The Doyenne of California Sparkling Wine Steps Down

After 42 vintages, 30 of which were as the founding winemaker and CEO of Domaine Carneros, Eileen Crane (seen above in an image from early in her career) is stepping away from the wine cellar and the board room into retirement. A pioneer in every sense of the word, Crane helped to establish the legitimacy of California sparkling wine, advocated for and won the establishment of the Carneros AVA, and served as both winemaker and Chief Executive in an industry that even 30 years later has very few women with even one of those titles.

Crane has an Enology degree from UC Davis, and graduated in one of California’s most storied cohorts of winemakers, with classmates such as Randall Grahm, Celia Welch, Heidi Barrett, Bo Barrett, Rosemary Cakebread, Bruce Cakebread, Gil Nickel and more. She earned her degree even as she was moving up from part-time tour guide at Domaine Chandon to pastry chef, then wine tech, and eventually assistant winemaker.

When Claude Taittinger, head of the Champagne house of the same name, invested in building a California brand of sparkling wine, he asked those he knew and respected in the industry for the name of someone who knew how to run a sparkling wine operation. He was given many names, but the only person he thought actually had the experience he required was a young woman who had just spent three years launching the Gloria Ferrer sparkling operations from scratch for parent company Friexenet.

A contemporary image of Domaine Carneros Winemaker and CEO, Eileen Crane

So in 1987, before the ground was broken on a new winery, Crane was appointed winemaker for a project named Domaine Carneros. Her first tasks weren’t overseeing harvest, they were supervising the construction of the winery itself. Since the laying of the first stone in the foundation, Crane has been directing the course of Domaine Carneros, both in the cellar and in the board room, achieving an extremely rare feat not often attempted by others: personally crafting world-class wine while at the same time managing a significant P&L, and an organization with more than 60 employees.

With the search for a new CEO underway, I sat down with Crane (over Zoom in the time of the pandemic) to reflect on her more than 30 vintages of winemaking and leadership for Domaine Carneros, as well as to taste some of her top wine, Le Rêve.

Excerpts from our interview appear below, mildly edited for flow.

Alder Yarrow (AY): Most people know what a head winemaker does. What does a President and Head Winemaker do that an ordinary chef du cave might not?

Eileen Crane (EC): When the Taittingers were interested in building a winery in ’85 and ’86, they advertised for a winemaking student out of Davis. They asked Jim Allen of Sequoia Grove to do the preliminary work. It was too much for him, and he knew me slightly and knew that I had just built Gloria Ferrer from scratch, and reached out to me about the position. I told him, “They’re looking for someone out of school,” and I didn’t think it the position was for me and told him so. “That’s what they think they need,” he said, “but they really need someone with experience.” Claude eventually came to believe that to be true.

Being a CEO was never a goal of mine, but I have to say I’ve really enjoyed it. In the beginning at both Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros my time was split pretty evenly. 50% of the time was winemaking, 50% of the time was managing people. At this point 20% of my job is winemaking, and most of it is managing and running the winery, and public relations.

For the last 12 years we’ve been practicing something called Open Book Management. It builds esprit du corps among the team and I think that’s one of the big achievements that I’ve accomplished over the last 12 years.

Open Book Management is engaging the team in the winery as a whole. We show every employee all our financials. At the winery, employees would would think, “Hey, I sold this much wine today and I’m only getting paid this much.” They though the owners were getting all the money. When we show them the financials they understand what it takes to produce a bottle of sparkling wine.

One of the vineyard workers once asked, “Hey, you have all this money left over, why don’t you give it to us?” And then we explained that we have to buy glass, that’s about $800,000. We have to pay for the utilities. We have to pay for this and that. I enumerate all these things and people begin to really understand.

We have two levels of training for the employees on how to understand financials. And once they do, they get to have input on what we do. We make some decisions from the bottom up, based on employee ideas, which we make sure they know we are looking for. And people ask for things. Sometimes it takes a few months or even a year, but often those ideas get put into place because they’re really good.

I’ll give you an example. About 10 years ago we were trying to re-do our employee benefits. I said, “Why don’t we just ask the employees what they want?” So we did. It turns out, they didn’t want life insurance, they wanted a gym membership. So we put in a gym membership program. The vineyard workers didn’t believe we were really asking them what they wanted, but eventually they stepped up and asked for a Taco Truck lunch twice per month. We said yes. A bit later the employees said, “We really like the wines, but we can’t afford them. Could we have some more wines?” That was easy to fix. Now people get a couple bottles every month. People are always coming forward now with questions and suggestions. It’s fantastic.

AY: Tell me about how the relationship with Taittinger has evolved over time?

