Casa Valduga – Brazilian Wine So Rare Thieves Steal It

(June 2018) It was a bright sunny morning when I visited Casa Valduga in the Serra Gaucha wine region of Southern Brazil. Elisa Walker, Export Coordinator, met us at the front door with a large smile, gesturing for us to enter the spacious tasting room and retail shop.  Immediately I was reminded of Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, not only for the large size of place with countless different types of wines for sale, along with grape-based cosmetics, glasses, and souvenirs, but because the winery was the first in the region to focus on tourism – just like Robert Mondavi’s vision to welcome tourists to Napa Valley. Today Casa Valduga remains one of the most popular wine tourist destinations in Brazil, with more than 150,000 visitors each year.

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Sparkling Wine Cellar at Casa Valduga

About Casa Valduga – Transitioning Thru the Generations

In 1875 the Valduga family emigrated from northern Italy to southern Brazil, but it wasn’t until 1973 that Luis Valduga had a dream to start a winery. At that time he primarily planted vitis lambrusca grapes, such as concord, that grew well in the cool climate. But as his sons grew older, they had a desire to make fine wine from classic vitis vinifera grapes. So they encouraged Luis to go on a long vacation, and while he was gone, they tore out most of the old vineyards and replanted with classic grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and other varieties that were beginning to perform well in the region. When Luis returned from vacation, he was surprised about the changes, but agreed to help his sons transition the business by also investing in new technology and equipment for the winery. However, Luis continued to make concord wines for his own enjoyment.

Today Casa Valduga is still family operated with 240 hectares of vineyards, producing over 2 million liters of wine each year with 120 employees. They focus on producing sparkling wines made in the method Champenoise, and have the largest sparkling wine cellar in Brazil, with more than 6 million bottles – all hand-riddled! In addition, they also make still wines, with an emphasis on cool-climate Merlot and Chardonnay.  Casa Valduga practices sustainable winegrowing, and their wines have won numerous awards at competitions around the world. Currently they export about 8% of their wine, sell 10% direct to consumer (including via a wine club), and the remainder through distribution.

A Wine So Rare That Thieves Crave It

After describing the history of the estate, Elisa took us on a tour of the riddling cellar. It was massive, and very impressive. Probably most impressive was a single large magnum of red wine, called Luis Valduga, which was deep in the cellar and spotlighted on its own special pedestal.

“This is a very special bottle of wine that we only produce in certain exceptional vintages,” Elisa explained.  “It is very limited production and not for sale. Sadly, this year I took one bottle to ProWein to share on the last day of the event, but it was stolen and not recovered.  People were very disappointed that they could not taste it.”

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Wine Stolen by Thieves in Germany

This rare Luis Valduga wine has a partner wine called Maria Valduga, name for Luis’s wife. While Luis is a complex red blend, Maria is a sparkling wine that is aged for 48 months on the lees made from a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir from a special section in the vineyard.  Maria Valduga is for sale in limited quantities, and is considered to be the top cuvee of the estate, priced around $55 in Brazil, but much more on the export market (see bottle below as first in sparkling wine line-up).

Eight Categories of Casa Valduga Sparkling Wine

Casa Valduga produces a broad range of sparkling wines designed to match all consumer needs, ranging from sweet to semi-sweet and kosher wines, to sur lie and natural wines. There is something for everyone to enjoy.

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Line-up of Casa Valduga Sparkling Wines

Tourists Assist in Developing Innovative Sur Lie Sparkling Wine

As we wandered through the massive sparkling wine cellars of Casa Valduga we came across a very unique bottling line (see below). It was a woman who was dipping bottles of sparkling wine with a crown cap into hot black wax. When I asked what the woman was doing, Elisa responded:

“That is our new Sur Lie sparkling wine that is made in a very natural fashion where we do not disgorge and add dosage like regular method Champenoise sparkling wine. Since it doesn’t receive a cork and cage, we dip it in black wax to make the final package look attractive.”

I watched in fascination, and then asked how they had decided to make this special type of sparkling wine.

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Dipping Special Sur Lie Sparkling Wine in Wax

“It actually came about by accident,” explained Elisa. “During the visits of tourists in our sparkling wine cellar, we provided a different tasting experience by opening a bottle of sparkling wine still in process of remuage. We noticed that they greatly appreciated the product which motivated us to launch this sparkling wine.” Thus Casa Valduga Sur Lie wine was born.

