The Grapevine

When the French came to the Napa Valley

Special to The TribuneJuly 26, 2013 

Laurie Daniel

Domaine Chandon was established in the Napa Valley 40 years ago, an anniversary that fans of California bubbly will probably want to toast. But the influence of this French-owned winery extends beyond sparkling wine.

Certainly it helped pave the way for other foreign-owned sparkling wine houses in California. But the fact that Moet-Hennessy, a major French wine company — the French ruled the wine world in those days — had made such a large investment in the Napa Valley also conferred instant credibility on that still-fledgling wine area.

“The critical thing is that it was the first French investment in the Napa Valley,” says Matt Wood, Domaine Chandon’s estate director. The move, he adds, meant “there’s something special about the Napa Valley.”

“There was a great deal of buzz that a French company — a French company of that magnitude — was taking an interest in the Napa Valley,” says Dawnine Dyer, who went on to become the longtime winemaker at Chandon and now owns Dyer Vineyards.

Moet-Hennessey wanted to expand, and expansion in Champagne was difficult. After deciding that the Napa Valley was the right place, the company established M&H Vineyards, later renamed Domaine Chandon, in 1973. The new company bought some land, and winemakers from Moet & Chandon made some experimental wines that year. The first commercial vintage was assembled in 1974.

The winery and visitor facility in Yountville opened to the public in 1977. One important feature of the winery was the Restaurant at Domaine Chandon, now called Etoile. Napa Valley is a land of high-end restaurants now, but in the mid-1970s, fine dining was virtually non-existent there. Wood says that some big players in the valley who invested in subsequent years have told him that the restaurant was important to their decision. “It turned Napa into the complete package,” he says.

And there’s no question that the establishment of Domaine Chandon helped spawn a revolution in California sparkling wine. There was some bubbly in California produced in the traditional methode champenoise — one high-quality producer, Schramsberg, was established in 1965 at a winery that dates to the 1860s — but the success of Chandon opened the floodgates. Foreign investment in the 1980s led to ventures like Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa Valley, Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros, Maison Deutz (now Laetitia) and Gloria Ferrer (part of Spain’s Freixenet empire).

There was a period of time when I felt that Chandon’s sparkling wines fell a little short of those produced by its competitors. But when I tasted the current releases toward the end of last year, I felt that Chandon had regained its stride. The non-vintage Chandon Brut Classic ($22) is creamy, with citrus and apple fruit and a fine texture, while the non-vintage Chandon Brut Rosé ($22) is delicate, with subtle red fruit and some creaminess. These wines are often available at a considerable discount.

Chandon bottled a delicious cuvee for the anniversary. The non-vintage 40th Anniversary Cuvee Rosé ($40) displays red berry fruit and a note of brioche.

Pick of the week

Justin Vineyards 2010 Justification ($50)

Is something meaty on the menu? This blend of cabernet franc and merlot would be a good choice. It offers ample spicy black fruit, hints of cedar and forest floor and firm but approachable tannins.

Email Laurie Daniel at ladaniel@earthlink.net.

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