Napa Valley. This wine is found in restaurants and boutique wine shops, and it is also a very "tightly-focused ode to the wines of the Right Bank of Bordeaux." Flavors like raspberry, black cherry, and red licorice contribute to the complex flavors of the Merlot. I found this to be a good red wine, but overall, it didn't jump out at me like the Sangiovese did.

The fifth wine (5, above) was the Alexis, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Oakville in the Napa Valley. This wine is named after the Swansons' oldest daughter (and Creative Director), whom I mentioned previously. Its flavors are complex, elegant, and "aromatically beguiling," dominated by ripe black currant, anise, and blackberry. As for taste, the wine is very long in the mouth with a thick but well-balanced finish of cassis and espresso along with "sweet oak" in the background. Lynn noted that while it is very drinkable now, it will continue to age gracefully through another ten years. Actually, the wine was not fined nor filtered in order to maintain maximum flavor intensity and texture, thoroughly explaining why its color reveals a shade of dark garnet. I found this Cabernet to be really smooth with many layers of interesting tastes and flavors. It was definitely on par with the Sangiovese for me!

The sixth wine (6, above) was the long-awaited (for Marcus and me) Crepuscule, a 2006 vintage dessert wine that combines Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. There is an interesting story (like the one I told of how Marcus and I met) about how this wine came to be and why it is aptly named Crepuscule. The Swansons took went on summer holiday in Paris, and they were having dinner at a bistro one night, around twilight. They were enjoying themselves very much--great food and wine, lovely atmosphere. They wanted the warm feeling to linger a little longer. More specifically, Mr. Swanson wanted something to punctuate his light meal like this on a hot evening--a piece of fruit just wouldn't be enough. This was when the idea of creating a wine like the Crepuscule came to be. Truly embracing the spirit of this story with the wine it created, Swanson describes the dessert wine as such: "Like the summer twilight in Paris, Crepuscule lingers long beyond the final sip."

It was a beautifully done dessert wine--tasting sweet like nectar, but not so powerful as to render you into a sugar coma. However, its aroma isn't compromised--there are redolent hints of fresh honey, almond, citrus, honeysuckle, and light peach. It is light and refreshing, meant to be paired with seared foie gras or any creamy light blue cheese. Mr. Swanson nailed it--the Crepuscule is a lovely alternative at the end of a summer's evening meal, when a piece of fruit just won't cut it. In the twenty-five years that Swanson Vineyards has been around, there have only been eight vintages produced of the Crepuscule, making it even rarer and more special. The winery's high standards and meticulous process in determining whether vineyard conditions late into the growing season are optimal for producing Crepuscule. These conditions that it keeps an eye for are the "tiny blocks of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc with the most precious gift of all: botrytis, the 'noble rot' which offers up some of the most exquisite dessert wines on the planet." It is this detailed approach that landed Swanson's current position as "master of the dessert" wine category among its many esteemed peers in Napa and California in general.

Maybe it is mixed in with a little biased from why the wine's name means so much to me (and Marcus, too), but the Crepuscule was my favorite one of all the ones we tasted. It was better than I imagined and dreamed it would be. I took the liberty of ordering a bottle to be shipped back home so Marcus and I will have it a year from now, when we celebrate our second anniversary, embracing the special place crepuscular and now the Crepuscule dessert wine holds in our hearts.

As a side note, the last two wines we tasted (mentioned below) were not originally included in our Salon tasting, but the host that day felt bad for some minor mishaps that occurred during the tasting that she threw in these two tastes.

The seventh wine (7, above) was the FACE Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon with a 2006 vintage from Oakville in the Napa Valley--another one of Swanson's flagship wines! This wine is unfined and unfiltered, exhibiting a blackish ruby color along with intense aromas of cassis, black licorice, vanilla, and black cherry. Lynn recommended having this wine sit out for at least thirty minutes to give the aromas of the wine to aerate and show its true colors. I liked this one as much as the Sangiovese and the Alexis--perhaps even more! The FACE Cabernet was really smooth and full-bodied, having a really nice balance of intense berry flavors. Along with the Alexis, the FACE Cabernet is best for aging, with its expected maturity to be in 2015. Even Swanson Vineyards says this is perhaps the "most harmonious" wine it has ever produced.

The last wine (pictured on top of the chimney mantel in one of the above photographs) was the Angelica, one of Swanson's unique dessert wines--very reminiscent of Tawny Port. Through the Angelica, the
Swansons' attempt to marry "traditional Old World winecraft with the revival of a revered ritual: the decadent nightcap." Even though for a small winery to make many or even to specialize in dessert wines is unheard of in the wine industry, Swanson Vineyards really believes in the revival of the nightcap. Even the vessel that holds the precious Mission grape concoction blends a relic with a modern look! Swanson even took it to another level--"For The Person Who Has Everything" is emblazoned on the gift box that houses the Angelica! Very cheeky!

