(March 2017) “Mommy, can we stop at the castle winery with the long flight of stairs?”
This was the question my 6-year old daughter asked me every time we drove past Domaine Carneros coming or going from Sonoma to Napa Valley. Since she was three when we first moved to California wine country, I have joined many winery wine clubs over the years. One of the first was Domaine Carneros, because I love their delicious bubbly wine as well as the expansive view of the vineyards from the terrace of the massive chateau designed after one in the Champagne region of France.
Domaine Carneros in Napa, California. Photo Credit: Domaine Carneros Gallery
During those early years, Domaine Carneros was one of the most welcoming wineries for children. My daughter loved climbing the huge flight of stairs, which made her feel like a princess, and then sit at a table overlooking the intricate stone railing. Then she would be spoiled by the servers, who not only brought me my complimentary glass of sparkling wine for being a wine club member, but would always bring her a special bottle of grape juice and pour it into a champagne flute, along with a plate of cheese and crackers.
Thus every time we passed Domaine Carneros she wanted to stop. I still do occasionally, but changed wine clubs years ago. With almost 1000 wineries between Napa and Sonoma, I feel it is my duty to “research” different wine clubs.
A Royal Welcome to the Chateau
So when I returned to Domaine Carneros (for perhaps the 20th time) with a group of 30 of my students from Introduction to Wine Business, I was thrilled to introduce them to such a great winery. For the majority of them, it was their first visit and they were very impressed with the huge flight of stairs, fountains, and views from the terrace.
They were even more impressed when CEO Eileen Crane came to meet them personally. Eileen has long been one of my favorite female CEO’s in the region because she is an extremely dynamic speaker, very intelligent, and beautifully striking. The students were immediately enchanted with her when she said, “Welcome to your chateau.” She then invited us all into a private room to tell us more about the domaine.
Domaine Carneros – A Rare All-Estate Sparkling House
Established by the House of Tattinger in 1987, the estate today includes 350 acres in the Carneros AVA on the Napa Valley side (the AVA spans both Napa and Sonoma counties). Since the domaine is located in southern Napa Valley and is close to San Pablo Bay, it is a cooler region and ideal for producing chardonnay and pinot noir. It is for this reason that many of the great sparkling houses of both counties have decided to establish operations here, or if they are not located here – then they buy their grapes from this region.
Domaine Carneros is unique because it is one of the smallest major sparkling houses in the USA, and uses all estate-grown grapes, with their 225 acres of pinot noir and 125 acres of chardonnay. Many of their competitors purchase grapes. Due to this situation, Eileen, as director of winemaking, can insure that only the finest grapes go into the cuvees.
A Brief Tour of the Winemaking Facilities
After viewing a large map of the estate outlining the 5 vineyard ranches, all within 4 miles of the estate, we moved into the riddling demonstration room. Eileen explained how the riddling racks were used in the past, but pointed to the many large gyropallet that are now used to gently turn the bottles so the yeast can collect near the top of the bottle for disgorgement. She explained the different types of dosage treatments, and showed us a video of how the complete process works. The students asked many questions, which she cheerfully answered. She also described how sparkling wine “tickles” the palate, which made everyone smile.
Impressive Sustainability Practices and Large Array of Solar Panels
An important aspect of the estate, which truly impressed the millennial students, is their focus on sustainability. Eileen described all of their various environmental efforts and certifications. It turns out that Domaine Carneros doesn’t only have one certification in sustainability, but four! These include Fish Friendly Farming, Napa Green Land, Napa Green Winery, and the prestigious California Sustainable Winegrowing Certification. They also boast one of the largest array of solar panels for a winery in the US, but they are not visible from the road, so there is no “eye sore” for visitors. Instead they are strategically placed behind the winery on a back hillside, and provide much environmentally safe and clean energy for the estate.
An Elegant Tasting in the Chateau Society Club Room
Next we were invited to the elegant Chateau Society Club Room, a private tasting space with chandeliers, a large French fireplace, and a view of the barrel room. We were seated at impressive wooden tables, and treated to a tasting of 3 wines. All together Domaine Carneros makes 10 sparkling wines and 7 still wines, including some excellent pinot noirs and chardonnays.
Their tete de cuvee is Le Reve, a vintage wine that generally stays on the lees for 7 years. It is one of my favorite sparkling wines of California. They also produce a rose version, but the classic style is a blanc de blanc (100% chardonnay).
For our tasting, Eileen shared:
2012 Ultra Brut ($44) – extremely small streaming bubbles, a nose of fresh lemon zest with a hint of jasmine. On the palate, streamlined acidity, zesty citrus, and spicy ginger notes. Very refreshing and bone dry. Delicious. This was the favorite of many of the students, and several purchased a bottle before we left, as this wine is only available at the winery and online.
2013 Brut Rose ($39)- an inviting and approachable sparkling rose with a beautiful pale pink color, nose of cherries and floral, with a heavier bubble palate of strawberry and toast. Also a favorite of many students – especially those who preferred the slighter sweeter dosage of .9% sugar, compared to the .5% of the Ultra Brut.
2013 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir ($39) – a delightful pinot noir with classic Carneros raspberry and red cherry, complimented with subtle spicy oak and a touch of earthy mushroom. Medium-bodied, well-balanced with silky tannins.
Sparkling Grape Juice Provided for My Under-21 Students
As this was an Introduction to Wine Business class, five of my students were not yet 21, and according to university regulations were not allowed to taste wine until they reached the age of 21. Therefore, I sat with them at a back table, and let them view the bubbles and lovely colors in my wines, as well as smell – since 70% of wine evaluation is in the nose. They were all excellent students and seemed to enjoy viewing and smelling the wines, but I’m sure they were all feeling a little left out that their fellow classmates actually got to sip and/or spit.
Then amazingly, after only about 5 minutes into the tasting, a delightful server – whom I will refer to as a magical fairy creature because she brought so much delight to our table – appeared with Vignette Wine Country Soda, a non-alcoholic sparkling drink made with pinot noir grapes. She poured the sparkling rose beverage into tall Champagne flutes for each of my five students and served us a bowl of mixed nuts. Big smiles appeared around the table, and everyone was “tickled pink!”
What a great visit! I couldn’t help but think of my daughter and how delighted she had always been to visit “her castle.” Now I look forward to bringing her back her when she turns 21. Domaine Carneros truly continues to create magic for young and old visitors alike.