Napa Valley AVA
A meticulously thought out entity that is most certainly on the upper crust of Napa Valley wineries
W. Clarke Swanson is one Midwesterner who came west to attend a university and wound up staying for the rest of his life. The Omaha native chose Stanford and graduated with a degree in international relations in 1961. He joined Citibank and stayed with the giant banking company for the next six years.
Eventually, he founded his own Cable TV business and made the entity into one of the early success stories of the emerging industry. In 1985, when his 25th graduation reunion rolled around at Stanford, Clarke was reunited with his old roommate and fraternity brother, Bob Travers, who was the owner of Mayacamas Vineyards. Travers reminded Swanson of their many visits to Napa Valley and the enjoyable times they shared and succeeded in piquing his old friend’s interest in the wine industry.
Travers was also aware of an outstanding parcel that was for sale in the Oakville Region of Napa Valley, in close proximity to the fabled Martha’s Vineyard and other significant vineyards and wineries. “Bob was really excited and told me about a place I just had to see,” recalled Swanson fondly. “We had talked off and on for many years about my being in the wine business.” Swanson acted quickly and bought the property in 1985 with the thought of becoming a grower and producing grapes for some of his neighbors. Within a year, Swanson found the allure of the valley so powerful that he decided to expand his original plans to include a winery. To that end, he made another decision that would cast his fortunes for many years to come.
In 1986, with the help of Walter Sullivan (great grandson of BV founder Georges de Latour), Clarke Swanson was able to interest Napa Valley icon Andre Tchelistcheff in becoming the consulting winemaker for his new entity, Swanson Vineyards.
Tchelistcheff was by then in his eighties, but provided the expertise Swanson needed in replanting his entire vineyard. “We wound up pulling out all the existing plants and replanted everything,” Swanson explained further. “What eventually developed was an assortment of different blocks. There are a number of clones involved and a number of different trellising options. Andre was convinced that a varietal called Merlot had great promise in Napa, and I decided to go along with his convictions.” Of course, everyone who is interested in wine is familiar with the story of the Merlot grape. From being the afterthought little brother to the Cabernet Sauvignon, the varietal took hold and became California’s darling for the next two decades. Along with Duckhorn Cellars and one or two others, Swanson Vineyards quickly became one of the top Merlot-producing wineries in Napa Valley. Swanson’s initial release of but 200 cases in 1987 was followed by incredible successes both in competitions and in the wine press.
Today’s Swanson Vineyards has grown gradually and currently produces around 28,000 cases. Swanson has ventured into Cabernet Sauvignon (with great success) and other varietals including an impressive Pinot Grigio. Merlot continues to be Swanson’s main forté, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the winery’s production. The winery and vineyards comprise more than 140 acres and include some of the most pristine gardens and facilities in the entire valley.
An innovative Wine Salon was opened in 2000 that is unique in the entire wine world. A miniscule eight seats at the Salon offers customers and guests a remarkable opportunity to taste and enjoy Swanson’s wines in a setting that is practically impossible to duplicate. The salon itself is nestled in a grove of sycamores in adjoining Rutherford and is a high-ceilinged Parisian-inspired tribute to gastronomic invincibility. There are only three seatings per day and reservations are an absolute necessity. The Salon is a must for visitors. “We have tried to elevate the wine/food experience for our guests,” offered Swanson, “and have tried to leave nothing to the imagination. My wife Elizabeth has been part of the salon since its inception and insures that everything is of the highest caliber.” Even though Clarke Swanson has a top flight management staff that includes his daughter Alexis (Creative, Public Relations, and Marketing Director) that runs Swanson Vineyards, he is still intrinsically involved. “I still write the checks,” he chuckled, “and that makes me important to everyone.”
Swanson Vineyards could very well be the model for many upscale wineries. It is a well-designed, meticulously thought out entity that is most certainly on the upper crust of Napa Valley wineries.