EC: In the beginning, the relationship between Taittinger and I was less than ideal. I like to say that the janitor in the home office always knows more than the PhD in the field. When we first started, I was a long way away, and I was this California woman (they would have been horrified if they knew I was from New Jersey) and I don’t think that everyone trusted that things would come out quite right. The French and California cultures were different enough that there was some friction at the start, but that went away in the first three or four years. They sent an enologist over for the first few years, but it quickly became obvious to them that he was learning from us, rather than the other way around, which was a good thing.

For the first few years, the folks from Taittinger and we would get together and taste each other’s cuvées, but after about four years, they simply accepted that I was head winemaker and they let me be. Over the next three to five years we took over every aspect of the operations and began to extend our line of wines. We began with the Brut, then launched Le Rêve, then our Rosé. That was our choice and we were given the autonomy to do it. We have always shared information and worked closely together with the folks at Taittinger. We’ve learned from each other.

When I was hired, the first few weeks I was on the job, Claude Taittinger called me up. At the time I was in the construction trailer with the dirt mover and the electric contractor. It was hard to hear him on the phone over the noise. But I eventually understood that he was saying to me, “We have the best Blanc de Blancs in France, and we’ve decided we want you to make California’s greatest Blanc de Blancs.”

At this point I had no equipment other than the trailer I was standing in, and I told him as much. “We think in terms of decades, in terms of generations, so just keep that in mind,” he said.

Vintage image of people toasting with sparkling wine
Eileen Crane and members of the Taittinger Family and Kobrand Executives at the Domaine Carneros opening gala in 1987

AY: That’s a pretty good segue to Le Rêve. Relatively quickly you began making a Blanc de Blancs Tête du Cuvée. How did that come about?

EC: I started making experiments in 1988 for a Blanc de Blancs. It was just a trial and we sold it at the winery as a Blanc de Blancs, and it was a very nice wine. From then on I continued to make it every year, and I would send over the cuvees to Taittinger to taste.

In 1991, when they tasted the Blanc de Blancs cuvee they called me up again, and said, “The 1991 is lovely. If the 1992 is just as good, you should do your first specialty cuvée. We will order the specialty bottle for you from France.” The 1992 was even better and so we had our first special cuvée, which were intending to bottle without a vintage.

From then on, we’ve produced it every year. In France, they don’t produce super cuvées every year. The weather doesn’t allow it. We’re lucky here in CA. When we first got going, one of Claude Taittinger’s questions to me was, “What do you do with bad years?”

“We don’t have them,” I said.

“In that case,” he said, “Why don’t you vintage date it?” And so we did.

AY: So you’re now retiring. How do you pass on 40 years of knowledge? Is true continuity even possible?

EC: Of course there will be changes. My palate has certainly changed over the years. Very few things are static. Zak [Miller, who will be taking over as head sparkling winemaker] has worked with me closely for 10 years. I will still be the lead on the sparkling harvest in 2020. I may continue in that role, but we’ll see what the new CEO thinks of that. Most of the people we’re interviewing have asked, “Would you be willing to come back?” I have to be honest that I would be delighted. It’s my baby.

I think Zak will to a great job. He knows he can always reach out to me. As you know, when you make wine you do it only once per year. I’ve done this 42 times. It’s a long learning curve.

Making wine and taking care of the wine is something that takes time to learn, but it is learnable. There are some things you don’t learn in the first 10 years. The cuvee blending is intuitive, for instance. Your palate directs you. It’s an art but the artist changes over time and artists may have protégées that follow in their footsteps. The wines I make here year after year are not identical. When we retire as winemakers we turn the grapes over to someone else. Someone else will take those wines in different ways. But they won’t be dramatically different if we’ve done things right.

AY: Do you have any regrets?

EC: Not really. I do regret I didn’t put more library wines aside. In the early years, right off the bat we started putting some things aside. But now if I could go back and change one thing I have done I would have kept two or three times as much of each vintage. Now we’re keeping twice as much as we were in the early years. You start out in one place and you don’t know everything. People think that Madeira and Port are the longest aging wines, but I don’t agree with that. Fine Methode Champenoise ages for a long time. They keep finding these ancient bottles aroud the world, and every once in a while, if a cork has held you have an utterly stunning bottle of Champagne.

AY: Beyond the wines which are themselves a testament to your work for the last few decades, how do you think about your legacy, both as a winemaker and a leader?

EC: The legacy I leave behind is first and foremost the style and commitment to quality that people have come to know from Domaine Carneros. I’ve designed a style and identity that is Domaine Carneros. When I was first hired, Claude asked me to start looking for vineyards. Only with estate vineyards can you truly control the quality. I’m proud to say that 2020 will be the first harvest where everything we make will be 100% estate grown. I leave Domaine Carneros as a fully estate-grown program. I also have to say that moving to Open Book Management has changed the whole sense of community at the winery, I’m so delighted that I found that and proud of how we developed a process around that. People who work here enjoy working here far better now.

