Tasting Wine: Winemaker Joseph Swan left behind a golden legacy

As some of you may have noticed, every once in a while I dedicate this column to a great producer/winemaker. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this theme a lot. A lot of people make good wines. A few make one absolutely excellent wine, but very few have the golden touch.

I hate to say this, but it’s true: Not every actor can be Philip Seymour Hoffman and for all the classical composers who have lived, there was only one Beethoven.

Today, I want to shine the spotlight on one of California’s top producers, Joseph Swan. Joseph Swan, the man, came from a religious family where drinking was prohibited. He moved from North Dakota to the land of sin, and while working as a pilot purchased property in Sonoma. That was 40 years ago, when there may have been more cows and goats than people up there.

As his health began to wane, he passed the torch to his son-in-law Rod Bergland in 1988, a year before his death. Bergland remains the winemaker and owner of Joseph Swan Vineyards, and his wines have paid homage to one of Sonoma’s great wine pioneers.

I’ve been lucky enough to taste older Swan wines. The zinfandels can still be great with 20 years of age, as can the pinot noirs. They’ve gotten into some other varietals over the years and while they may not have the track record of the zins and pinots, I’m still always impressed.

Finding the really old wines canbe difficult, but Bergland releases some of his wines later than a lot of other producers, so you can still find some wines that have good bottle development. Young or old, here are three to seek out:

Joseph Swan Côtes du Rosa, 2005: All Bergland will say is that this is a Rhône-style blend. I honestly don’t know percentages, though my guess is that there is syrah, grenache and very possibly a little zin thrown in, plus others. I might be wrong. At any rate, it is delicious. With raspberry, blueberry, rose petals, white pepper and a charcoal-like smokiness, it reminds me of very good Vacqueras. Suggested retail: $21

Joseph Swan Zinfandel, Redwood Ranch, 2001: This zinfandel will appeal to folks who like massive wines and those who prefer a little restraint. It has cherry, chocolate, figgy ripe fruit bordering a bit on cough syrup, yet there is an underlying minerality and nice acidity, giving it great balance. Suggested retail: $25

Joseph Swan Pinot Noir, Trenton Estate, 2004: Made from different lots on the Swan estate, this is a testament to the potential of California pinot noir. It has a slight Burgundian quality, with a little leather and an earthy mushroom funk. Medium-bodied with cherry, strawberry fruit and spice, you can drink it on its own but it will go with a wide range of food. Suggested retail: $45

Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.

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