“It’s such a fun wine to drink,” stated Elisa, “because the more you drink from the bottle, the cloudier the wine gets. Customers really love this aspect.”

Make Your Own Sparkling Wine

Casa Valduga also offers a unique “Blend Your Own Sparkling Wine Workshop.” Tourists who sign up for the workshop taste different cuts of the base wine as well as dosage levels from dry to semi-sweet to sweet. Then they get to learn how sparkling wine is disgorged, and are allowed to taste the wine without any dosage. Later the dosage they selected is added, the bottles are corked with wire cage, a personalized label is applied, and each couple is shipped 30 bottles of the wine they made.

Casa Valduga Restaurant, Weddings, and Beautiful Vineyards

As we came to the end of the sparkling wine cellar, Elisa asked if we wanted to see the vineyards. I nodded with enthusiasm and we exited the cellar through a beautiful wrought-iron gate with views of the vineyard and roses beyond. Chardonnay and pinot noir vines wove their way up the hillsides as far as the eye could see. It was a truly mesmerizing view.

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Chardonnay Vineyard at Casa Valduga, Brazil

As we continued through the expensive grounds of the winery, Elisa pointed out locations where they held weddings and other events for visitors, as well as small houses and apartments that could be booked to stay overnight. Eventually we ended at a charming restaurant with flowered tablecloths and rose bouquets.  A range of wines and crystal wine glasses were set-up on a table for our private tasting.

“We opened the restaurant a number of years ago,” said Elisa, “because we had many tourists who came from far away.  After wine tasting they were often hungry, and then some wanted to stay overnight. In the beginning Maria Valduga would invite them home to eat her Italian-Brazilian meals, but now we serve them at the restaurant, and people can stay overnight in our guesthouses.”

A Tasting of Casa Valduga Wines

When we sat down to taste some of the wines of Casa Valduga, we were joined by two winemakers (they have six in total), who were able to explain viticulture and enology practices. We tasted ten wines, and some of my favorites were:

  • Casa Valduga Sur Lies 2015 – ripe yellow apple nose, bright citrus, full bodied with persistent bubbles. Fun and approachable bubbly. Aged three years on lees. 89 points.
  • Casa Valduga Blush RSV 2015 – complex earth and dried cherry notes with touch of minerality and clean fresh finish. Beautiful rose pink color with creamy mouthfeel. “Like yogurt for breakfast,” was a quote from Elisa. 50% pinot noir and 50% chardonnay. Aged 25 months on lees.  91 points.
  • Casa Valduga Viognier 2018 – extremely aromatic with honey, peach and apricot blossom, yet bone dry with very high acidity on palate. My favorite type of viognier – extremely sensual and pleasing, but with the surprising shock of a dry finish. 92 points
  • Casa Valduga Chardonnay Leopolinda 2017 – pale golden color with nose of chalk and lemon, hint of oatmeal on the creamy palate. Extremely long, complex and elegant.  Seemed very much like a high-quality Meursault from Burgundy. 94 points
  • Casa Valduga Storia Merlot 2012 – opaque red/black color with blue plum and cassis, spice notes of anise and cola. Very concentrated with well integrated French oak, fine-grained tannins and crisp acidity on the very long finish.  Only made in top vintages.  Truly exceptional. 95 points
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Some of the Still Wines from Casa Valduga

Cave Geisse – Home of Highly Ageable Sparkling Wine and Burrowing Owls in Brazil

(June 2018) We arrived at Cave Geisse in the late morning, when the fog was just beginning to lift from the long green rows of chardonnay and pinot noir vines. Nestled in the Serra Gaucha wine region of southern Brazil, Cave Geisse is one of the oldest and most prestigious sparkling wine producers, with a cellar full of vintage sparkling wines made in the Champenoise method. The winery and it surrounding vineyards are ideally located in the Pinto Banderia GI, which is a cool climate area dedicated to sparkling wine production. It is also an area rich in bird life, as I was soon to discover.

We were met by winemaker, Carlos Abarzua and his son Felipe, Export Manager. Originally from Chile, Carlos relocated to Brazilian wine country in the 1970’s, along with winery partner, Mario Geisse. They established Cave Geisse in 1976, after working several years for Domaine Chandon producing sparkling charmant in Brazil.

