One of the most influential women in wine, Eileen Crane is the CEO and winemaker at Domaine Carneros and has been crafting outstanding sparkling wines for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, Eileen then went on to study at the famed UC Davis Vitulture and Enology program before starting at Domaine Carneros in 1987. For those who have not had a chance to taste at this storied winery, I implore you to stop by and take in the sweeping views of Napa Valley. I adored her current releases and I had the great opportunity to sit down with her and chat about her illustrious career. I think you will very much look forward to hearing from the Eileen Crane of Domaine Carneros, quoted as the ‘Doyenne of Sparkling Wines’ by Karen McNeil in her Wine Bible.
WWB: How did you first become interested in winemaking?
EC: It began at a very early age. While serving in WWII, my father developed a fondness for French and German wines. After the war, he worked for the international department of the financial firm Dean Witter and his travels afforded him the opportunity to bring back wonderful wines to our home in New Jersey. The family had wine only for Sunday dinners and I was allowed to help choose the wine. One Sunday my father pulled out a Champagne and, although I was only eight, he allowed me to have a small sip and I was hooked. However, it wasn’t until I attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York that I first learned that one could study winemaking; that led me to UC Davis to pursue my passion for wine and turn it into a career.
At Davis a male professor tried to discourage me by saying that I would need six more years of studies and then no one would ever hire me to be a winemaker because I lacked the physical strength to handle the barrels. Fortunately, Ann Noble, the first female faculty member in Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology advised me I didn’t need another degree and encouraged me to take classes at Davis, which I did and here I am.
WWB: How were you able to develop your house style with vintage sparkling wine?
EC: When I was chosen in 1987 by Claude Taittinger of Champagne Taittinger, to build the Domaine Carneros winery and brand, we were stylistically in synch to making the brand known for its seemingly effortlessly elegant, balanced wines. I was encouraged by Claude Taittinger to develop my own style based on Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I was never asked to imitate Taittinger.
Our style might be personified as Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress: elegant, understated, everything in its place with substance and longevity, but also kicky and fun. In my opinion, great wines, great restaurants and great artists all have something in common; it is the vision that drives the finished product. It is not a compromise, not a formula, not a recipe – it is the head winemaker’s, chef’s or artist’s palate/palette that determines what the finished product will be.
WWB: How did you first decide to make your very special wine, the ‘Le Rêve’?
EC: Le Rêve is French for “the dream”, and our tête de cuvée was named in honor of Claude Taittinger’s vision or dream to make America’s greatest blanc de blancs, an all Chardonnay sparkler.
When he made this request, I was nervous because I had only made one blanc de blancs previously, but it wasn’t for aging. Making sparkling wines to age is difficult – you have to project what the wine is going to taste like six or eight years down the road. Due to the aging program, it takes years to learn if you’ve made a mistake.
The first Le Rêve, I made I tasted year after year hoping that my experience for creating a super cuvée would be adequate. Between the fifth and sixth year of tasting, I realized I had done it! At that point it became my dream come true. The flavors had melded and evolved; giving it a distinctive style and a great body and finish.
WWB: Your 2011 Domaine Carneros Le Rêve Sparkling Wine (WWB, 94) is a gorgeous new wine with serious weight, tension and minerality. Can you talk about crafting this very special wine?
EC: Le Rêve is based on my own palate, i.e., my sense of the right nose, as perfect a balance as possible and a long finish. In wine and food I enjoy refinement, restraint, understated elegance. Each part, or element, must contribute to the whole with nothing extraneous. Think of Audrey Hepburn in the little black dress, you see perfect balance. This is what I seek in the wines I make.
I have been at Domaine Carneros for 31 years (40 years in the US méthode champenoise industry) and over my years I have refined our vineyard clones, their vineyard facings, the timing of picking, vinification, and the creation of the cuvee itself. At this point I almost feel that creating a cuvée is in my genes; like a great dancer, athlete, or chef the moves become instinctive. If an obstacle appears, they know how to gracefully get around it.
WWB: What are some of your favorite old world producers of wine, including producers of Champagne? Do you have any ‘epiphany’ wines in particular?
EC: My favorite producers from old world, or new, are always the ones that exhibit great balance. I am not sure I run across ‘epiphany’ wines, but I do come across wines that truly delight.