When we booked the Gourmet Picnic wine-tasting experience online, we didn’t know the heat would be so intense, but with the beautiful shade trees casting dappled patterns over the French style garden, complete with pea gravel and padded chairs, it turned out to be a lovely meal.
Friends Rave About Swanson Vineyards
For years I’ve had different sets of friends tell me how wonderful a visit to Swanson is with its delicious Napa wines, French décor, huge garden and famous red salon. Indeed, Swanson was one of the first wineries in Napa Valley to establish the “sit-down winetasting experience,” which has now been adopted by most every winery in the valley.
Swanson was founded in 1985 by Clarke Swanson, the grandson of the founder of Swanson TV Dinners. Clarke’s wife Elizabeth, who had a great love for France, decided to model the gardens and winery after a Parisian salon of the mid 1800’s. Clarke hired famous consultant, André Tchelistcheff, to assist with winemaking , and Andre encouraged him to focus on Merlot.
Today, Swanson is still well-known for its excellent Merlot wines that are a great Napa Valley value at only $32 per bottle for the classic Merlot and $65 for the reserve Merlot. Of course, they also produce high quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, rose, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals. Marco Cappelli, a protégé of Andre, was Swanson’s winemaker for 17 years, and today the wines are crafted by Robin Akhurst.
Use GPS to Find Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley
I made sure to use my GPS to find Swanson Vineyards, because even though it is right off Highway 29 in Napa Valley, just after Robert Mondavi Winery and on the same side of the road, there is no sign for Swanson. In this way, they are known as an “under the radar” winery, which you need to “be in the know to find.”
Crossing the railroad track and driving down a narrow, paved road with vineyards on both sides, I came to the Swanson entrance and a large sign overlooking a riotous garden of brightly colored flavors. Parking in a shaded parking lot, I donned my COVID mask and approached a welcome table where I was greeted by Nancy Richardson, Salonniere. She said a cheerful hello behind her mask, offered me some hand-sanitizer, and then escorted me to a table in the garden. Charlie arrived a few minutes later, and we sat down to a delightful wine lunch.
Gourmet Picnic Wine Lunch at Swanson
Since its lovely indoor Salon wine and food pairing was put on hold due to COVID, Swanson cleverly created an outdoor experience in their garden. For $75 per person ($150 per couple), visitors have the option of five gourmet menus paired with four Swanson wines. Even better, you can customize the wines for your own palate, as they create new printed wine-tasting menus each day. If you’re not that hungry, Swanson offers a tasting of Four of their wines for only $40, and you can still relax in the whimsical garden patio in one of the many cozy settees or tables, with generous spacing and dream away the afternoon.
Meals are catered by Tre Posti, with the following choices:
- Wild King Salmon
- BBQ Spiced Pork Tenderloin
- Grilled Filet Mignon
- Poached & Chilled Shrimp
- Beyond Sausages (only $70 pp)
Charlie and I ordered the Grilled Filet Mignon with salad and roasted vegetables. It was paired with the following wines, and for me the following combined menu items worked the best:
Classic Caesar Salad
with chopped baby hearts of romaine, garlic croutons, Parmigiano-Reggiano
Swanson 2019 Pinot Grigio
Simply Roasted Seasonal Vegetables
With sea salt and Napa Valley olive oil
Swanson 2017 Pinot Noir
Grilled Filet Mignon
With horseradish cream sauce
Swanson 2016 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon
Swanson 2015 Petite Sirah
Dessert was a tiny taste of the rare Swanson Angelica wine, which is made from 120-year Mission vines in the Sierra Foothills. It is a sinfully delicious sweet white wine, brimming with apricot and honey notes. Only made in certain years, anyone who joins the Wine Club is offered a special sample to take home.
During the relaxed 90-minute lunch, Nancy would stop occasionally to describe the wines to us and answer questions. Later Sarah Dennis, Tasting Room Manager, came to greet us, and we felt very spoiled with all of the attention. Later they brought us the Swanson coloring sheet and a box of colored pencils so we could linger longer and relax into an almost meditative state of coloring as we enjoyed our wine and the beautiful garden.
An Alice in Wonderland Afternoon
My experience at Swanson was very relaxing. I felt a little as if I’d wandered into a fairytale setting, because the gardens were filled with towering sunflowers and giant dahlias that made me feel I had shrunk to a miniature size. Then wandering into the red salon room with its magnificent fireplace and inlaid octagon table, as well as the French bistro Sip Shoppe with its stripped walls felt like I had stepped into a Hollywood movie set of Paris. It is not the normal modern tasting room that you usually find in Napa Valley – instead it is a dreamy place, hidden down a side road off Highway 29, that you have to make an effort to find. It is worth the effort.
Dr. Liz Thach, MW, is a Wine Journalist and the Distinguished Professor of Wine & Management at Sonoma State University where she conducts research and teaches in undergraduate and MBA courses in wine business. You can read more about her winery visits at https://winetravelstories2.com/