Welcome to part two of our three-part mini-series, “2011 Harvest Recap,” I’m your host and the chap who worked the Harvest, Jonathan Jonny Cigar Cristaldi and sometimes Why.
That’s a bit of an old joke and it’s not very funny. Shall we then?
We turn now to the score of an old Parisian Salon and boutique winery tucked away in a garden paradise just off Manley Lane in Rutherford, CA. Mind you, I had a unique situation worked out in wine country: three days a week working at Alpha Omega in the cellar and three days a week working the Salon at Swanson Vineyards.
Integral to the Harvest experience, I was convinced that work in a tasting room was equally essential to my understanding of the industry from the ground-level up. Now, I’ve been to many-a-tasting rooms at many a-winery and have been plenty-a-disappointed. Tastings are typically whirl-wind experiences, like In-and-Out Burger. They get you in, they say, “Here’s our Cabernet, it’s so delicious, it tastes like blackberry soup with a dollop of graham cracker crème fraîche, a richy rich mouthfeel and goes nice with Turkey.” Then they say, “On the other side of the card is information about our Wine Club. If you sign up today we’ll give you a shoulder rub and charge your card a magical price, derived from our Wheel-of-Fortune-esque wheel of fortune.” And before you know it you’ve lost $30, a bit of pride, and have an empty feeling in your stomach because you didn’t pick up the hint of “late-afternoon simmering prune.” Well, clearly you’re not cut out to taste wine. Why don’t you stick to Coors Light?
NO, good wino. You will not stick to Coors Light. You will persevere.
At Swanson, the Salon was designed to experience wine the way the Swanson’s like to experience wine: slow, over bites, around a table with friends. Conversation and storytelling, blended together to create a memorable experience and truly let the guest spend a bit of time with the wine. Lucky for the Swanson’s they have winemaker Chris Phelps who happens to make fu#%ing incredible wines. And I know because I had to taste them before every appointment, and when day-in-day out one is tasting the same wine, one has the opportunity to look for nuance and to understand the concept of “structure” in a wine.
But let’s backtrack a moment, because someone in the back row asked a great question: “How did you end up at Swanson?” Great question!
Through a series of humorous miscommunications with the former Marketing Director (I thought she was the daughter of Elizabeth Swanson and she thought I was a spammer) and after numerous follow-ups, I was granted a meeting! I thought I was heading there to talk about a potential Noble Rot collaboration while she thought I was interviewing for a job. After 20 minutes we figured it all out and became fast friends realizing we had come to the valley on similar missions.
A few weeks later I received an invitation to a small private gathering at the winery. My contract with Ram’s Gate was about up and I was in talks with Alpha Omega, so I had no expectations of this event other than to meet the family and taste more of the delectable Swanson wine.
I took it as an opportunity to “dress up.” I had been living in jeans and tucked in button-down shirts. My vests had gone to the wayside. Napa is not a valley of style, sorry Napa! But they know that: they’re farmers. It’s not a three-piece-suit-kind-of-town. Though if you ask me, anything other than a three-piece suit is out of place, alas!) So, off I went to Swanson, even wearing a bow-tie. And then it happened:
The distinctly and stately Clarke Swanson, a man who could very likely have been King of the Napa Valley had this been 15th-Century Europe, wearing a double-breasted suit jacket, complete with pocket-kerchief appeared in the Salon. Was it possible that this man was my real father?! Had I been raised in the trailer park in upstate New York accidentally? Had I been sent down the Napa river as an infant, my mother picking grapes saw me coming, saved me, and fled to the Catskills? Nay. But, my word, we hit it off right away. Then followed Clarke’s wife, the inimitable, warm, friendly, humorous and enchanting Elizabeth Swanson. A sixth-generation New Orleanian and what I call a “pleasant hurricane,” one that envelops you in welcoming winds. Groucho Marx might have met his match with Elizabeth Swanson. And finally I met their daughter, Alexis, whose name adorns bottles of Swanson Cabernet. Like her parents, boasting a winsome personality, she and I engaged in quick-witted quick-speak and in a matter of minutes it was decided that I would likely be working as a Salonniere in the Salon.
Just like that. See what a three-piece suit and bow-tie does for you in Napa Valley? In New York people just hand me their dirty dishes.
And so, from late August through the last day of October I was several days a week working in the Salon, hosting by appointment only, hour-long tastings. One such tasting was chronicled in photos here by Carolyn C. Burgess, a friend of Alexis, in her October 23rd posting.