A Tour of the Vineyard with Burrowing Owls

Since the vineyard is the source of all high-quality wine, Carlos invited us to jump into his four-wheel drive SUV and we set off driving along a bumpy dirt road into the vineyards. Because June is winter time in Brazil, the vines were bare of leaves and stretched out in long perfect rows, attached to a VSP trellis system with verdant green grass growing beneath. As he drove, Carlos explained that the estate was 70 hectares, with 25 hectares of vineyards, situated at 800 meters above sea level (2400 feet).  They produce around 300,000 bottles per year, with 50% as vintage wine. The soil is primarily loam on top with basalt bedrock.

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Chardonnay Vineyards at Cave Geisse, Brazil

Carlos parking the SUV on top of a hill, and invited us to climb the stairs of a wooden platform with a great view of the vineyards. As we approached, I was delighted to see a tiny round burrowing owl sitting on the ground next to his hole. He must have been accustomed to visitors because he continued to stare up at us with round yellow eyes, even after we had climbed to the top of the platform (see photo above). Like many vineyards around the world, wildlife was abundant, and we also saw many pairs of what the Brazilians referred to as “caro-caro,” birds.

Felipe described how they have reduced chemicals in the vineyard by 70%, but explained that it is very difficult to be 100% organic due to the cool wet climate with mildew issues. Therefore they are practicing sustainability, but not seeking certification at this time. Vines are trained at 1 meter x 2 meters, with around 4500 per hectare in density. The oldest vines are 15 years old, and they generally pruned in September (early Spring in Brazil).

Winemaking at Cave Geisse – 100% Hand-Riddling

Back at the winery, we went on a brief tour beginning with the grape sorting area. Carlos explained that they pick the grapes in January at around 19 brix to insure high natural acid for method Champenoise production. The chardonnay grapes go to a vacuum press, whereas the pinot noir grapes are pressed in a basket press. Sixty percent of the juice is transferred to stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation using selected yeast. Next the wine is transferred to bottle for second fermentation, with sugar and yeast added for autolysis. Carlos said they age anywhere from three to fourteen years. “We have studied the wines,” he said, “and we see the best evolution after 14 years in the bottle.”

During the tour we passed by a large hall of bottles in riddling racks, and I was very impressed to learn that every bottle is hand-riddled. This prompted me to ask about human resource policies, and Felipe proudly explained that their workers are all on a monthly salary (around $800 US), with houses provided in the vineyard. Health care is funded by the government, and there is a program in place that encourages workers to return to the land, rather than live in cities. “We have strong unions in Brazil,” Felipe explained, “so we focus on treating our employees very well.”

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Riddling Racks at Cave Geisse

Tasting the Sparkling Wines of Cave Geisse

The tasting at Cave Geisse was very elegant, with seven bottles of sparkling wine. I was impressed with the high acid, elegance, and hint of minerality in all of the wines. We mainly tasted vintage bubbles, but I also requested to taste their 2nd label, Cave Amadea, which is non-vintage and a little fruit-forward. My favorites of the tasting were:

  • Cave Geisse Blanc de Blanc 2015 – a bigger bodied wine with toasty bread notes, green apple, and crisp acidity. 100% chardonnay, 8.5 gpl dosage, aged 3 years on the lees.
  • Cave Geisse Terre Natural 2014 –   a zero dosage wine with brioche, lemon, and a very creamy palate with long finish. Crafted from their oldest vineyard – 15 years of age. 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay. Aged 4 years in bottle. Just released.
  • Cave Geisse Terre Rose Brut 2014 – toasty cherry notes with a hint of bitter cherry on finish. Complex with high acid – delicious. 100% pinot noir with some skin contact to achieve color (not added later).
  • Cave Amadea Brut Rose NV – a cheerful sparkler with notes of strawberry and citrus. Light, refreshing, and delicious. A perfect beach bubbly for Brazil.

Do Cave Geisse Wines Age? The Answer is Yes

Later in the week, Diego Bertolini, with Wines of Brazil, shared a magnificent magnum of the 2002 vintage of Case Geisse Brut as part of a dinner celebration at Valle Rustico Restaurant. We all enjoyed the complex nutty notes, as well as honey, pear, citrus and minerality that shimmered in the wine. The mousse was very silky on the palate, with thousands of tiny bubbles, and the wine had a long elegant finish. It also paired well with the cuisine of Brazil – in this case a dish made from a special local vegetable that reminded me of zucchini. All in all, it answered the question of “can Brazilian sparkling wines age?” The answer in the case of Cave Geisse Brut 2002 was a definite “yes.”

