IF YOU'RE LOOKING for an early line on an exciting new wine from Napa Valley, make note of the debut Swanson Vineyards Alexis ($33), a 1994 vintage that's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (55 percent), Syrah (40 percent) and Merlot (5 percent). . . .
This is a delicious new proprietary wine that owner Clarke Swanson has been toying with for years. Now he and winemaker Marco Cappelli have settled on this Cabernet-Syrah-Merlot blend for Alexis, named after Swanson's daughter. . . .
It's a welcome addition to Swanson's broad lineup, which is solid across the board. The mix includes Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sangiovese, a rose made from Sangiovese called Rosato, Syrah and, when weather permits, a late-harvest Semillon. . . .
Since buying land in Napa Valley in 1985, Swanson, heir to the Swanson Foods business and owner of Napa National Bank, has assembled 140 acres of prime grape-growing land, most of it centered in the heart of Oakville. His neighbors are Opus One to the west, Groth Vineyards to the east, Caymus Vineyards to the north and Silver Oak to the south. . . .
THE WINERY HAS KEPT a low profile and slowly increased production to 18,000 cases, as Swanson prefers to let his wines to the talking and build his reputation based on their quality. . . .
In terms of volume, Merlot dominates, with 9,000 cases, and it remains a challenging wine even for the most skilled winemakers in Napa. The debut in 1990 proved ruggedly tannic, but the 1991 showed more focus and polish. . . .
Swanson is enjoying even more success with his other wines and much of that credit is due to the location of the vineyards and the curious and talented winemaker he hired. . . .
Cappelli, who is 35 with short-cropped, dark hair, is a protege of the late wine master Andre Tchelistcheff, who discovered the young winemaker working in the cellar at Saintsbury "rolling barrels," says Cappelli. . . .
THE WINERY HAS long been torn between trying to be known for one wine or for its broader diversity and the pattern that has evolved is the more wines the merrier. . . .
With the Carneros-grown Chardonnay ($24), for instance, the style has evolved from a crisp, intense, non-malolactic style that took three to five years to develop, to a full-on Burgundian replica, complete with wild yeast fermentations. The main advantage of malolactic is that it makes the Chardonnay more complex earlier on, says Cappelli. . . .
The 1995 serves up a complex array of fig, pear, melon and citrus, finishing with a delicate smoky oak note and the kind of lingering aftertaste that makes you think it can age for another two to four years to fill out. . . .
The Sangiovese ($22), grown in Oakville, has been well-made too, with hits in 1992 (92 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) and the newly released 1994 as Cappelli seeks to extract even greater concentration and depth from the grapes. . . .
ALEXIS 1994 SERVES up a pretty array of currant, anise, cherry and spice, finishing with a dash of oak. It's a remarkably elegant wine for all its rich, complex flavors and with 500 cases, if you look for it now, you've got a good chance of cornering a bottle or two. The 1995, tasted from barrel, is a shade richer and in Cappelli's view a better wine, but he makes this distinction: "1995 is not necessarily a better vintage than 1994, but for Alexis it's a better wine" . . . .
The other new wine is the Syrah ($33), grown in Yountville on the Schmidt property, which is now owned by Swanson. For years the Schmidt Ranch grapes were sold to Sean Thackery for his superb Orion Syrahs. . . .
"Just about everything that comes off that property is excellent," says Cappelli, "but looking at that vineyard before the harvest, you wouldn't believe the grapes could ever be that good. The only way you get that great flavor [in the Syrah] is through dehydration." When the grapes are picked "they look like little punching bags," he says. . . .
The 1992 (89) is rustic, dark and chewy, a wine that's quite demanding and requires a glass or two to begin to appreciate its unique features. . . .
The 1993 (89) shows more oak flavors and polish, along with more finesse and the 1994 (91) carries those themes of finesse and grace another step further. . . .
ANOTHER INTERESTING FEATURE about Swanson Vineyards is that the winery cures much of its own oak outdoors behind the winery. . . .
Barrel staves are left out in the open so when it rains the water leaches out some of the oak tannin, giving Cappelli the desired aged-wood qualities. . . .
If you want to get a lead on where to find Alexis or the other Swanson wines, give the winery a call at (707) 944-0905. . . .
Once word gets out on this wine it will become another of those hard-to-getwines. At $33, it's not priced out of line. . . .
The uniformly high quality of Swanson's wines definitely puts this winery in the category of over-achievers, where the wines deliver all the authenticity you could hope for and then some. . . .
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