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Joe Swick, winemaker
Issue 61: On how climate change is affecting the wine industry, sourcing his grapes, and the logic (or not) behind his quirky wine names.
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Joe Swick is an Oregon-based winemaker making natural wine that showcases the unique cold climate terroirs of the Pacific Northwest. He uses a hands off approach to make wines that are fresh, balanced, and energetic. He tends to favor regional varieties like Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc, as well as non-native grapes like Verdelho and Melon de Bourgogne. He makes *a lot* of varieties and if you’re an orange wine fan, you need to get your hands on perennial favorite, The Flood.
I chatted with Joe about his background in winemaking, how he sources grapes, how climate change is affecting the wine industry, and how he picks his quirky wine names.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got started in wine making?
Joe Swick: I got started in wine in 2001. I had a job at a specialty food store in Portland, Oregon that had a really good wine selection and I worked some shifts in the wine department and also worked a little bit in the back of the house shipping and receiving. I was interested in wine and I had the skill of driving a forklift, which is really important to have in a winery, and that got me an internship with a Owen Roe Winery. I met a lot of local winemakers who were self-distributing at the time and they would come in dropping off their orders and I would receive them in the back of the grocery store, and I would also see them out on the sales floor when I was selling wine. David O'Reilly from Owen Roe offered to me an internship, and that was my first harvest of 15 total harvests that I worked before I started Swick Wines.
Also during that time, I went to school for Viticulture in Salem, Oregon, and it just went from there. I worked in Oregon for a few years, and then worked in the Russian River in Sonoma County for five years. During the off season, I would go and work in Australia or New Zealand for half of the year, so I could do two harvests a year.
I worked for about 10 years learning from as many people as I could before I started Swick wines.
Brianna Plaza: How did working in wine overseas in more established regions help you build your company?
Joe Swick: Well, in two different ways. I worked in the Old World: In Italy and the Douro Valley two separate times, and that had more of a stylistic effect. It opened my up mind to taking more chances in the cellar and winemaking.
Then on the other side of the spectrum, working in Australia was all sparkling wine. I was working for mostly larger production, factory-type wineries. New Zealand was all just viticulture, so I didn't really do a lot of winemaking when I was over there. I was studying biodynamic farming. But in Australia I was working mostly in Tasmania and in the Yarra Valley near Melbourne. That helped me become a better cellar worker because I had so much work on my plate at those wineries.
I think my biggest advice to anyone wanting to get into wine making would be to work for a larger winery, at least for a few years. If you’re working in a really small winery and trying to go into other wineries, it can be really difficult. So going back to your question: I learned more traditional wine making from the Old World and learned more modern techniques from the Australia.
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk to me about how you source grapes and how you choose what varieties you use?
Joe Swick: I focus on three different distinct climates: the Willamette Valley, Columbia Gorge, and the Columbia Valley (specifically around Yakima, Washington). When I first got into winemaking, my first harvest was with Oregon-based Owen Roe, but they mostly focused on Washington state wines. I was already familiar with this terroir and a lot of the growers in this area, I already had an in into Columbia Valley and Yakima. So I knew that I wanted to work with those grapes from the beginning.
I’m a native Oregonian, born and raised. Both sides of my family are from here. I knew a lot of farmers in the Willamette Valley, so it was not very hard to get connected with really good Oregon fruit.
I focus more on higher elevation sites. Higher elevations grapes ripen later, have higher acidity and usually lower sugars, which results in lower alcohol. Those wines tend to be more fresh, more elegant, and not as extracted and dark and inky.
I also favor organic farming, or at a minimum working towards organic, with no herbicides, or are herbicide free and wanting to go organic or open to it. But I think 85% of the vineyards I work with are biodynamic, organic, or certified. So I'm not strictly organic or pro-organic — I'm not as dogmatic as I used to be.
I think that once you start to get out there and see the vineyards, it's a case-by-case basis. I don't think that every time, organic farming equals good or equals the best. Some of my growers know their farms obviously much better than I do, and they know how to farm them. If it's a high disease pressure site and they need to use a fungicide that will combat it way better than large amounts of sulfur, then I'm totally for it. But on the whole, most of the vineyards that I source are organic, practicing organic, or biodynamic.
Brianna Plaza: You make a lot of blends. How do you decide what grape to use where?
Joe Swick: It’s usually in spring when I'm starting to do this, and it's about getting a sense of how that particular grape variety from that site did, how it expressed itself. In some years, certain sites will be very expressive and in some years they'll be a little bit more reserved. Usually wine is a blend of everything. It's a blend of different vines or it's a blend of different barrels. Normally, I think blends will always make a better wine than a single varietal wine.
But usually how I do it is to go through the barrels and take notes on them and find barrels that are particularly interesting. Then from there, I'll cool those out and put together a really interesting mono varietal wine.
Often when I'm doing blends, I'm looking for consistency. More often than not, when I'm blending, for example, one of my flagship reds, I'm looking for really acid-driven aromatic barrels that are really fresh because I really like fresh red wines. So usually I'm going with the barrels that are the free run barrels, meaning the first juice to come out before we press the grapes. So that's what I'm doing when I'm blending: I’m trying to find things that are very particular and pulling those for the mono varietal wines, and then looking for a little bit more consistency for the blends.