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Magnum of Case Geisse Brut 2002

Fun Facts about Brazilian Wine

If your only reason to go to Brazil is to play on white sandy beaches and drink caipirinhas, think again. Instead consider heading further south to the Brazilian wine region of Serra Gaucha, about 375 miles north of the Uruguay border in a cool hilly region that looks like Northern Italy. Indeed this region was settled by immigrants from the Veneto and Trentadoc regions of Northern Italy in the 1880’s, and, of course, they planted grapes and made wine. This region of Brazil also has many excellent Italian restaurants, as well as Brazilian steakhouses to celebrate the fact that this is indeed gaucho, or Brazilian cowboy country.

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Brazilian Vineyard with Winter Vines and Waterfall in Background

Recently I was invited to visit the Serra Gaucha region for a week by Wines of Brazil, where I toured a variety of wineries and tasted over 140 wines. While there I learned some fun, and rather amazing, facts about Brazilian Wine:

  • 1500’s – Portuguese: Wine grapes were first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, but didn’t thrive very well because of the humid climate of Rio de Janeiro. Therefore, they later imported Vitis Labrusca grapes from the Azores, which were resistant to fungus, and used these to make table wine.
  • 50% Grape Juice: Because of the large number of labrusca vineyards, 50% of the harvest in Brazil is used for grape juice production, which is made in a very natural fashion with no sugar added.
  • 1880’s – Italians: It wasn’t until the 1880’s that northern Italian immigrants settled in the cool southern part of Brazil in the Serra Gaucha region that vitis vinifera grapes were planted again to make quality wine.
  • Sparkling Wine is King: Due to the cool climate, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes thrive, and they produce some delicious sparkling wines using the Méthode Champenoise as well as the charmant method. Sparkling wine comprises 80% of the Brazilian wine market.
  • Moscato: Brazilians also enjoy sweet wine, so they make semi-sweet and sweet sparkling Moscato, as well as still and dessert wines with this fragrant grape.
  • Experimenting with Red Grapes: Now other regions of Brazil are beginning to make wine and experiment with red grapes. Highlights include Merlot, Marselan, and Cabernet Franc in the south, and Syrah and Grenache in the warmer north. There are also many types of Italian red grapes used to produce Brazilian wine, such as Teroldego and Ancellotta.
  • Six Major Wine Regions: Today there are five new wine regions in addition to Serra Gaucha. They are Campanha and Serra Do Sudeste further south, and Planalto Catarinese and Campos de Cima de Serra a little further north. Vale do Sao Francisco is in the far north near the equator, where they actually have two harvests per year because it is so warm.
  • One DO and Four GI’s: Brazil is adopting the European quality system of appellations, and has recognized one DO (Domination of Origin) region called Vale dos Vinhedos. This is where the many of the original Italian immigrants settled, near the town of Bento Goncalves. There are four GI’s (Geographical Indicator) surrounding the DO: Pinto Bandeira, Monte Belo, Farroupilha and Altos Montes.
  • 1100 Wineries and 79,000 Hectares: Today Brazil has over 1100 wineries, many of which are small family domains. Total vineyard acreage is around 195,000 or 79,000 hectares of grapes.
  • Fresh, Fruity and Fun: Brazilian wines are produced with a focus on showcasing the fruit and not using too much oak. The wines are also very fresh with higher acidity and lower alcohol – more similar to Northern Italian styles. Due to the sparkling wine emphasis, Brazilian wines are used to celebrate and have fun in life – -just like the Brazilian culture.
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Map of Brazilian Wine Regions. Photo Credit: Wines of Brazil

Getting to Brazilian Wine Country in Serra Gaucha

The major airport in the Serra Gaucha wine region is Porte Alegre (POA). There are several connecting flights each day from the large international airports of Rio de Janeiro or San Paulo. I arrived into Rio on Delta Airlines, and then took their partner airline, GOL, to Porte Alegre – an easy two hour flight. Once in Porte Alegre it is necessary to rent a car or book a driver to take you to Bento Gonçalves, the main city in the Serra Gaucha wine region.  It actually has a welcome wine barrel arch, and has several tasting rooms in the downtown area, including Aurora Winery, which is the largest in Brazil. Bento Gonçalves is a small city of around 100,000 people with good restaurants, friendly people, and wineries and vineyards all around it. The town was named after a Brazilian military leader who was much loved in the south of Brazil.

