2003 Swanson Vineyards Salon La Ti Da Estate Red Wine
Mission Codename: Whimsical name, Serious wine
Operative: Agent Red
Objective: Send Agent Red back to Swanson Vineyards, to secure a delicious wine that is not available outside of the winery
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Swanson Vineyards
Wine Subject: 2003 La Ti Da – Napa Valley Red Blend
Winemaker: Chris Phelps
Red blends are a favorite of many a Wine Spies Operative. Perhaps this is because a great blend is like a great All-star sports team, where the coach gets to choose from the best available players. In the case of today’s wine, Swanson’s winemaker was able to pick from the finest lot’s of their best wines. Today’s La Ti Da is a fantastic example of how a remarkable wine can be born of great blending – from the best vineyard sources.
Wine Spies Tasting Profile:
Look – The deep ruby-colored wine gives way in the glass to lighter ruby hues and then a pinkish rim with skinny, medium-speed legs.
Smell – A lovely combination of stewed and fresh black fruits greet your nose, leading with boysenberry, black cherry, and raspberry with a touch of chocolate, ending with fig and mulling spice.
Feel – Light to medium-bodied, the silky feel of it throughout the mouth gives it an added smoothness and roundness. There is a juiciness to the wine, as well as light tannins which give the wine structure without being overly drying.
Taste – Flavors of fig, boysenberry, black currant and spice fill the mouth on the first sip, followed by soft chocolate and cedar.
Finish – Long, and lingering with mellow blackfruit, soft cedar and dark chocolate.
Conclusion – We here at Wine Spies HQ appreciate great red blends. When done right, they can be quite impressive. Today’s wine is well-balanced, easy-drinking and flavorful, and would be lovely all by itself! It would also be delicious with some hard cheeses, and light Italian fare like pizza, chicken parmigiana, or spaghetti and meatballs!
Today, we are pleased to provide Agent Red’s recent interview with Chris Phelps, winemaker for Swanson Vineyards, when we featured Swanson’s Merlot:
AGENT RED: Greetings, Chris. We are thrilled to be showing your 2005 Oakville Merlot today. The wine is really fantastic. Thanks so much for the wine, and for taking some time to answer questions for our Operatives today. We are really impressed by your wines!
CHRIS PHELPS: I always appreciate hearing that, Agent Red. It’s a pleasure to go ‘covert’ with you today.
RED: Thanks, Chris. Was there a specific experience in your life that inspired your love of wine?
CHRIS: Well, yes, but more cumulative experience than specific. I grew up in Livermore, CA, a stone’s throw from Cocannon Vinyeards. My parents made a barrel or two of Zin or Cab every year when I was a kid. They picked the grapes with friends, and I helped with crushing, racking, etc. when I was old enough. I found it fascinating that the wine quality could vary so much, depending upon variety, grape source and vintage.Wine was often on the family dinner table, so I was able to taste when I was a kid, and I liked it.
RED: So, winemaking was really in your blood. Tell me, where did you learn the most about winemaking?
CHRIS: I learn more about winemaking every day! There is so much nuance in winemaking, which consists of hundreds of details, some of which might seem insignificant, but can really affect the final product. I was fortunate to me mentored by many colleagues along my career path, starting with Mike Martini at Louis M. Martini in 1980. I graduated from UC Davis in Enology, then continued my education at the University of Bordeaux. Those years in academia, coupled with the key internships I did at Martini, Chappellet and in St. Emilion / Pmoerol as I cut my winemaking teeth, were very formative years.
RED: It sounds like it! What is your winemaking style or philosophy?
CHRIS: In a word, minimalist. If the fruit, at the time it is picked, is physiologically ripe and balanced, intervention through winemaking techniques is minimized. Speaking of red Bordeaux varieties, since we are tasting the 2005 Swanson Oakville Merlot today, I’m looking for perfectly ripe fruit, but avoiding super-high Brix levels, which lead to some of the very stylized wines produced today, which need huge doses of input by the winemaker. If the fruit is handled correctly, it is possible to coax the optimum extract out of the must, and produce a wine which honestly reflects the terroir from which it came. My job as a winemaker is precisely this: to form an honest interpretation of what a specific vineyard site in a specific vineyard is trying to tell me. I hope that makes sense to you…
RED: Your focus is on Merlot, and we applaud that. We are really happy to see Merlot doing so wonderfully. Tell me, what makes Merlot so unique?
CHRIS: So nice to preach to the choir when it comes to Merlot. Merlot is uniquely a ‘winemaker’s wine’. It suits my minimalist approach to winemaking perfectly. Grown in the right climate, in the right soil, with the correct conditions that dictate terroir for Merlot, it is one of the best varieties to work with. Color, aromatic expression of fruit, balanced acidity, silky, ripe tannins – the key attributes we are looking for – come very naturally to Merlot. Even grown under less-than-appropriate conditions, Merlot yields a decent, quaffable wine, and this is also the problem with Merlot, which is part of its uniqueness… there are a number of Merlots, from hot climates, with deep soils better suited to corn or tomatoes, which are not unpleasant, but have nothing to do with great Merlot. We know at Swanson that the clayey-loam soils in Oakville are optimum for this variety, and we take full advantage of this. When it comes to Merlot, terroir is everything. In Napa, there are sites on Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, in Oakville, in Carneros that are perfectly suited to the production of ultra-premium Merlot.
RED: And you happen to make your Merlot in one of them! What wine or winemaker has most influenced your winemaking style?
CHRIS: Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker for Ets. JP Moueix in Libourne, France. After being the winemaker for Petrus and a number of other Moueix properties on the Right Bank of Bordeaux for 44 years, he has ‘retired’, staying on in a consulting role for Petrus in Pomerol, and Dominus, here in Napa. During my 12 years as the first winemaker at Dominus, he had a significant influence upon my approach to winemaking.
