My Interview with Chris Phelps of Swanson Vineyards

My Interview with Chris Phelps of Swanson Vineyards

I love talking to winemakers. Hard-working, intense, and thoughtful, they’re incredibly generous with their knowledge. True, I have come across the occasional crank or charlatan, but by and large, they’re good people.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting one of these very good people, Chris Phelps, the winemaker at Swanson Vineyards in the Napa Valley. (Oakville, to be precise.) Despite some pretty fancy names on his resumé — Chris studied at the University of Bordeaux, worked the remarkable 1982 vintage in St-Emilion, trained at Château Pétrus, and served as the winemaker at Dominus and Caymus — he is as unassuming and low-key as they come. Over dinner in Tribeca, Chris and I had the chance to talk about his work, French Tupperware parties, and what happens when you microwave wine. (Full disclosure: Chris provided the wines mentioned below for free. He is also good friends with my brother-in-law, the very talented designer Daniel Hale. Finally, he is the the mastermind behind the insanely good tri-tip I had at the Boy Scout picnic when I was out in St. Helena last October, which predisposed me to like the guy before I had even laid eyes on him.)

A few things to know about Chris, in no particular order:

1. He has terrific timing. After finishing his winemaking studies at UC Davis, he worked the 1982 harvest in Bordeaux, which is kind of like beginning your professional baseball career with the 1998 New York Yankees. The exceptionally warm vintage led to exceptionally rich wines, which set a new standard for Bordeaux. Lucky, lucky guy.

2. He’s a Cabernet and Merlot man. From his time in Bordeaux at Château Pétrus, source of arguably the world’s finest Merlot-based wine, and his work in Napa, he knows his way around these two varieties. He also knows how to make them work together nicely. Alexis, the seductive, iron-fist-in-a-velvet glove Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine that Swanson is best known for, benefits from the addition of a little Merlot. “It’s like sandpaper, smoothing out the edges of the Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Chris. “It really enables the blend to work.”

3. He’s not afraid to take an unpopular position. He knows that Merlot gets a bad rap–and rises to its defense. At tastings, when participants turn up their noses at Swanson’s well-made Merlot in favor of Alexis, Chris jokes that he has to “give himself a time out” so that he won’t get too agitated. It can be tough sometimes to make Merlot in this post-Sideways world.

4. He loves a good party. While Chris was working in Bordeaux, the elderly woman who lived next door invited him over for dinner one night. Chris showed up — and so did every woman in the village. Turns out she had invited him to a French Tupperware party. The evening’s highlight was her vin de noix, an apéritif based on walnuts. The drink stuck with him so much, he now makes his own for fun (not for sale, sadly).

5. He’s microwaved wine. One of his buddies in Bordeaux swore by this trick: nuke a bottle of wine for a few seconds to artificially “age” the wine. Chris isn’t a believer, but I love that he gave it a try.

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