Domaine Carneros is a winery that one won’t easily miss seeing while driving through the Carneros region of Napa Valley. The winery looks very European and is perched high on a hill so it is easily seen from the well-traveled Highway 12. As a result, weekends combined with good weather can make for a very busy tasting experience. We have visited many times; Domaine Carneros is always very popular with young, well dressed, beautiful & sophisticated looking people. There are only four primary sparkling wineries in all of the Napa Valley – and a stop here either in the morning or at the end of your day of tasting is a good idea. The reason for this is twofold; it’s location in the far southern part of the valley lends itself well for an early or late stop (a late stop, especially for those staying in either the towns of Napa or Sonoma or heading back to the San Jose Bay Area) – and in our opinion, sparkling wine is either best enjoyed in the early morning or after a day of still wine tasting.
While their first vintage was a 1987 Brut, the winery and hospitality center was completed in 1989 but looks like it has been here much longer. It exudes old world charm as it was modeled after the historic Château de la Marquetterie (located in the village of Pierry, about a 10 minutes drive directly south of the center of Épernay in Champagne).
As you may have guessed by now, this winery has a connection to France; it is 50% owned by Taittinger, a French company who operates Champagne Taittinger in Reims, France. In their search for another location to make sparkling wine beginning in the late 1970s, Taittinger identified several premium sites around the world for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – the two essential varietals for making sparkling wine. The Carneros region was one of those sites and Taittinger purchased this property in 1987.
And the other owner is the Kopf family who runs the successful Kobrand Wines & Spirits based in New York and also owns Napa based Sequoia Grove Winery and Sonoma County based, St. Francis Winery. Kobrand Corporation was founded in 1944 by Rudolph C. Kopf with their first office headquartered in the Empire State Building in New York City. Mr. Kopf had previously founded (1933) and run the wine & spirits department at Macy’s wine and liquor in New York City (Macy’s Herald Square).
The relationship between Taittinger and Kobrand dates back to 1946.
Visitors walk up the lengthy steps, this grand entrance is a popular place for selfies (past Pinot Noir vines growing to your right and Chardonnay vines to your left). Short walkways lead to the vines where you can examine the grapes in closer detail (August and early September are ideal times to take closeup “facies” with grape clusters as your backdrop). Walk up the steps until you reach the entrance, proceed inside and check in with a host – weather permitting and if seats are available, the outdoor tables are where you want to be – to be seen and to see. These tables tend to fill up rather quickly, especially on warm spring through fall weekends.
Because of the wineries’ location, uniqueness of being one of only several high end sparkling wine producers in Napa, lengthy history in French, and memorable appearance of the building, Domaine Carneros hosts more people than most area wineries. Because of its elevated height over the Carneros region, there are excellent views of the Carneros hills. The reserve tasting room is located downstairs and the main wine counter is located in the room to the right of the entrance. You can either stand at the wine counter or sit down at the indoor tables. Not all wineries have as many tables setup for wine enjoyment as this one. You come here for their sparkling wine and our recommendation is to choose their Sparkling tasting flight rather than their regular wine (since this is the wine style they are most known for – although they actually do produce quite a few different Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays).
One of our favorite Domain Chandon sparkling wines is their Le Reve Blanc de Blancs – this wine is aged longer than most of their other current vintage ‘bubblies’ and as a result is very smooth. On the palate is shows a wonderful creaminess – like velvet. It is a blend of several different Chardonnay clones, each of which brings a unique characteristic to this wine. The name in French means “the dream” and was created to be the answer to their French high end counterpart – but in this case using only estate grown fruit. When we mentioned this was our favorite our guide’s response was “good taste is both a blessing and a curse”! Right, this is among their most pricey selections. Of the non sparkly wines they produce several Pinot Noir wines including the intriguing California styled estate Pinot Noir along with a Merlot.
Winemaker Eileen Crane (who started her career in the Napa Valley as a tour guide at Domain Chandon) was at Domain Carneros since the inception. She worked at Napa and Sonoma wineries who made sparkling wine since 1978 and finally retired in 2020. Her focus while at Domain Carneros was on creating a premium consistent product each year. Another winemaker is responsible for all of their still wines.
All of their wine comes from vineyards in the Carneros sub appellation – with 95% of the grapes coming from their own estate vineyards (a very important notation, as they have full control over their farming and harvest decisions) – spread across four separate vineyards encompassing some 350 acres. Their vineyards are located on both the Napa and Sonoma sides of Carneros.
Their sparkling wines are primarily vintage dated and are all made in the tradition style (méthode champenoise). And the focus is on sparkling wines made from Chardonnay.
The flagship tour is offered daily year round and offers a general overview of their vineyards, property and basic information about the process of producing sparkling wines. In addition, seasonal summer tours are also offered usually in regards to their still wines. The general tour takes about an hour. No reservations are required and its best if you show up about 10 minutes before the advertised tour time to pay for your ticket and ensure your space on the tour (especially during busy summer weekends).
The tour starts in the reception room and then spends some time next to some of the vines planted around the winery. This is a good time for viticulture questions. Then you walk up to their “media” room for a glass of sparkling and short video about Taittinger and Domaine Carneros. At the end of the video the screen moves up and lo and behold you are staring through a glass window at large steel tanks. Watching employees walk by, some of whom wave at you is like looking at fish in a tank.
