Joseph Swan Vineyards
Although we specialize in vineyard designated pinot noir and old vine zinfandel, we also produce small lots of other wines including Rhone style wine, pinot gris and chardonnay. We strive to make interesting wines that reflect their unique origins and to price them fairly. The mere fact that we are still here after 40 years means we must be doing something right. Our charming tasting room, also our barrel room, is full of winery atmosphere and a great place to visit if you're in the area. We have a wonderful tasting bar and Rod and Lynn are often behind the counter ready to talk about our wines.
Located in the heart of Sonoma County, California's famed Russian River Valley.
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Owner & Winemaker
It is hard to believe that this will be my 28th harvest. As I look back on it I think about how much things have changed, and how they have stayed the same.
When I was a small child growing up in Petaluma (southern Sonoma County) I never dreamed of becoming a winemaker. It was probably the only thing I didn't dream of becoming! An insatiably curious child (annoying to some adults, a delight to others), I was always wondering. I wanted to know the constellations in the sky, to build a rocket, to ride a horse, to build a raft ala Kon Tiki and sail around the world, to fish, to hunt, to live like a Native American, to become a scientist, a farmer, a world explorer, a doctor, a museum curator, a plant guru like my hero Luther Burbank. In short, life would be way too short to do all of the things I wanted to do.
My best friend growing up was half Italian (his mother's half). After my friend's grandmother's death, his grandfather came to dinner almost every night. His mother was by far the best cook in a family of amazingly good cooks. When my friend wasn't at my house (which often included Fridays-meatless Fridays for Catholics in those days), I was at his house. Nonno's table rules for the kids were simple-eat your vegetables and drink your wine! I was thus exposed to wine, as food, at a very early age. I also learned a lot about cooking-and winemaking--from my friend's mother, things such as always smelling the herbs that you use as they vary in flavor and intensity during the year, that measuring is less important than understanding your ingredients, and taste and smell are far more important that slavishly following a recipe. In any event I was curious enough about this wine thing to try to do it myself.
My first wine was not very good. Concord grapes picked from our backyard vines and allowed to ferment on their own. It wasn't nearly as good as the Pedroncelli wine that Nonno mixed with water for us. End of experiment. It wasn't nearly as fun or rewarding as trying to grow plants, which I did with abandon. I even tried grafting, mostly to our fruit trees but other plants as well. I tried cross-pollinating flowers and even decided that if Luther Burbank could produce a spineless cactus I could create a thornless rose bush. (I pulled the thorns off with pliers and then wrapped the stems with electrical tape. My mother did not see the value in this however.) At least the rose bushes survived, even if they did re-grow their thorns.
Jump forward a bunch of years. The year is 1969. I had just graduated from high school and was entering college, majoring in Biology. The Viet Nam war was raging. The draft was reinstated. My number came up-23. When I called the draft board they informed me, incorrectly, that I did not have a student deferment. They also told me that my coffin had been ordered. Gallows humor of the worst sort. I enlisted in the Navy, hoping to at least get a usable skill out of the deal. Along the way I got a little bit of a wine education.
While awaiting my school slot I spent time going to reserve meetings with a fellow whose family had a nursery. Since I was fascinated with plants, we spent a lot of time talking. Their main business was in grapevines, providing rootstock and grafted vines. I learned a great deal in a short time. After I finished my schooling and was sent to sea, I had an unusual opportunity to learn about wine from a junior officer on the ship. At this time there were lots of career officers and enlisted intermixed with those who would not have been there had it not been for the war. One of the latter was a lieutenant on our ship. A bachelor with good taste, he had his own apartment at our home port. He didn't spend much time socializing with the other officers, as he was a decidedly more cultured individual than many of them. Several times he invited a couple of my friends as well as a couple of civilians over for dinner. He liked to cook and definitely liked good wine. Fascinated by the wines that were served, I began to go to shops and peruse the shelves, mystified by all of the different labels. Then, on my last leave before my discharge, I stopped to see an old school friend. He and I had competed all through school, starting in Kindergarten. His father was an engineer and he had traveled extensively, even living in Baghdad for a short time. He had a genius level IQ, total instant recall reading ability and could converse intelligently on almost any subject. However, at a party, a wine snob (someone who knows a tiny bit more than you and is more than happy to let you know) found out that he knew nothing of wine. Mortified, he checked out the books on wine from the library the next day and immersed himself in the subject. He then set out to buy bottles of the wines he read about (mostly European and primarily Bordeaux). When I saw him he wanted to share his newfound passion and gave me several books he had purchased, as well as a case of wine. I stashed it at my family's house, and, when I returned home for good, decided it was time to really learn.
Along with another old school friend (who had grown up with wine on the table), we began our sojourn through the world of wine. We visited every winery we could (and in those days you could pretty much taste your way through Sonoma or Napa in a couple of days), bought wine we read about, and started attending tastings when possible. A chance encounter with someone who was working with Joe Swan led to an introduction to him. At a tasting in Calistoga a bit later, Joe asked me why I had rated a particular wine first. I told him that although there were other wines in the tasting that were more dramatic, this one wine was the most complete, had perfect balance, and would probably be better than all of the rest with a few years in bottle. I really didn't have anything to base this on other than gut feeling. I was the only one, including Joe Swan, who had rated it that highly. As it turned out, it was his wine. That night he told me I needed to become a winemaker. Flustered, I answered something like, ÒI can't be a winemaker, YOU are a winemaker!Ó Over the next several years our friendship grew and he continued his encouragement. I would come up with one excuse after another until I had run out of them and began to consider the possibility.