Brianna Plaza: As a consumer, it feels to me like the Pacific Northwest has become a bigger hub for natural wines. Can you talk to me about why you think that may or may not be the case?
Joe Swick: I would say Oregon more so than Washington. They grow most of the grapes in Washington between Yakima, Washington, and Walla Walla. Historically, this area is a fertile crescent for agricultural products. There's a lot of old school farmers who just have their ways set and don't really think about changing. It doesn't make sense to them to change or do anything different. That's not anything negative, it's just the way it is.
I think in Oregon, even though there's more disease pressure in Oregon, I think that it's just been a little bit more modern. It seems like it's a little bit more progressive-thinking as far as farming goes. We've also had some outside influence. There are producers from Burgundy that have, I think, changed things in Oregon and introduced biodynamic and organic farming. That's really helped a lot.
There's a lot more emphasis in Oregon on yields. The thought with grape farming, especially with pinot noir, is that lower yields per plant or per acre equals better wine. I sort of disagree with that. I think that when vines are in balance, they make great wines. But oftentimes when you thin vines too much, you produce really extracted jam and inky wines. But with organic farming, you just get grape skin yields that sometimes results in better wines.
I do think that organic farming makes better grapes, which makes better wine. I'm not so much into the organic farming for the health benefits of it. Yes, I don't want a lot of chemicals in my body, but I will eat a bag of Cheetos once in a while or not eat 100 percent organic. I'm in it for the fact that organic farming makes better grapes, which makes better wine.
Brianna Plaza: Talk to me about how you've seen climate change affect your immediate business, but also as a region of winemakers as a whole.
Joe Swick: I’ve worked on Swick Wines for 11 years and we've had mostly warm vintages during my time making wine here, but I've seen more extremes as of late. The last three, four years or so, we've had actual winters where the vines get a proper snowfall and freeze and actually go dormant. Then we've had some really extreme summers. It reminds me of my time working in Central Otago, New Zealand where it was cold and icy and you get a real winter, but then you get a really hot summer. So what I've noticed is more extremes: colder winters, hotter summers, days into the high 90s and 100s, which is not normal for Oregon.
Then wildfires, that's been a problem — 2020 was especially apocalyptic here — but since about 2017, almost every year we have wildfires during the summer and sometimes we have them during harvest. Those affect the quality of the grapes. It basically makes your wine taste like a forest fire. The biggest hurdle for me is working with smoke-affected vintages, because you basically have to not make a red or a skin-contact wine. You try to limit the contact of skin with the wine and so essentially if you're growing pinot noir, you can only make rose that year. That really limits you in so many ways. Financially, especially. If you have customers who know you for making pinot noir, and then you're not able to make any pinot noir one year.
I think that as far as climate goes, customers are now aware of smoke in wine. It's hard to work around unless you use some very manipulative processes to strip that flavor out. Essentially it removes all the flavor, using usually a carbon filter or reverse osmosis or a couple other things, but you basically just strip a wine of all of its flavor when you do that. It's a very manipulative process within winemaking. I'd say that's probably the main thing that I notice now — the effects of climate change and forest fires here in the Pacific Northwest and how it affects wine.
Brianna Plaza: How and where have you seen drinking habits change in a post pandemic area?
Joe Swick: I've seen people gravitating more towards lighter red wines. A lot of people are drinking lighter, acid-driven wines, and less of jammy and inky red wines. They’re also more interest in pet nats and piquets; these are lower ABV wines. I've seen a little bit less interest in white wine and I hope that changes. More recently, I'd say there’s less rosé than we used to have. I think rosé is not a seasonal thing anymore — it’s rose season all year long.
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk to me about your wine names, they're always quirky and fun.
Joe Swick: I make too many wines for my own good. I'm trying to change that.
Most of the names are autobiographical, so they're meaningful to me or the close group of friends that I have that are not in the wine industry. When I make blends — which is often because I like to take different flavors and sounds and colors and make something very original out of them — I just have to put an arbitrary name on the label.
An example, I used to have a chardonnay that was called "WYD?" and that came about from some friends of mine who like to drink wine. We secretively liked to drink chardonnay a lot and so when I would text them, I'd say, "WYD?" aka what are you drinking? We were all drinking chardonnay, and it was something that was just a joke between us so I turned it into a wine named "WYD?"
Only Zuul is another wine that a lot of my fans like — that's a Ghostbuster's reference. But to me, it’s more like when I loosen up and have a glass or two and start to turn into someone else. So if you watch that scene in Ghostbusters, you'll get what I'm saying. It’s when you loosen up and have a couple drinks and start to change into your alter ego.
I'm a big music fan, so on a lot of my labels, you'll see a music reference. I'm a big, big fan of a jazz fusion guitarist named Allan Holdsworth, so sometimes I'll name some of my wines after some of my favorite songs of his.
But often, I just have to put an arbitrary name on these blends, so I put a name on there that means something to me.