Domaine Chandon, the Yountville winery that produces sparkling wines, has been celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. This pioneering winery did much to elevate the image of the Napa Valley, not only in the United States, but also in France. The good folks there haven’t had to look far to raise a celebratory glass of bubbly.
Domaine Chandon was the first French-owned sparkling winery in California. Its parent company, Moët & Chandon, took the plunge in 1973, much to the astonishment of other Champagne houses that had scoffed at California efforts.
The two expert visionaries who successfully pulled off the Domain Chandon venture were John H. Wright, the Californian, and Edmond Maudière, the chef du caves at Moët Hennessy.
Wright was a savvy business consultant at Arthur D. Little, stationed in Brussels in the late 1960s. He had developed a taste for wine in Europe but didn’t like the weather in Belgium and was about to quit. The head of Arthur D. Little, James M. Gavin, a brilliant general in World War II, asked Wright to stay with the company and offered him a chance to move to San Francisco.
He jumped at the offer and, soon after arriving in San Francisco, he became involved in a small vineyard partnership with friends, making a little homemade wine—but, as he admitted, it wasn’t very good.
In 1970, his growing interest in wine undeterred, Wright began a major study on the future of the California wine industry, which he felt would be a very bright one. His clients on that project included Mondavi, H. J. Heinz, Philip Morris, Schlitz, Coca Cola, and Quaker Oats. The study showed that there would be great growth, especially in what was then called the “premium wine” market.
This three-volume study happened to come to the attention of several executives of Moët & Chandon in Paris and, after many back and forth exchanges, Moët decided to go ahead with the development of a sparkling wine facility in Napa with the proviso that Wright had to be in charge.
It was a very exciting time. The French carefully tasted sample after sample of the wines that the Napa Valley facility was producing to decide upon just the right blend. The main French “taster” was the extraordinarily precise Renard Poirier, and he ultimately chose chardonnay and pinot noir, staples of the Champagne blends, and also pinot blanc. Remember, too, those were the days when the French disparaged California wines and many of them wouldn’t even taste the sparkling wines being made here at the time.
In 1973, the French/California company was formed. In order to introduce the group to the Napa Valley, a reception was held and wine industry elites were all invited. The party turned out to be a very good idea. It seems the gregarious and charming Katie Trefethen attended the gathering. The French gentlemen were smitten, and she, in her usual hospitable mood, invited the entire contingent to lunch at the Trefethen home the next day. It was a fortuitous meeting. The Moët group soon purchased excellent grapes from the Trefethen vineyards and also made its first sparkling wines at the historic winery. (John and Janet Trefethen were thus convinced to put the old winery back into beautiful shape and began making their own excellent wines.)
Another sparkling salute goes to Dawnine Dyer, who first came to Domaine Chandon in 1976 and, during her 26-year career there, rose to vice president and principal winemaker. She also added significant sparkle to Napa Valley’s reputation.
Our wine group recently popped some corks with delight:
Domaine Chandon Brut Classic—a beautifully balanced wine with persistent bubbles, an elegant nose, and a delicious taste—at under $20, also a delicious bargain!
Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir—most of our tasters liked this—I felt it was a bit dry for a blanc de noir.
Domaine Chandon Rosé—very tasty, lovely colored, with nice fruit up front.
Domaine Chandon Étoile Rosé—this was a big step up from the “regular” rosé; lovely fruit and great complexity—a true star.
Domaine Chandon Étoile Brut—tops at the table; a classic, bright, and wonderful wine, special in every way.
Domaine Chandon Extra-Dry Riche—a touch of muscat gives the wine a lovely fragrance and sweetness.
Take your choice for the holiday entertaining season. Note well that Domaine Chandon is also a festive place to visit. The buildings and grounds are lovely, and its restaurant, L’Étoile, which means “the star,” is one of Napa’s brightest. While on the subject of “bright,” I’d like to convey my best wishes to all of you for the holiday season—and may all your wines be tasty!