Landing on the Swanson crushpad, so-to-speak, was the absolute perfect scenario pour-moi. The tastings were like short performances. I had one hour to entertain, delight, revive the senses and educate the good guests that came-a-shuffling through the gates. I learned the Swanson story in and out and selected which wines I would pour on a daily basis. And my co-winery workers made the daily routines thoroughly enjoyable. A group of smart, supportive brilliant people (they laughed at my jokes, and if they were laughing at me at least they were laughing and for that they are diamonds in my book). They shall be named: Mindi, Ella, Rosemary, Lin, Grace, Samantha, Holly, Logan, Chris and Jamison.
These good folks made coming to “work” a treat. I even whistled while breaking down boxes! And they supported my unconventional approach to the Swanson experience, which certainly included Dean Martin and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I have to single out one of the dames: Ms. Mindi Burnett. If e’er there was evidence that the world is truly small, look no further! Mindi was my Salonniere-marathon-trainer. And on the second day of my trailing her, dotting her brilliant performance with frivolous Henny Youngman and Dean Martin quotes, we were setting the table for the next group of unsuspecting tasters. I was telling Mindi about my days at Oxford and Juilliard. She didn’t believe a word of it, “You didn’t go to Oxford!” she accused! And I admitted she was right. I had been to The Tisch School of the Arts. Okay: that was a lie too. I went to SUNY Purchase. “I went to SUNY Purchase,” said Mindi. And here I thought the tables had turned and she was pulling my leg, but in fact it was true and all made sense! She had that familiar look; though I couldn’t place it. Well, turns out I had seen her in many productions because Mindi had attended the acting conservatory at Purchase. Our paths never crossed, however she has a lovely memorable visage and our hair parts in the same direction, hence we became fast friends. I even knew her husband! I mean: really? All the way out in Napa Valley, at a tiny off-the-beaten path winery, a fellow Poorchoice alum? The odds, the odds! My horse for the odds!
Amazing. Grace. How Sweet… the wine. Let me tell you, faithful reader, what I learned from my experience working in the Salon:
Namely, consumers are like George Seurat’s favorite thing: a blank page or canvass. They come in with varying degrees of wine education, but are open to hearing it all again or learning what they don’t know or informing me of what they do know. The tasting room is the front line for a winery and it is essential to put on a good show. If the show is lacking, the experience is dull and forgettable and hence the worst enemy of any brand. And when you’re working a table of eight people from all walks of life, with different goals (some are there to taste, some to buy, some to guzzle and some to simply have a wine country experience), you’ve got to play your cards right. It’s like Blackjack. As the dealer you have an obligation to the house to win and still you have to help the other players along, make suggestions to the novice, and be on par with the experienced.
The tasting room is also a place to truly develop one’s communication ethic. It’s also a great place to work on a vaudeville routine. And in my case, the only place where wine can be described by referencing various lines from The Great Gatsby. In the case of the Swanson Salon, the only place where I can comfortable say I’ve several more bottles of our $140 Face Cabernet, and I’d be happy to open one so you might taste (and I might taste with you!)
Look: Chris Phelps was hired in 2003 to make wine at Swanson. They’d been around since 1985 producing exceptional wines and Chris’s experience (Petrus, Dominus, Camyus, et al.) brings a lovely marriage of talent and quality to the wines and the take-away experience. It’s fascinating to see how different Chris runs a cellar from the way Jean Hoefliger at Alpha runs his cellar. Different winery designs will dictate different approaches. Different backgrounds will do the same. Prior to Chris joining forces, Marco Cappelli was winemaker and continues to make the dessert wines. Marco makes, in my humble opinion, the greatest Noble Rot wine on the face of the United States continent.
How perfect? They make the highest-rated Noble Rot wine in all of the U.S.!!! Meant to be!
On my final day, Chris and the team made Merlot burgers. After all, the Merlot is what Swanson is known for.
Playing in the courtyard: the brilliant barrel organist Michel Michelis, whose career includes performing with Cirque du Soleil, a French gypsy band and numerous other credits among them one wildly interesting gig as the voice of Tomber in Disney-Pixar’s Cars 2.
My final second to last “Salon” tasting was held in the courtyard and looked like this:
My last day was an interesting last day. I was at the end of my stay in Napa, having accomplished what I set out to do: work the Harvest from cellar to tasting room and beyond. I was inwardly emotional, but outwardly the performer. I’d made great friends and found a wonderful sense of community and I think that anyone who wants to collect a wine that tells a story, that is the epitome of community – also happens to be delicious and age-worthy – should collect (and of course drink) Swanson wines. Visit them, make an appointment in the Salon, be inspired and become a member of their family. Tell ’em Jonny Cigar sent you. You won’t regret it. I look forward to visiting the valley and stopping by, who knows, maybe even hosting an impromptu Salon tasting!
To hear my interview with winemaker Chris Phelps visit Noble Rot Talks.
And certainly check out SwansonVineyards.com