The Domaine Carneros Winery in Napa, California announced today that they’d received their organic certification from California Certified Organic Farmers, making them the first organic-certified sparkling winery in the United States. I had the chance to sit down with the company president and chief winemaker Eileen Crane to learn more about the process behind making a fine wine an organic wine as well.
Crane grew up in New Jersey, but packed up her car 30 years ago and headed west to pursue her passion for wine. In that time, she’s worked her way up through the vineyard ranks, and now oversees the development of new wines each season. She sums up her line of work as the pursuit of “Aha!” moments, the times when your taste buds quiver with delight at a delicious sip. Fortunately for us, Crane says that since switching to organic farming, the flavor of the grapes have intensified, leading to even more satisfying “Aha!” moments than even she expected.
Congratulations on your organic certification. I understand the process takes over three years, what changes did you have to implement at the winery?
It’s a return to doing things the natural way – the way that preserves the earth. You have to learn how to farm differently. Instead of using herbicides, we had to learn how to cultivate. You’re not spending money on chemicals, you’re putting money into labor instead. But it also needs to be efficient to compete in the market. Running organically is more expensive, but I always say that we can brainstorm and find ways to run efficiently while being organic.
Have you noticed a difference in the wine since switching to organic farming?
I was really surprised at how much better a product it makes. When we started doing it, I thought, Will I really be able to notice a difference? How substantial would it be? You know when you get a teabag, you can tell whether it’s good tea or great tea? You can tell the gradations: This is really awful, this is reasonably good, or this is something with that “Aha!” to it – this is really lovely. People always have descriptors for wine, and we use those, but some of it is just the feeling, just being conscious of that “Aha!” moment. It’s just wonderful. It’s like when you sit down to a meal and the presentation and balance is just perfect. The ingredients and seasoning is perfect, it just seems really right. I say yes, there’s more flavor in the grapes and there’s better balance, but it’s really the “Aha!” sense – this is really fabulous quality.
And I’m sure the vineyard has changed a bit as well.
The vines look happier when you look at the vineyard; the greens seem more vibrant. It’s like when you see a child that’s well nourished and cared for: the rosy cheeks. The vines have a sense of vibrancy.
Going organic is restoring the natural balance of microbes and animals. I realized that the three years that it took for certification is the time it takes to start to restore the earth to its natural state, the way it should be.
What is the experience like for someone who’d like to visit the winery?
At many wineries that you visit, you have to belly up to the bar, there’s a mass scene. We’ve always offered table service.
If people want to really stand at a bar you can do that, but I say 95 percent of the people come to us because they want to sit. In the winter we have a beautiful Louis XIV room with a fireplace; in the summer we have tables all over our garden terrace with beautiful views.
You can taste a sampler of pinot noir or sparkling wine and we’ll match that with artisanal cheeses.
We also have tours
for people who want to visit the winery and see how the wine is produced. We offer different kinds of tours, both for sparkling and pinot noir. And we have a tour that includes the vineyard.
I understand you also offer a more intimate involvement in the winery through your wine club.
Yes, they get to see wines that are not in national release, we have a special club room for when they visit the winery. We do educational events and we even go on cruises together. It’s great if you want to really get involved and have an insider’s view, and know what’s happening in wine country.
What’s next for this season of wines?
We have a series called Great Women of America. I started out creating a wine to commemorate Julia Child’s 90th birthday, and two years later I was asked by the great nephew of Greta Garbo to do something for her. I realized we had a series, and I thought who else would I like to honor? So we’re doing Ella Fitzgerald this year, and it will come out in April. We’re featuring women from all walks of life that did something extraordinary.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The same can be said about yourself, as a woman working in a field that had been predominately done by men until only recently.
When I started there was very, very few women, and even today about 15% of the industry is made of women. I was discouraged from going into it. But I feel a really important thing for women is to get jobs in places that have great reputations. You also want to go to a place where there are some women who are in respected positions. I was lucky to find that.
One of the things that has progressed in my career is being a successful leader, but also a compassionate leader. Making money is fine, but you want to do something with your career that you can be proud to be a part of. As I’ve gone on in my career, it’s gotten more and more important, first it was buiding my own success, then making fine wines, and now it’s building a great organization. I think organic wines plays back to the fact that if people are really happy working then they’ll do a better job. The organic farming is part of a whole array of the things that we’re doing to make it a good place to live and work.
Photos: Courtesy the Domaine Carneros Winery