Hidden Winery Gems – Food and Wine Pairing Experiences
Swanson Vineyards is tucked away on a quiet stretch of Manley Lane off of Rt. 29 in Rutherford California. With no visible signs pointing you there, by design, Swanson’s discreet location is one of Napa Valley’s hidden treasures.
Clarke and Elizabeth Swanson (of Swanson Frozen Food fame) founded the winery in 1985 with a pointed vision to produce Napa Valley Merlot. They hired Industry veteran Andre’ Tchelistcheff as their wine consultant and set off to plant Merlot vines on the 100-acre property. After years of distinguished acclaim as one of Napa Valley’s most premier Merlot brands, the Swanson’s expanded their roots and started planting and producing “off the grid” varietals such as Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, and Syrah.
While to this day Merlot remains their most prominent label, the Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio are also critically acclaimed, and over the years, Swanson has honed their National sales presence around these three varietals. Luckily for those who have the opportunity to visit the winery, Swanson still produces and sells direct, very small lots (<300 cases for most) of their boutique varietals or “Secret Stash” Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Petit Syrah, Zinfandel and a few eloquent late harvest and dessert wines.
Tastings at Swanson are booked by reservation in their Estate Salon in Rutherford. The Salon Tasting experience was created back in 2001 and emerged as one of the first direct to consumer tasting experiences in Napa. Limited to small groups, the reserved tasting feels like a small dinner party and offers guests an intimate opportunity to sample small production wines available only at the winery. The décor of the Salon is Bell Epoch with a strong Louisiana influence, inspired by 18th-century Parisian culinary salons, and brought to life by Clarke’s wife, Elizabeth, a fifth-generation New Orleanian. The dark rose painted walls, 20’ ceilings donning hanging feathered bird nests provide a playful backdrop for interesting conversation. Salon Tastings are limited to small parties ranging between two and eight people and are hosted at a large, round gilded wood table under a spectacular candle chandelier. Five wines from the limited “Secret Stash” portfolio are paired with small bites that are created to impart interesting nuances to the wines. The menu varies, and is nothing short of creative, with unconventional taste combinations that might include carrot pannacotta, black pepper gelee’ or smoked ricotta cheese. The menu’s encore usually includes something sweet, like chocolate or French macarons.
Based on its popularity, Swanson subsequently opened the “Sip Shoppe,” in a parlor room next door. It is designed to be more lighthearted and whimsical, painted with pink and white stripes and ice cream parlor tables. Wines are ordered by the taste or by the glass and are served in glass Dixie cups or cordial glasses. Chocolates, cheese, caviar, sorbet and other indulgences are available to pair.
In 2015 the Swansons sold the winery to Vintage Wine Estates, but the winery didn’t skip a beat. Vintage has maintained the Napa winery’s charming joie de vivre in how it operates today. Whether it’s a seated wine and food pairing in the Salon, a fun romp through the Sip Shoppe or hanging around on the comfy sofas among the beautiful gardens, within a Valley ripe with more intimate tasting experiences, Swanson’s extra sparkle is truly a hidden gem.
Open Daily by Appointment- Salon Tastings available by reservation -3X daily (10:00/12:30/2:30)
1271 Manley Lane Rutherford, CA
Laura Larson, Contributing Writer
Laura Larson is a contributing writer specializing in winery and lifestyle experiences and is the feature editor for NVL’s Hidden Gems series. Laura is the Founder of Virtual Vines, a DTC sales and marketing consultancy focused on helping wineries build closer connections with customers through relationship marketing. Laura is an active member of the Napa Winery Community. She is an appointed Board Member of the Napa Valley Hospitality Forum, a consortium of over 85 wineries focused on inter-winery collaboration. She is a member of the DTC Wine Symposium Steering Committee as a content contributor and workshop moderator and over the past few years, served as a panel expert and judge for the SF Luxury Marketing Council Winery Bootcamp and Rising Star Awards. Laura also writes blogs and a feature column for Wine Industry Advisor, The V FILES ™; a Winery DTC best practices report scored by Mystery Shoppers. As an accredited sommelier, Laura’s passion for wine led her to explore some of the most prestigious wine regions all over the world and to the ultimate launch of her own wine label “601 Cellars “in Spring 2018.