RED: How long have you been making wine?
CHRIS: My first stint was 6 months in 1980 at Martini. I became a ‘winemaker ’ in 1984, when I joined the team at Dominus. I remained there for 12 years, before moving to Caymus for 7 years. I have been at Swanson for 6 years.
RED: Who do you make wine for?
CHRIS: Chuck Wagner at Caymus gently reminded me from time to time that I should not make wine for myself, and this was an important lesson. I don’t fixate on ‘who’ the wine is for, per se, but it does get factored into the overall picture. I am conscious of the fact that Clarke Swanson would like me to be producing wines that appeal to consumers, critics, bloggers, etc. At Swanson, as in my previous winemaking roles, I strive to make the absolutely best wine possible, given the fruit sources and other resources I am given to work with. I’m sure this sounds cliche, but it always seems to work out. The wines are not just for the critics, not just for the consumers, not just for me. Wine should be universal. We’ll need to sit down and discuss this question more over another bottle of Merlot…
RED: Any time. It would be a great pleasure. Tell me, what makes the Napa Valley so special?
CHRIS: As I am reminded every time I return to the Valley after being away (I’m sending these notes from Chicago, where I am spending 3 days helping promote Swanson wines), Napa Valley is a place of unique natural beauty. And it is still the Mecca for ultra-premium domestic winegrowing.
RED: Nice to hear someone else call Napa ‘Mecca’. What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone that is considering a career as a winemaker?
CHRIS: Seek a mentor or mentors who are willing to share what they know. Plan on internships in different international wine regions. Study, sure, but not to the exclusion of lots of practical experience. You must be willing to get your hands dirty.
RED: And stained purple. What is occupying your time at the winery these days?
CHRIS: 2009 is a critical year for winemakers to help with promotion. We’ve completed bottling for the year, and are fine-tuning 2008 blends. I’m taking advantage of the fact that we are ahead of normal schedule in the winery to spend a little more time on the road, sharing the wines with consumers and trade. All wineries are affected by the domestic financial situation, but folks enjoy meeting the winemaker, so I am happy to help out when I can.
RED: Ahead of schedule. I wonder what that’s like. Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today
CHRIS: The 2005 vintage was characterized by a very generous fruit set in our blocks of Merlot, so we were able to select the very best 1 or 2 clusters on every shoot, and drop the rest on the ground, and believe me, the ground was covered with green fruit! Producers who did not want to look very seriously at crop level, and had too much fruit on the vine, had difficulty getting it ripe, since it was not an overly warm growing season. I believe the longer, cooler seasons like we saw in 2005 in Napa produce the best red wines, whereas the hot, short seasons in Bordeaux are generally better for achieving optimum fruit maturity. The 2005 Merlot – 100% Oakville, by the way – represents a tremendous value. During my tenure at Swanson, we have moved to a riper style, but not overripe, to avoid green, herbal, herbaceous aromas and flavors, and have increased the black fruit component in the process. In fact, the black cherry and blackcurrant aroma/flavor in this wine are more Cab-like than Merlot. We call our Merlot a Cab-drinker’s Merlot, because it has many of the same attributes as a good Cabernet, without some of the astringent tannins of Cabernet. That’s the beauty of Merlot – quantitatively, about the same amount of tannin as Cabernet, but qualitatively, tannins which are more velvety, more finely-grained, and, frankly, more balanced. Christian Moeuix, director of his family’s Right Bank company now, and the owner of Dominus, told me last Saturday when we met up in Oakville, that he loves our 2005 Merlot. I consider this a huge compliment to our winemaking team, since I know he was not just being kind, he really meant it. This from a man who is known in the press as “Mr. Merlot”. We’ve balanced the wine with the addition of a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, and about 30% new oak, which is half French, half American. Christian found it to be well-balanced and enjoyable. I agree!
RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?
CHRIS: When I lived in Pomerol in 1982, the locals taught me how to grill ribeye steak over aged grapevine canes. I still do this at home, and at the winery. I like the meat rare, with sauteed shallots. This is a great combintation with the 2005 Merlot.
RED: Please share one thing about yourself that few people know
CHRIS: I’m an Indigo Girls (folk-rock duo) groupie. I love to get to as many shows as possible. Emily Saliers (one of the IGs) has become a good friend, and she loves wine.
RED: What is your favorite ‘everyday’ or table wine?
CHRIS: Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve made a barrel or two of home wine every year, kind of like my folks did. In addition to being the communion wine at our church in St. Helena, this is our everyday table wine.
RED: You’ll have to tell me your secret formula one day. How would you recommend that people approach your wines, or wine in general?
CHRIS: Keep an open mind. Minds are like parachutes, they function best when open. Drink what really appeals to you, not what someone else thinks you should like. Always be open to trying new wines.
RED: If you could choose any one wine to drink (regardless of price or availability), what would it be?
CHRIS: I would love to try the 1961 Petrus again; I’ve tasted it out of both 6 liter and 750 ml format, and it was phenomenal.
RED: If I come across a bottle, I promise to share! What is the one question that I should have asked you, and what is your answer to that question?
CHRIS: What are my favorite Napa Valley producers? It’s actually a tough question, and my answer varies, but Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Provenance, and Honig are always on the list.
RED: Thank you so much for your time, Chris, and for the extensive answers. Our Operatives love getting to know our winemakers and I appreciate that you spent this much time with me today.
CHRIS: Thank you for spending time with me, and for your insightful questions. Is your name really Agent Red?
RED: I could tell you, but, you know…
Wine Spies Vineyard Check:
The location of Swanson Vineyards can be seen in this satellite photo.