Next you proceed to a windowed area which looks down on their large aging rooms, bottling line, and the automatic riddler machines. A few antique wine making pieces of equipment are located here as well as a display on how riddling works. We were told in the early days of bottling sparkling wines – the amount of volume in each bottle was imprecise due to rudimentary filling methods. Enter foil – these long foils were creatively introduced when bottling sparkling wines to hide the differences in volume in each bottle!
You finish the tour in the Reserve room for a sit down tasting of their still wines (several different Pinot Noirs). We’ve been on several tours; the guides are there to answer questions but also have a good time with their guests. During one of our visits, our tour guide told the story of a Japanese distributor who wanted to buy 5 cases for his daughter’s wedding. Domaine Carneros doesn’t do much international shipping so they were trying to figure out how to get this to the man ASAP. It turned out his daughter was only 2 years old – and he was trying to make a point that yes, Domaine Carneros’s sparkling wine will age!
As a side note, in the back of their building they have one of the larger photo-voltaic systems of any winery in the world. And they are certified CCOF which means all their estate vineyards are farmed organically.
In 2018 Domaine Carneros opened a garden conservatory called the Jardin d’Hiver – an enclosed mostly glass room used for five-course food pairings and select tastings. It faces north overlooking one of their terraces. It was modeled after some of the glass buildings that Gustave Eiffel created in the mid to late 1800’s on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. A fireplace helps keep one warm here in the winter.
Champagne Taittinger, Reims France
One of the most historic Champagne houses, Taittinger was founded in 1734 by Jacques Fourneaux and is the fourth oldest winery operating in Champagne behind Gosset (1584), Ruinart (1729) and Chanoine Frères (1730). In the early 1900s the Taittinger family, Pierre Taittinger and his brother in law operated a Champagne distribution company. The beginnings of Taittinger are from 1931 when Pierre took over the operations of what was called at that time, Forest-Fourneaux. And a year later Pierre purchased Château de la Marquetterie and its accompanying estate. Eventually the Taittinger family took over the site of what used to be the Saint Nicaise Abbey (their present day headquarters).
The history of this site is overwhelming. Saint-Nicaise, the bishop of Reims was killed in the 5th century and was buried here. In 1229 an abbey was built by the Benedictine monks over Saint-Nicaise’s gravesite and to house his relics. The abbey was sold during the French Revolution (1789 to 1799) and over time was dismantled for its stone until by the 1800s it was completely destroyed. Much later during World War I the the caves were used to house soldiers and refugees (one can even still signature etchings and dates carved into the chalk from soldiers during World War I).
The history of the site extends even further – the existing caves originated as a chalk quarry/pits (called crayères in French) by the Gallo-Romans in the 4th century, with hand cut blocks of chalk stone used for buildings. Some 900 years later, the Benedictine Monks expanded the quarry into caves used for aging their own wines.
Champagne Taittinger was sold for about a year between 2005 and 2006 to the private USA based investment firm Starwood Capital Group. But by mid 2006 the Taittinger family purchased Champagne Taittinger back. Today the business is family owned and operated.
Tours by appointment are led by knowledgeable hosts and include a visit into the historic underground cellars (approximately 4km of tunnels storing some 2 million bottles at any one time – although the family operates another bottle storage location off site storing up to 25 millions bottles). Like the other caves in the region, the temperature is constant. Highlights include seeing some of the original construction by the monks in the 13th century including steps leading up to where the abbey was located at that time. Following a visit to the cave, guests will ascend upstairs to an elegant tasting room to try several of their wines.
Besides enjoying the wine in this tasting room, guests can also view a small historical collection of artifacts collected in Reims during archaeological digs held in the Vieux Port area of town between 2008 and 2009. The items displayed are wooden or leather including several old shoes, beauty products such as combs, cosmetic palettes and makeup ‘pots’ and a number of wine related artifacts including wine sieves, transportation vessels and even three very well worn wine barrels.
A book dedicated to founder Pierre’s son Michael Taittinger is also for sale in the tasting room written by his brother Claude. Michael died in 1940 on his 20th birthday during World War II.
For more information or to make an appointment to see the caves followed by a tasting, visit: www.taittinger.com
Like several other Champagne producers, Taittinger has international interests, Domaine Carneros of course but also more recently vineyards in southern England through a joint partnership with Hatch Mansfield Ltd (a UK based wine distribution company). This is the first Champagne based winery to plant vineyards in the United Kingdom. For more information about Domaine Evremond visit www.domaineevremond.com.
Note: after years of hosting visitors by walk-in, in 2019 Domain Carneros now sees visitors only by prior reservation – although conceivably last minute or same day reservations can be made on days when they are not to busy (generally week days).
Special events are offered at select times throughout the year including with winemaker Eileen Crane. For more information and or to join one of their wine clubs, Visit: www.domainecarneros.com
Winery + Grounds
CHAMPAGNE TAITTINGER, REIMS FRANCE
Château de la Marquetterie
Photos coming in 2020!
Vineyard photos coming in 2020!