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A Wine with Real Providence

I made a clumsy foot slip while trying to navigate the wine purgatory that is my basement stairwell where over 100 bottles await their gustatory grave or longer-term respite in the subterranean bowels of my home.  The 2006 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon acted as the hurtling, blunt force object, initiating a domino-like downward seizure of dozens of bottles.  In surveying the aftermath, as broken glass settled and red wine leached onto the now soon to be replaced carpet, I realized that nary an “important” bottle had broken, including the Swanson.  It seemed as if the projectile-like wine had the guiding touch of providence.  As it turns out, Chris Phelps, Swanson Vineyards’ winemaker, makes another wine that is truly touched by the hand of God.

By way of background, for April fool’s Day, I wrote a jestful post indicating that I was starting an ecommerce web site selling church wine –, as I called it; Sunday service being the province of wine plonk from specialty wine companies that now needed to find a consumer audience.  It was a slight attempt at humor on a day intended for just that.  Little did I know, however, that a Catholic church in St. Helena forsakes buying “church” wine that truly should be spit for wine made from Napa vineyards by a world-class winemaker.


Reader Michael Haas, a parishioner at St. Helena Catholic Church, tipped me off to the church wine quality par excellence.  Fellow parishioner Chris Phelps, the winemaker at Swanson Vineyards, works with fruit from Larry Bettinelli’s vineyard management company, sourcing from Rutherford, Oak Knoll, Pope Valley and Yountville.  Every year for the last dozen years, Phelps and Bettinelli have collaborated to make 12 to 18 cases of Merlot and Cabernet for St. Helena Catholic Church, the past four years being Cab exclusive.

According to Phelps, “I would be confident to put (the) street value in the $30 - $40 bottle range.  We never announce our new releases, but we just ‘released’ the 2006.  Of course, the wine is priceless once it is consecrated.”

Phelps noted that the quality wine at St. Helena Catholic Church seems to be an anomaly, “I think most Catholic churches in Napa, Sonoma, (and) Mendocino counties still use a sweet, white muscatel – a fortified white wine.  It’s kind of surprising, if you think about it.”

Surprising, indeed.  How would you like to be a member of that church?  Suddenly, as a Catholic, I feel compelled to make mass a part of my next visit to the Valley for field research purposes.


“Our parishioners have pretty refined taste in wine; they probably drink wine at or above our sacramental wine quality.  We do sometimes have inquiries about purchasing the wine, but we don’t sell it.  We have to keep an eye out for communicants at mass making a second pass in line for the cup, though,” Phelps said with a laugh.

But, what about the wafers that are consecrated into the body of Christ? 

Story tipster Michael Haas quipped, “If I could get our pastor to make a similar deal with Thomas Keller’s Buchon Bakery, we would never have to worry about Sunday Mass attendance.”

When not helping the church, Phelps utilizes an incredible resume that includes training in Bordeaux, an internship during the epic ’82 harvest, time spent at Chateau Pétrus and eleven years at Christian Moueix’ Dominus Estate in Napa Valley.  A seven-year stop at Caymus for various projects including a four year stint handling the reds from 1999 to 2003 and Phelps had over-proven his bona fides before joining Swanson in 2003.


Today, Phelps says, “I consider what we are doing at Swanson to be sort of a renaissance, trying to elevate the level of everything we do from vineyard to bottle.”

As if church involvement, winemaking and devoted Scoutmaster and family man responsibilities were not enough, Phelps has started his own label using fruit from St. Helena Catholic Church pal Larry Bettinelli’s estate vineyard in Yountville. 

The name of his label?  “Ad Vivum.”  A Latin phrase for, “To the Life.”

With Phelps’ record of success and quality, a delicious glass of 2006 Swanson “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon in my hand and notions of $30 + dollar equivalent wine at communion at a small Catholic Church in St. Helena, I think we should all give a brief toast “To the Life.”

2006 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Oakville Cabernet
SRP:  $75 (received as press sample)
ABV: 14.8%
Production: 1306 cases

Tasting Note:  Brooding nose opens like an alley after the rain.  Blackberry, black currant, smoke, iodine, steak juice, sage and menthol that gives way to dense blackberry juice and more menthol on a nicely acidic and well-balanced mid-palate.  Medium fine tannins in a chalky finish indicate time in the bottle is needed, along with a hunk of herb crusted prime rib.
Score:  92


Posted in, Good Grape Wine Reviews. Permalink | Comments (5) |


On 07/02, Mart S. wrote:

“To The Life” it is! With such rate, I’m so tempted to buy one.

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