Lynn advised us, before opening the Angelica, to heat up the vessel's white cap for a few minutes using friction from our hands. Once it is opened, it can be kept out for a year as it is fortified with brandy. She also mentioned to us that the vines from which the Mission grapes are picked for making the Angelica were planted in 1865, making these grapes much older than the French and Italian varietals out in the Napa Valley. It actually takes a total of seven years to make this Port-like dessert wine! As for tasting this wine, the very strong aromatics after the initial swivels is really strong, but it actually sits really nicely on your tongue with the smooth sweetness of raisins to it. Marcus and I enjoyed this port very much. I think what I liked most about the Angelica was that it wasn't strong or biting like other Ports I've had in the past.

During the Salon tasting, the Pinot Grigio was paired with American hackleback sturgeon caviar over crème fraîche and a potato chip. The caviar was not briny or overwhelming, settling well into the crème fraîche and the crisp of the potato chip. It went amazingly with the wine--probably one of the better pairings I've had during a tasting. The wine and the caviar enhanced each other's flavors and tastes more when taken together--making me love the wine even more! I even loved that the chip was served on a clam half-shell--very playful!

During the Salon tasting, the Sangiovese was paired with thin Midnight Moon white Danish cheddar (right), the Merlot was paired with aged gouda (left), and the Alexis was paired with a "rose petal taco" of blue cheese and honey. I found these pairing to be pretty good, but none really stood out to me too much.

This is the famed Alexis bonbon, created by Vosges Haut-Chocolat, with an Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon chocolate ganache at its center as well as spiced curry sprinkled on top. It was aptly paired with the 2007 Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon, which really brought out the similar flavors in the bonbon's ganache center. The spiced curry added a punchy spiciness to the chocolate, which was different than most ganache filled truffles/bonbons I've had. Vosges did an awesome job creating this Alexis-inspired chocolate for Swanson! This also went really well with the Crepuscule as it was made from dark chocolate, offsetting the sweetness of the nightcap wine. I highly recommend picking up a box of these if you find yourself at Swanson (I know I couldn't resist)!

Close of up Swanson Vineyards on the Napa Valley map placemat we each had under our glasses.

This is Hugo. He belongs to Ms. Walls, the salonnière. He was roaming the grounds of Swanson Vineyards, in and out of the Salon and the Sip Shoppe, greeting all of the guests hello. He is as cute as you can imagine.

Findings: Marcus and I had a wonderful time at Swanson Vineyards, especially at the Salon and the "Bon Vivant" tasting we had there. The staff at the Salon was so great and welcoming--they were just as excited as we were to be there, which I really, really love when I'm visiting a winery or attending a tasting. I was a big fan of all the meticulous details that Swanson embraces with respect to customer service--especially buzzing in and personally welcoming us with glasses of rosé! The outdoor and indoor spaces were beautifully decorated and arranged--you can definitely feel Mrs. Swanson's presence everywhere! I definitely felt like I was a guest over at the home of the Swansons--just over for an afternoon tasting of wines and some nibbles. The Sip Shoppe was so nicely done as well--a real candy store for adults!

Additionally, the quality of the wines produced by Swanson Vineyards really lived up to my expectations, undoubtedly justifying the higher price points than you may be otherwise used to. The playfulness of the brand also adds to the happy and fun experience I had at the Salon. I highly recommend making a stop at Swanson Vineyards if you happen to be in the area, especially the Salon if you have time (make sure you call ahead as reservations book up fairly quickly)! Otherwise, the Sip Shoppe is also great, as you get to taste the same wines as you would in the Salon but in a more casual, less guided setting. And if there's one thing you must taste, it is the Crepuscule--I swear it'll turn you onto dessert wines instantly!

I just wanted to thank Swanson Vineyards for making Marcus and I's extended anniversary so special--the Crepuscule couldn't have been a more pleasant and wonderful surprise. We had an amazing time, and we hope to come back again soon!

Price point: $60 per person for a "Bon Vivant" Salon tasting, $24 for a bottle of 2010 Rosato, $75 for a bottle of 2006 Sangiovese, $90 for a bottle of Crepuscule, $35 for a box of Alexis bonbons.

--May 21, 2011

Swanson Vineyards
Swanson Salon
1271 Manley Lane
Rutherford, CA 94573

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