I should also say that we’ve been the leader in green practices in the wine industry. In 2003 we put in the first really large solar array of any winery in the world. We have people from around the world coming to see what we were doing and how we were doing it. We’ve won awards for recycling. We were 100% organic for a while. The fish in the reservoir were dying due to the algae. CCOF told us to use copper, but it would kill the fish, so we decided to use something else [and gave up our certification].

AY: So you’re not taking another job. When you’re not answering questions for your successors, what are you going to be doing?

EC: I’m definitely not taking another job. In this time of COVID I’ve been sitting on my back deck for the last month. Where am I going to go? I enjoy it quite a bit. My partner cooks and cleans up the dishes. As you can imagine, with my job I’ve traveled extensively. I’ve been 120 countries. But I’ve always traveled fast. When it’s safe again, I want to travel slow. I want to go to Provence for lavender season for a month. I’m going to hang out in Lisbon for 3 weeks. I’m going to take trips to places I’ve wanted to go in the US. I’ve wanted to go on Canadian rail trip during Autumn. I want to go back to Japan. I’m also involved in two non-profits. I’ve got some stacks of books I want to read. And I’m going to get involved in historical societies in Napa. I also think that there’s too much contention between the County of Napa and wineries and there could be a much better relationship and we could get better results all the way around if we move to carrot rather stick approach. I’d like to see if I can do something about that.

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About “Le Rêve” by Domaine Carneros

Le Rêve is pretty unique in the landscape of California’s top sparkling wines in that it sees no oak treatment whatsoever.

“In the early days when Claude would come over to taste with me we were doing trials with barrels for cuvée aging and aging in barrel for dosage wine as well,” says Crane. “After a number of attempts Claude looked at me and said ‘When you have Beluga caviar, you don’t cover it in chopped eggs and onions,’ and that was that. We don’t need wood.

La Reve Bottle

For the first 12 years or so of its existence, it was mostly Chardonnay with a bit of Pinot Blanc blended in.

“Little by little we found that the Chardonnay didn’t need the Pinot Blanc,” says Crane. So it was phased out in favor of a 100% Chardonnay cuvee. The grapes used for the wine are not true clones, but various cuttings from vineyards that Crane has liked over the years. Most of them are farmed organically, but without formal certification.

“When we go into harvest, we tend to know which blocks are likely to end up in Le Rêve, but virtually every year we get a surprise when one of our favorites doesn’t show well and something we weren’t thinking about gets used.”

The grapes come into the winery and are pressed immediately with a membrane press. The juice goes into steel tanks and is fermented with a proprietary yeast that Crane has selected over the years.

After primary fermentation, the wines go back into the bottle, again with the proprietary yeast and. Le Rêve ages for a minumum of five and a half years, sometimes up to six years, on the lees before disgorgement. At that time it receives a dosage of about 8 grams per liter of sugar for balance.

Tasting Notes:

2012 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Light gold in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of buttered brioche, sea air, and citrus pith. In the mouth, a moderately coarse mousse delivers flavors of nut skin, butterscotch, toasted sourdough and a mix of salinity and citrus pith that makes the mouth water. Nicely balanced. Just a touch of marzipan on the finish. 11.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.

Crane has this to say about the 2012: “It was a cooler summer, and these grapes had a longer hang time than other cuvées, perhaps by 2 or 3 days. This is perhaps much more fruit forward than other recent vintages.”

2004 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs – Late Disgorged” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Light yellow gold in the glass with very fine bubbles this wine smells of lemon pith, sea air, and apples. In the mouth, a soft mousse delivers wonderfully bright lemon pith and lemon curd flavors mix with buttery biscuit and are shot through with oyster shell and seawater notes tinged by white flowers. Beautifully pure and expressive, with a minutes-long finish. Outstanding. 12.5% alcohol. Score: about 9.5. Cost: $100. click to buy.

Crane has this to say about the 2004: “I have tasted this wine a lot of the years, and it is more elegant and understated in for, but it’s really coming into its own now. This is one of the last vintages that included Pinot Blanc in the blend. This bottle was disgorged about two and a half years ago.”

1998 Domaine Carneros “Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs – Late Disgorged” Chardonnay, Carneros, Sonoma, California
Medium gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan and butterscotch with hints of sea air. In the mouth, dried lemon rind, pineapple, and toasted sourdough have a wonderful kelpy, saline quality that along with still-bright acidity keeps the mouth-watering for a long while. Lovely balance, soft mousse, and rich complexity. 12.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $n/a.

Crane has this to say about the 1998: “As you know it was a very cool season and a very small harvest. It has taken a lot longer to age and to show its stuff. This bottle was disgorged about two and a half years ago.”

Corks from La Reve