06/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chris Phelps of Swanson Vineyards: A Name to Know in Reconsidering Napa Merlot

Chris Phelps probably was born to be a winemaker. He grew up in the California grape growing region of Livermore, and set out to follow the path of many prominent winemakers in California; a University of California degree from their Davis campus. He studied in the enology program in addition to studying French language. When he graduated in 1981, with the encouragement of a U.C. Davis professor, Dr. Ough, Chris continued his studies at the University of Bordeaux Enology Institute.

During his time in Bordeaux, Chris crossed paths in Pusseguin St. Emilion with Christian Moueix, the very famous owner of Chateau Petrus (Along with many other properties) who invited him to work at Chateau Petrus, and then later at his Napa Valley property, Dominus.

Chris had these words to say about his Christian Moueix's influence on his career;

"Christian Moueix is a brilliant, very intuitive businessman who happens to be in wine. He was one of the first people I met in Bordeaux who became mentors. Wine is much more than a beverage or a means of making money to people like Christian. My colleagues in Bordeaux describe themselves as being 'in wine', while we say, we are 'in the wine business'. Many luminaries in Bordeaux are very in touch with the cycles of nature, how they 'feel' about a vineyard or a wine. For many producers in California, wine remains just a commodity. Women tend to make excellent winemakers because they are often more comfortable trusting their intuition than are some men. Living and working at Petrus will remain one of the best memories of my early experiences in the world of wine. Christian's winemaker, Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker at Petrus and the other Moueix properties for 44 years, became my primary mentor. He taught me about the passion of wine. He is the only winemaker I know, who has written a book of poetry about terroir."

Chris spent the years from 1984 through 1995 as the winemaker for Dominus in Napa Valley. Dominus has been widely recognized as an iconic producer of Bordeaux styled, or 'Meritage' wines. Chris has been responsible for making some of the most collectible wines produced in Napa Valley at Dominus, but yet he decided to move on to become the red winemaker for Chuck Wagner and Caymus vineyards, another of the very finest producers of Napa Valley.

He explains the move to Caymus was, "Clearly for a new opportunity. After 12 years at Dominus, being steeped in an Old World-meets-New World venture, seeing how Chuck Wagner and his dad had created something purely American was a golden opportunity that I realized could help complete my view of what was happening in Napa."

When Chris was asked for comparisons and contrasts of Christian Moueix and Chuck Wagner he said:

"Christian and Chuck appear to be completely different to the casual observer. You would need to work with both of them to appreciate the differences, but also the significant commonalities. Chuck is very American. Christian is very French. They both have an amazing grasp of the wine business. Christian's view is more international, since he has ventures both in Napa and Bordeaux. They both use intuitive understanding of wine, vineyards, people and the market to achieve great success. If either has made a significant blunder in wine, I sure haven't heard about it.

Christian is a huge patron off the arts, and Chuck is a little more private. They are both generous to the teams they have working for them. Bottom line, they have more in common than just about anyone would imagine. It was a privilege to work for both of them, and I hope I was able to make some kind of contribution while I was with them."

So, with a background like Chris' why did he pick Swanson (Certainly always considered a good winery, but not amongst the very elite in Napa Valley), and what potential did he see? Well there is a little history that needs to be told. Clarke Swanson, the founder of the winery, used the consulting expertise of Andre Tchelistcheff in 1985, a man credited with the replanting of Napa Valley to suitable grape varietals to proper growing micro-climates; and Mr. Tchelistcheff determined that Merlot, a relatively obscure grape at the time, would grow best.

Chris was armed with this historical knowledge, and saw the potential in Swanson Vineyards. "Merlot was a big reason to move to Swanson, bringing me back to my Bordeaux roots. Many do not realize Merlot is the biggest red variety in Bordeaux, and in all of France. It is a winemaker's grape; with natural acidity, lot's of tannin, but the gentle kind that makes drinking red wines pleasurable."

Chris is also making very fine Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay at Swanson Vineyards, but the reason to seek Swanson Vineyards out, is clearly the reds. He produces the Alexis Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, which until 2004, had always had a small amount of Syrah. He felt even small amounts negated the Cabernet Sauvignon identity. So, today, after interpreting what the vineyards will give him, Chris uses Merlot and a little of the "Violet magic" that small portions of Petit Verdot supply, to blend beautiful Bordeaux blends in Napa Valley. He also makes the Oakville Merlot. He points out the style has changed since he took over, and the herbal influences to aroma and flavor have been eliminated by picking the grapes just a bit riper, and aging the wine in a 50%-50% blend of French and American oak barrels. The American oak which had been used exclusively previously, tends to overpower the wine, and Chris also does not like to use new oak barrels.

He says, "We want to be known for velvety, silky, fine-grained tannins of sensuous texture and subtle, complex aroma and flavor profiles. This applies to the Alexis Cab, too."

A winemaker said that 25 years ago there were only about 20 great Merlots in Napa Valley. Today, that winemaker said, there are still only about 20 great Merlots in Napa Valley. Chris Phelps knows Merlot. His Swanson Merlot is clearly one of those 20.