If you’re visiting the Dominus Estate for the first time, you might wonder if you’ve arrived at the wrong place. Instead of an ornate, château-like structure, you’ll find a dark rectangular building sitting among the vines. Upon closer inspection, you realize that the entire building is composed of thousands of stones cobbled together in wire baskets. To say it’s surreal is an understatement!

The day we visit, Kassidy Harris, Marketing Director, meets us in front of the building. “Christian Moueix told the architects to build something ‘silent and invisible,’ she explains. “Obviously they were successful, because many people — even long-time residents of Napa — don’t realize we’re here.”

The Dominus Winery, designed by acclaimed architects Herzog & Meuron, is composed of thousands of stones cobbled together in wire baskets. Photo by Marla Norman.

Christian Moueix is, of course, the owner of Dominus Estate. Moueix established his viticulture credentials as director of winemaking at Château Pétrus for 38 years, ending with the 2008 vintage. He also manages Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix, begun by his father, another legend in French winemaking. Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix controls the distribution rights of twenty eminent châteaux in Pomerol and Saint-Émilion. Additionally, Christian Moueix produces wine from eight of the family properties in Bordeaux: Châteaux La Fleur Pétrus, Trotanoy and Hosanna in Pomerol; Château Bélair-Monange in Saint-Émilion.

In 2008, Moueix was named both a “Legend of Wine” by the James Beard Foundation and “Man of the Year” by Decanter Magazine. In 2011 he was awarded Wine Spectator’s “Distinguished Service Award.”

Perfectly manicured vines at Dominus Estate, where varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Photo by Marla Norman.

IN THE VINEYARDS

We continue our walk into the vineyard. Manicured rows stretch up the mountains, 103 acres of carefully tended vines. The properties of Dominus neighbors, Moët & Chandon and Markham, are also visible.

Varietals planted on the Dominus Estate include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. At one time, Merlot was cultivated, but Moueix realized that the grape was unsuitable for his property. The heat produced ultra-jammy, stewed fruit, forcing him to pull the vines and replace them.

It’s easy to understand how fruit might suffer, as we quickly wilt in the afternoon heat. The Dominus vines, however, are impressively unaffected. Deep green and exuberantly healthy, they’re covered with tiny clusters of berries. Kassidy tells us that “the property is not only one of the oldest in Napa — since it was originally planted by George Yount in 1838 — but it’s the only property in Napa to have never been irrigated.”

Kassidy Harris, Marketing Director at Dominus, shows the east-to-west orientation of the vineyard.

“Dry farming is all that’s allowed in Bordeaux and Christian brought that same policy to Napa. We know that irrigation creates shallow root systems while dry farming forces the plants to establish deep roots, which in turn creates healthier plants. That’s why they look so great in this 90+ heat. We’re also very fortunate here at Dominus to sit on top of an ancient alluvial river bed, composed of granite, silt and clay — all of that preserves moisture.”

Kassidy adds. “Young vines are the one exception to dry farming. New plants receive two deep watering treatments the first year they’re establishing roots. Additionally, we hand wash each and every vine on the estate 10-15 days before harvest. This refreshes the vines and makes for cleaner berries at harvest.”

We notice the intricately arranged wires supporting the vines — like nothing we’ve ever seen. “Stalks are trellised on a lyre system,” Kassidy explains. “Both the south and north side of the vine have double Guyot, with 4 Guyot total. This, provides ample canopy for the berries on either side and in the center of the vine.”

Also significant, vines are planted in an east-to-west orientation. The southern berries receive more hours of sunshine than the north, so are picked earlier and vinified separately. Typically the northern berries are used for Napanook, while vines with a sunnier exposure are used for Dominus.

The oldest vines at Dominus are approximately 27 years old. Replacing them is a ten year process that involves keeping at least 10% of the property fallow for two years. New vines are then planted in the fresh soil, but not used in production until they are fully mature, about 8 years later — an enormous investment, but one consistent with the Moueix philosophy of stewardship with regard to viticulture practices.

Gabions (wire baskets) filled with local basalt control temperatures in the winery and also create patterns of light that change by the minute. Photo by Marla Norman.

IN THE WINERY

We walk into the winery itself and are shocked at how chilly it is within the stone-covered structure. If you didn’t know, you’d think you were in a cellar well below ground level.

In 1995, when Swiss architects Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron designed the Dominus winery, almost no one had heard of them. It was their first project in the States. Working with Christian Moueix, they came up with an ingenious design using gabions (wire baskets) filled with local basalt. The rocks keep the building cool by day and release heat at night. Basalt was chosen because it is less susceptible to climatic changes.

