Every bottle of wine is an opportunity to learn something.
Recently, I had the opportunity to taste three wines from the inaugural release of House Swine Cellars, located in Paso Robles, California.
The winemaker for House Swine is Jim Porter, a graduate of Cal State Fresno. Porter got his start making wine in his basement, but today, he’s out of his basement and making wine for several Santa Barbara County boutique wineries (in addition to House Swine) — Enjoy Wine, Susan Fields and KLJ Cellars. Porter spent years getting to know the terroir of Santa Barbara County vineyards, and uses his vineyard mind palace (nod to Sherlock Holmes) to source the best grapes for his wines. I originally suspected Porter might be a garagiste, but Porter makes House Swine at Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles. It’s good to have friends who own wineries.
When I looked at the House Swine label, my first question was, Why Pigs? And the answer isn’t a complicated one. The House Swine label was inspired by a whimsical watercolor print, “this little piggy went wine tasting . . . ” by Will Bullas, an artist from Carmel, California.
House Swine (great word-play, btw) worked with Mr. Bullas to create a label for their wines. The suave little pig on the House Swine label is pretty adorable, and I’m pretty sure he’s about to say, “I don’t always drink wine, but when I do, I drink House Swine.” It’s a small thing, but I wish the Mr. Piggy on the Chardonnay label was holding a glass of white wine.
Over the past few (well, many) years, there’s been an explosion in wine labels with cute critters on the label. And I have somewhat mixed feelings about the cute critter craze — the pairing of an insanely cute animal with an unusual action verb — like Prancing Lemur Pinotage. I’m making that up, but you get the drift. So many of these wines seem to be going for style over substance. That said, I get why. It’s not enough anymore to write Château Swine in fancy script on your wine label. You’re competing for shelf space with hundreds of other wineries — you have to get people to look at your label. And cute critters get noticed. But it’s the wine inside that counts, right? There are some exceptional wines with critters on their labels (think screaming eagles and leaping stags), but those wines also pre-date the cute critter craze.
Also, I doubt screaming eagles and leaping stags are really going for “cute”.
So, do new, higher-end wines with animal labels run the risk of getting lumped in with the cute critter craze? I was skeptical about my Three Little Pigs. Are they going to be style or substance?
Chardonnay Santa Barbara County 2011 ⭐⭐⭐
100% Chardonnay, whole cluster pressed. Malolactic fermentation. Sourced from Premiere Coastal Vineyards in Los Alamos. Aged for nine months in 30% new French oak, and 70% neutral oak. I’ve been tasting a lot of Chardonnay lately that’s trying really hard not to be Chardonnay. Oak has been slandered in recent years, and a lot of winemakers have reacted with gallons of stainless fermented Chardonnay. And while I don’t dislike the purity of a stainless Chardonnay, I love what oak can do for a Chardonnay. A well-oaked Chardonnay is like comfort food, and this Chardonnay is comforting. The nose is crisp and almost flinty, but it’s complicated by some browned butter, too. Flavors are pineapple, vanilla, apple and pear. Maybe even a tiny bit of coconut. Creamy mouth feel. Caramelized pear upside down cake on the finish. Yes, really. 14.1% ABV. Only 69 cases made. $23.
Pinot Noir Santa Barbara 2010 ⭐⭐⭐1/2
100% Pinot Noir. Malolactic fermentation. Sourced from Premiere Coastal Vineyards in Los Alamos. Aged for 18 months in 25% new French oak, and 75% neutral oak. A beautiful ruby color in the glass. The nose is Twizzlers and . . . wait for it . . . bacon. I was sooo hoping I’d find a bacon note in one of these wines. You can’t have a pig on your label and not have bacon show up somewhere in your wines! Great mouthfeel — soft and approachable. Well balanced, with flavors of strawberry and earthy truffles. A sprinkle of cinnamon, too. Vanilla makes an appearance on the finish. I am really digging this wine. I popped this bottle open expecting to have a quick taste and move on. Instead, I finished half the bottle! 14.1% ABV. Only 60 cases made. An absolute steal at $23.
Zinfandel Paso Robles 2011 ⭐⭐⭐
80% Zinfandel and 10% Petite Sirah. Malolactic fermentation. Sourced from the Domenico Estate on the east side of Paso Robles. Aged for 28 months in 10% new French oak, and 90% neutral oak. Kind of a hyper wine when I first opened it, considerably calmer and more refined on Day 2. Quite a bit of heat on the nose — makes my nose a little stingy. I didn’t notice the heat in the other two wines, but I do here. This Zin is Jamberry flavored (pick a berry, they’re all there). Dense and extracted, with flavors of baking spices and vanilla on the back end. Slightly acidic — begging for some barbecue. I’m sure they’re already way on top of this idea, but House Swine would be a big hit at BBQ competitions. 14.1% ABV. 280 cases made. $23.
If you’re a VA/MD/DC local, and you’d like to try House Swine, they will be pouring at the DC Metropolitan Cooking Show at the Washington Convention Center, November 8-9. Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri will be there, too.
House Swine is also available through direct shipping to 32 states. House Swine also has a regional retail distribution, but in Maryland only. Here’s something I didn’t know — the state of Maryland allows out of state wineries that produce less than 27,500 gallons of wine per year to self-distribute. No middle man. How ’bout those grapes?
So what did I learn from my Three Little Pigs?
1) You don’t have to have a big winery to make big wine.
2) Maryland has figured out a way to skip the middle man.
3) Pigs have style and substance — they’re great ambassadors for wine.
Disclaimer: I received all three wines as samples from House Swine.