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Hotel & Spa do Vinho in Brazilian Wine Country

Hotels and Restaurants in Bento Goncalves

A quick check on TripAdvisor will show you a list of over 30 hotels, B&B and specialty lodging in the area. I stayed about 15 minutes outside the town in the very fancy yet affordable, Hotel & Spa do Vinho (see photo above). It has excellent service, is incredibly beautiful, and has a good restaurant and spa. It is also situated in the middle of the vineyards and is across the street from two famous wineries – Miolo and Lidio Carraro. This is a prime location to visit wineries, because the hotel is situated in the Vale dos Vinhedos, which means Valley of Vineyards. It is the first and only DO appellation in Brazil, and is surrounded by some of the oldest and most prestigious wineries.

In terms of restaurants, I was able to enjoy four local restaurants, and they were all excellent:

Ipiranga Steakhouse – classic Brazilian steakhouse in casual setting with great wine displays on the walls.  Open kitchen allowing you to see the meat on the grill – fascinating. The meal begins with fresh green salad (I loved the salads in Brazil) and the “can’t stop eating” cheese bread balls, which are a local specialty.  Then non-stop skewers of meat are presented at the table by professional servers, with beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and even whole stakes of filet mignon (see photo below). We enjoyed the meal with a nice bottle of Casa Valduga Merlot, and dessert was a small glass of sweet sparkling muscato wine called Cave Amadeu from Family Geisse Winery.

Mamma Gemma Restaurant – a very elegant Italian restaurant with white tablecloths and a beautiful view of a lake outside the large picture windows.  Excellent Italian dishes arrive non-stop at the table until you cannot move.  We had the complete menu which includes a fresh green salad (see photo below) several different pasta dishes, along with chicken, beef, fish, Brazilian cheese bread, and grape ice cream dessert with a small cup of chocolate fudge called Brigadeiro (see photo below).

Casa Di Paolo Restaurant – a casual local chain restaurant with simple décor and friendly service. It focuses on Brazilian-Italian fare with non-stop pasta and meat plates arriving at the table, along with fresh salad and breads. They also serve the delicious pasta soup, which is a specialty of the region (see photo below). We enjoyed lunch with wines from Goes Winery.

Valle Rustico Restaurant – this restaurant is a gourmand’s dream with artistically arranged small plates of very fresh, local, organic ingredients. The staff provides an explanation of each plate when they bring it to your table, and describe the many unique vegetables and spices that are used in the dishes. Several include heirloom foods, such as an ancient corn, that they are trying to preserve. The décor is actually rather casual, set in an old farmhouse with wooden beams, antiques, and pottery plates, but the service and food is of Michelin star quality. Truly a unique restaurant, focusing on local Brazilian cuisine – not to be missed. We enjoyed the meal with wines from Don Guerino Winery.

Local Wineries to Visit

During the 5 days I stayed in Bento Goncalves, I visited 9 wineries, listed below. Each of these visits will be described in separate posts on this blog. Driving distance from my hotel ranged from 2 minutes to 45 minutes to arrive at the winery tasting rooms.  All of my visits were organized as part of a business trip by Wines of Brazil. There are many other local wineries near-by with friendly signs stating they are open for tourists to drop in and taste delicious Brazilian wines.

  • Cave Geisse Winery
  • Pizzato Winery
  • Casa Valduga Winery
  • Miolo Winery
  • Lidio Carraro Winery
  • Salton Winery
  • Casa Perini Winery
  • Aurora Winery
  • Luiz Argenta Winery (with great restaurant!)

I have to admit that one of the best parts of visiting Brazilian wine country was getting a chance to taste some many delicious sparkling wines – their icon wine product. I lost count of the number of times each day that we toasted to one another with a glass of Brazilian bubbles! Brazil truly is the land of fun and celebration – and their sparkling wine is a great testament to this.

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One of Many Toasts with Brazilian Bubbles

 

Domaine Carneros – Still Enchanting Young and Old Visitors Over the Years

(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.

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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.

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Sonoma State University Wine Business Students Visiting Domaine Carneros

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.

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Learning About Riddling Racks

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.

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Solar Panel Array at Domaine Carneros

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.

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Tasting with Elaine in Chateau Society Club Room

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.

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Some of the Wines of Domaine Carneros

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.

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Non-Alcoholic Bubbly at Domaine Carneros