In the spring of 1979, while eating and drinking great wine with a group of friends, the discussion began to center around the possibility. That night we decided to make it happen. That fall I took the plunge and made my first wines: two chardonnays, three pinot noirs, a rosé and a cabernet sauvignon. The rest, as they say, is history.
History doesn't record the score this first effort received from the critics, but one can safely assume that it didn't rival his later efforts! Nonetheless, the beginning of a quest to become a winemaker was born.
In the intervening years, Joe was an artist. He would later say that the only painting of significance that he did was on a famous mural painted during the depression. He was paid by the WPA and his job was to paint the blades of grass! Joe decided that he lacked the ability to succeed as an artist and pursued another of his interestsÑflying. During WWII he taught flying to the Army Air Corps and then took a job with Western Airlines as a pilot, a career path that he would follow until his retirement in 1974. During this time, his love affair with winemaking and grape-growing never waned. He visited the enology and viticulture department at UC Davis in the years immediately after the war and made several friends there. While based in Salt Lake City, Utah, he made Zinfandel from locally grown grapes, a wine dubbed "Jose's Rose" by his flying buddies. Later when based in Southern California, he purchased land in the Sierra foothills where he planted a small vineyard. But his real goal was to establish a small vineyard and winery where he could follow his dream, to produce small lots of the world's finest wines.
Joe really believed that, when it came to grape growing and winemaking, small was beautiful. A small vineyard could be tended by one person. Small crops led to more intense, ageworthy wines. A small winery allowed you to oversee every aspect from fermentation to bottling. Joe was a perfectionist and felt that if the wine was to carry his name, then he should be personally responsible for every aspect of its production.
In 1967 he purchased a small farm on Laguna Road near the town of Forestville in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County. The property consisted of 13 acres of old Zinfandel vines, fruit trees and pasture along with several structures including an old barn and a nearly 100 year old house. In addition to the physical attributes, it included an interesting history. The house once housed the post office of the village of Trenton along with the general store and telephone exchange.
In 1968 Joe made wine from the few remaining Zinfandel vines. Then, at the urging of his friend and mentor André Tchelistcheff, began replanting with the cool climate varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The models for his wines, with a couple of notable exceptions, were all French. He took many trips to France and visited noted vignerons, asking their advice and trying to determine why the wines were the way they were. One of the lessons he took away was that low production was necessary for high quality. Because of this, he chose low production clones to plant his estate vineyard and pruned and thinned to keep the production very, very, low.
The first few vintages were made in the cellar of the house and then later in the barn. In 1974, with the help of a few friends (including Joel Peterson who would make his first Ravenswood wines here in 1976), he erected what we jokingly refer to as the tin shed. Joe wasn't interested in fancy buildings, formal gardens, and other fancy trappings he only wanted a safe, secure place to make wine.
Joe was successful in his goals. His wines became known and respected throughout the world. Although he never had any formal training in either viticulture or enology, he was a frequent lecturer at the University of California at Davis and elsewhere. And he was an inspiration, a friend, and a mentor to a generation of winemakers.
It largely due to Joe's encouragement that I became a winemaker in 1979. In 1986, when Lynn and I were married, Joe became my father-in-law. In 1987 I had the opportunity to give Joe a hand and help finish the 1987 harvest.
Joe's last vintage was 1987. He was quite ill in the latter part of 1988 and passed away in January, 1989. Although he is gone, his legacy lives on.
Born in Marin County, CA, Lynn is a 5th generation Californian. She spent her early years In Marin before her mother accepted a teaching position in the Watts area of Los Angeles and they eventually moved to Manhattan Beach. It was here that her mother met Joe Swan, a pilot for Western Airlines. They were married in 1967. That same year they purchased 13 acres in western Sonoma County which would become Joseph Swan Vineyards. Later that year the family moved to the new ranch. As a 13 year old "city" girl Lynn immediately fell in love with her new home. She spent countless hours riding her horse bareback through the local apple orchards and the Laguna de Santa Rosa. As a result of her mother's views on alternative education she was enrolled in a "free" school known as Farm Home School It was this school that instilled a life long appreciation for all things artistic. During these early years she was often pressed into duty helping Joe with everything from foot stomping to labeling finished wine. As she grew older she was exposed to many great wines shared at the table with Joe, her mother June and the ever-changing cast of characters, some world famous, that came to visit.
Her first "real" job was working for a local company called Lasercraft. Here she perfected the art of laser engraving of paper. She also attended Santa Rosa Junior College and earned an AA degree and a certificate in graphic arts. She also pursued an interest in dance and performed in several public performances. It was during this period that she met a young man that came to the house frequently to see Joe and talk wine. She was unimpressed. However, a chance encounter some years later with the no longer exactly young but still shy man led her to ask him to accompany her to a dance performance. They were married the following year (1986). Upon Joe Swan's death in 1989 they formally took over the operation of the vineyard and winery. Lynn continues to play a major role in the day-to-day operations of the winery. In addition to keeping the books she does the wineries graphics, ensures that the newsletter gets out (usually by using her keen powers of persuasion to get Rod to write it) and greets new customers and old friends alike.
When not occupied by the winery she works in her art studio (a selection of her encaustic paintings are on display in the winery), rides her horse (not the same one she had as a kid), dances, kayaks and generally tries to enjoy all that this beautiful area has to offer.