I’ve wanted to visit the Dominus Estate in Napa since it was built in 1997. But it’s not open to the public. So when I was in Napa in February as a speaker at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, I inquired about visiting and was glad that they offered me the chance. So here’s an edition of Dr. Vino inside! (And a change for trying out a new photo “gallery;” background and annotation appear after the jump.)
Christian Moueix, an owner of Chateau Petrus and a leading negociant house in Bordeaux, purchased a share of property in the 1983 with a goal of making “French-style wine in a Napa terroir with a Bordeaux spirit,” according to my guide. During the period that he co-owned the property with Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, the wines were made off-site.
But when Moueix purchased the 124 acres outright in 1995, he and his wife Cherise decided to build a winery on the property. They selected the then-up-and-coming Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. (Since then, Herzog & de Meuron have won the Pritzker prize and designed such buildings as the Tate Modern and the Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.) The winery budget was $5 million and astonishingly, when they were done, the architects gave them money back since they came in under budget.
The rock for the walls (quarried at nearby American Canyon) was placed inside stainless steel baskets to form the walls. The light twinkles between the stones during the day and, somehow, keeps the building naturally cool through this semipermeable membrane. Birds love it too, poking in and out; my guide told me that they also had a problem with snakes at the outset and had to add a finer mesh to the exterior (as you can see in one of the outside shots).
The 108 acres of vineyards are almost entirely dry-farmed (no irrigation) and largely planted to cabernet sauvignon although there is also merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc. Tod Mostero, the American winemaker who joined Dominus two years ago after a stint at Almaviva in Chile, told me that the grapes are rigorously sorted as they enter the winery, first with a sophisticated sounding machine that shoots a fine blast of air and then by hand. Dominus makes only two (red) wines, the flagship (about 7,000 cases) and Napanook (about 4,000 cases). Tod said they consciously throttle back on the oak with the top wine receiving about 40% new oak barrels and the Napanook seeing only about 20% new. The alcohol is also moderate at about 14.1%. The 2005 Dominus has dark berry notes and deliciously fine tannins to give it excellent poise. The Napanook used to be 25% Merlot but no longer has any: the 2005 is a blend of 76% Cabernet and 14% Petit Verdot. It had a restrained, delicate perfume and showed well but was still firmly wrapped in youthful tannins.
Interestingly, the wines are not sold to a mailing list but rather sold through Maison Marques and Domaines to restaurants and retailers nationally.
Tod told me they often pick around September 25 so I guess they are busy today!