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Pioneer Vintner Joseph Swan Dies : Sonoma County Wine Maker Sold Most of His Products to Public by Mail Order

January 19, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Joseph Swan, a pioneer wine maker in California's Russian River Valley who gained fame for great but extremely limited wines, has died at a Santa Rosa hospital. Swan, 74, contracted cancer within the last year.

Swan, who sold most of his wine directly to consumers by mail order, was a Renaissance man who made wine his third career, according to his son-in-law, Rod Berglund, who assumed operation of the small winery this past harvest, after Swan grew too weak.

"He was vitally interested in so many things, and wine was just one of them," said Berglund. "But he dedicated the latter years of his life to wine, and the result was what you see--great wine."

Artist and Pilot

Swan, born in North Dakota, was an artist early in life, working in the Works Progress Administration.

Later, Swan became a pilot and during World War II he trained others to be military pilots. After the war, he became a pilot for Western Airlines and it was during the 1950s that he made his first wine.

"It was in a crock on top of the refrigerator," Swan said in an interview last year. "It was supposed to be a red wine, but we called it 'Jose's Rose' and it was really awful."

Swan purchased a small parcel of land in western Sonoma County in 1967 and began farming a 10-acre vineyard. He and his wife, June, loved wine and they founded the winery in 1969. He retired as a captain with the airline in 1974 to devote all his efforts to wine production.

And he settled on a wine-making style that at the time was considered by some Californians to be archaic.

European Style

"Joe respected the accomplishments of the great wine makers in California, and Andre Tchelistcheff was a great influence on him, but when he decided on a style, he looked to Europe," said Berglund.

Berglund said Swan was one of the first proponents of doing fermentations without the addition of sulfur dioxide, which then was a common additive to grape juice before fermentation.

"Now that technique is becoming quite common," said Berglund, "but back then Joe was looked on as a radical."

In addition, his use of whole cluster fermentation for Zinfandel and Pinot Noir was seen by some as revolutionary in the United States, even though it was commonly used in many fine Burgundy houses in France.

"Also, Joe did extended maceration of his red wines (leaving the wine on the grape skins for weeks), and now that's being adopted by many wineries," said Berglund. He added that Swan wasn't trying to be a teacher or leader: "The reason he chose to make wine this way, I guess, is that he never made wine for the market, he made it for himself, and that's because he didn't want the pressures of marketing. He was one of the true artists in the industry who did it for the love of it, and he never had to compromise."

Best of the Region

His desire to make great wine kept Swan focused on grapes from the cool Russian River area, and his intensely flavored Burgundian Pinot Noirs, which won wide acclaim, reflected the region at its most potent best. Even his Cabernet Sauvignon, from a region supposedly too cool to ripen the hardy grape of Bordeaux, yielded greatness under the Swan regime.

But Swan never wanted to make more than 2,000 cases a year, even though demand rose around the country.

"He never wanted to grow too big," said Berglund, "and we used to fight about the fact he had no forklift."

Berglund, who was a wine maker for La Crema Vinera winery from 1979 through 1984, said the lack of a forklift meant that some tasks, such as moving barrels of wine, became burdensome and time consuming.

"But Joe always said that if he got a forklift, that would mean he'd gotten too big." To this day, the winery has no forklift.

Constantly Tinkering

Moreover, Swan was constantly tinkering with the vineyard, trying to reduce the crop yield, on the theory that large crops give you mediocre wine.

By trying to reduce the crop size, and thus reduce the amount of wine he could make and sell, Swan was making "the ultimate quality statement," said Berglund, who worked with Swan in the last few years charting the vineyard and getting to know each vine.

'Own Biggest Critic'

Berglund said Swan "was his own biggest critic" and would get upset if consumers liked one of his wines that he knew wasn't great.

Berglund admits that when he began to look at the Swan operation, he was mystified.

"Unless you understood what he was trying to accomplish, it didn't make any sense. But when you understood his goal, it was easy to see what was going on."

Swan wines, throughout the years, sneaked onto some restaurant wine lists and into a few retail stores as the mailing list grew smaller.

"My best customers are people my age," Joe said last summer, "and a lot of them are dying, so I have vacancies on the mailing list."

June Swan has asked Berglund to continue the work Joe started. Berglund's wife, Lynn, is June's daughter.

In addition to his wife, Swan is survived by four sons; two daughters; a brother and a sister, and eight grandchildren. No services were planned, but a family gathering was scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday, a Swan family tradition.

Fittingly, the 1986 Swan Pinot Noir, to be released March 1, is probably the best Pinot Noir Swan ever made.

"I don't know how he would feel, but I think this wine comes as close to what he wanted to do as anything he ever did," said Berglund. "The wine has great fruit but it's also elegant and refined. He was very proud of this wine." It will sell for $18.

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