We climb a catwalk over numerous steel tanks. Kassidy tells us that veraison usually takes place the first week of August. Berries are analyzed both in the laboratory and by hand to determine when to pick. Clusters are sorted by optic scanners for sunburn, bruises and any other imperfections. Then the berries are sorted once more by hand to further ensure quality.

Lots are fermented separately and gentle pumping-over extracts aromas, color and tannins. Berries are 21 days on-skins and remain in steel through the malolactic fermentation. The wines are aged in French oak — generally 40% new to 60% neutral.

Ascending the stairwell to the second level, we see another effect of the stone walls and gabions — an extraordinary light show, as sunlight shines through the rocks and peppers the interior with constantly changing patterns of light. Adding to the aesthetics are huge panels of floor-to-ceiling glass, interspersed with the walls, providing expansive views of the vineyards. Nature is always present and on stage at Dominus.

Christian Moueix’s office with photos of previous owners.

IN THE TASTING ROOM

On our way to the Tasting Room, we pass by Christian Moueix’s office, made up mostly of glass walls with views to the property. You can imagine him looking out over his vineyards and studying the plots.

Kassidy draws our attention to photographs on the back wall, behind Moueix’s desk. “Those are the previous owners there. The photos are Christian’s homage to George Yount, Charles Hopper, John Daniel and their achievements here on the property.”

George Yount, for whom Yountville is named, planted some of the first vines on the estate in 1828. Later, Hugh La Rue, a pioneer in the use of rootstocks, also owned the property. More recently, John Daniel, the proprietor of Inglenook, took ownership, renaming the vineyard Napanook. Daniel is credited with producing one of the finest Cabernets of that era.

In 1995, Moueix became the sole owner of Dominus. Moueix renamed the winery “Dominus” or “Lord of the Estate” in Latin to underscore his longstanding commitment to stewardship of the land.

Bordeaux-red barrels at the Dominus Tasting Room.

Walking into the tasting room, we feel as if we’ve been magically transported to one of Moueix’s properties in Bordeaux. The barrels are stained in wine, typical of the Bordelaise tradition.

We begin our tasting with the 2014 Napanook, which yielded 2,200 cases. The blend is a mix of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. Aromas of black cherries are predominant with undertones of cedar. The mouth feel is supple, although fairly rich and concentrated. Compared to the 2013, this vintage is more expressive early on, but might not age quite as long.

Marla Norman, Kassidy Harris (Marketing Director at Dominus Estate) and Michel Thibault

The 2014 Dominus produced 4,000 cases, and is a blend of approximately 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc and 7% Petit Verdot. The wine is mid-to-full bodied, with notes of cherries and black currants. One particularly striking feature of the Dominus style — as rich and layered as the wine is — is that it’s still more approachable and leaner than many of the other cult California wines. In a number of ways, it’s apparent that the wine is the product of a French winemaker. And even though the 2014 vintage received a 97-point rating, while the 2013 was awarded 100 points, we found the wine to be incredibly elegant and well-made.

When Christian Moueix first took on responsibilities for winemaking at Napanook in 1982, he cautioned his partners about the amount of time needed to make a good wine, estimating he’d require at least 20 years. Amazingly, within 5 years, his wines began receiving outstanding ratings: 1987-96, 1990-98, 1991-99, 1992-95, 1994-99 from Robert Parker. Through 2000-2010, Dominus continued to receive high ratings, obtaining 95+ points an astounding 9 times.

Clearly, Christian Moueix is a very quick study!

PLEASE NOTE: Due to the restrictive Napa Valley Winery use permit, Dominus Estate is not open to the public.

Incredible California Wines at Unbeatable Prices

Please write [email protected] or call 850-687-1370 to order. These wines will not last long!

Dominus 2014: RP-97 pts. $194.99. 12 bottles available.
Napanook 2014 by Dominus: JS-95 pts. $56.99. 6-bottle minimum purchase.

Bond Vecina 2013 by Harlan: RP-100 pts. $474.99. 4 bottles available.
Bond Pluribus 2013 by Harlan: RP 100 pts. $474.99. 4 bottles available.
Bond Melbury 2013 by Harlan: RP 97 pts. $464.99. 4 bottles available.

Opus One 2013: JS-100 pts. $239.99. 3 bottles available.

Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet 2005: $89.99. 2 bottles available.

Paul Hobbs Cabernet 2013: JS-95. $88.99. 24 bottles available.
Shafer One Point Five 2013: WE-95. $73.99. 6 bottles available.

Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2014: $26.79. 4 cases available.
Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2013: $29.49. 3 cases available.

Santé

Marla Norman is Co-Owner of Michel Thibault Wine and Publisher of Travel Curious Often.