This year has certainly been one of monumental challenges and unimaginable change. But it has brought with it opportunity, too. Sometimes, the best things come of the craziest circumstances.
Remi Cohen, UC Davis educated winemaker and viticulturist, had been at Cliff Lede Vineyards in Napa for nearly 10 years, most recently as COO, when she got a lifechanging phone call earlier this year. It was a recruiter saying that Eileen Crane, the storied doyenne of Domaine Carneros for the past 33 years, was retiring at the end of the summer. Would Cohen be interested in the job?
“Honestly, I was surprised at first. But then I was totally thrilled!” says Cohen. “I love Champagne, and I’d always admired Eileen and what she had done at Domaine Carneros. We started talking in early March, and then the pandemic hit. I thought it best to take a pause, given all the disruption, but we kept talking. Then Eileen said she would stay on in a consulting role, which was great.”
Cohen was about to start what she calls her dream job, as CEO of one of America’s foremost sparkling wine houses. A dream in the middle of a nightmare, that was about to get worse.
Her start date, August 3, 2020, was the first day of harvest for sparkling wine at Domaine Carneros. Luckily, she tells us, all the grapes destined for the sparkling program were picked by August 17, the day a freak lightning storm ignited blazes that would wreak havoc across the state, enveloping the entire West in smoke for nearly two months. That was followed by another set of blazes in October. Luckily, Domaine Carneros was able to harvest for still wines. “We rapidly began the harvest for the still winegrapes,” says Cohen. “We’re very fortunate to have harvested the majority of the grapes before the smoke became an issue.”
But the craziness was just beginning. Not only did she have to learn to navigate in a new company, with owners in France, but she had to navigate the insanity of the fires, the smoke and the pandemic—all at once. “It’s been a real learning experience!” says Cohen. “But honestly, I love every minute of it. Walking the vineyards, learning the nuances of the sparkling process, realizing the complexities of it: It’s exciting and daunting at the same time. If people knew the effort that goes into making sparkling wine, they’d appreciate it even more!”
Full Circle to Carneros
Landing back in Carneros is like coming home for Cohen. She spent the first half of her wine industry career there. She says that tasting a vertical of reserve Pinot Noir from Saintsbury sparked her interest in the AVA. After Saintsbury, she went to Bouchaine Vineyards, where she was the vineyard manager for four years. This was followed by positions as director of vineyard operations for Merryvale and Starmont. During this time, she completed an MBA in finance from Golden State University and began to expand her experience in viticulture and winemaking to the sales and marketing realm. Bigger things were on the horizon.
Going to Cliff Lede Vineyards in Napa as director of winemaking and vineyards was a chance for Cohen to really dig into the mechanics of running a winery operation. Working with owner (and winery namesake) Cliff Lede helped hone her winemaking craft and, with Lede’s encouragement, she moved fully to the business side of the industry as VP of Operations and later, COO.
Cohen is also a certified sommelier, and she served as president of the Stags Leap District Winegrowers Association for five years. She was previously a board member of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association, and in 2015, was recognized as one of Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 as a tastemaker and influencer in Napa Valley.
Plants Led the Way
How did Cohen get into the wine industry?
“Wine wasn’t a part of my family life when I was growing up, so I wasn’t aware that it could be a career opportunity,” says Cohen. “Since I enjoyed science, I always thought I would go to medical school and become a doctor. I attended UC Berkeley with that in mind, but while I was there, I became fascinated with plant biology. When I was looking at graduate school programs, I discovered that UC Davis had the Viticulture & Enology program, and I was so excited because I felt that the masters program would combine so many of my interests and lead to an exciting career.”
Who were some of her mentors in the wine industry? “I’m fortunate to have worked for people throughout my career who have encouraged my development and progression in the industry,” she says. “As an intern at Saintsbury, my first boss was winemaker Mark West, who encouraged me to get my MBA. My first full-time job was vineyard manager at Bouchaine Vineyards, where I worked with general manager Mike Richmond. He provided me the opportunity to work in sales and marketing in addition to the vineyards.
“When I was the director of vineyard operations at Merryvale, CEO Peter Huwiler promoted me into a vice president of operations role—my first official foray into managing sales and hospitality departments in addition to vineyard operations,” she continues. “I’ve spent the last decade of my career working for Cliff Lede, who had the confidence to promote me to COO of Lede Family Wines. He’s been an incredibly positive influence in my life.”
What was her big takeaway from Cliff Lede? One of the things she really appreciated about being at Cliff Lede was the importance of building personal relations across the wine ecosystem. “So much about the wine business is relationship-driven, and when I took on more responsibilities in the sales sectors, particularly in wholesale, I was concerned that I didn’t know all the lingo and the mechanics of that side of the business,” she says. “These things can be learned, but what’s more important is making connections with people who care about and relate to you and your wines and will become ambassadors themselves.”
Cohen also includes winemaker and entrepreneur Helen Keplinger and Quintessa winemaker Rebekah Wineburg among those from whom she’s learned so much. “I’m fortunate to be able to call these people, and others in our network, my friends. We rely on each other for advice and support.”
She’s also an admirer of many influential women from Champagne, including Vitalie Taittinger, president of Champagne Taittinger, which co-owns Domaine Carneros, and Maggie Henriquez, president and CEO of Krug. She says both of these women have very creative, forward-thinking approaches to brand management. And, of course, having the opportunity to meet and work with Crane was a dream come true.
100% Estate: 100% Great Team
As of 2020, Domaine Carneros is 100 percent estate grown, an accomplishment Cohen credits largely to the knowledgeable and progressive leadership of Vineyard Manager Alberto Zamora, who farms the 400 acres in the brand’s portfolio, and for which they have received multiple certifications for their sustainability program.
In the cellar, Cohen also points to key team members on the production side, whose knowledge and experience she relies on as she gets up to speed. “TJ Evans has been Domaine Carneros’ still winemaker since 2008, and he’s created a very dynamic Pinot Noir program that includes single clone and single vineyard wines, in addition to our well-known Famous Gate and Estate Pinot Noirs. He also crafts some very unique wines, including our white pinot noir, a delicious rosé for the spring, single vineyard chardonnays, and our best kept secret, a Hyde merlot.”
She also points to Zak Miller, who’s also been with the winery since 2008 and trained under Eileen Crane to take over the reigns as sparkling winemaker. Cohen is completely confident the transition will be smooth, as Miller has been a critical driver of the winery’s style over the last decade.
Lessons from The Doyenne of Sparkling
Asked about the key lessons Crane imparted during the transition phase, Cohen says that one of the upsides of not being on the road (due to the pandemic interrupting the fall sales cycle) was that she got to participate in the blending trials with Crane, Miller, and Evans, and learn the intricacies of the company’s winemaking and blending process.
“It was an amazing experience,” says Cohen. “I was impressed with the level of detail and thoughtfulness in every nuance of each blend. Zak, having been with Domaine Carneros since 2008, is the ideal person to carry on Eileen’s winemaking legacy and dedication to elegant sparkling wines with an homage to true Champagne methods.”
In 2011, Crane implemented a style of management based on Zingerman’s open book management. “She’s taught me a lot about this inspiring philosophy, which drives employee development and engagement through financial and operational transparency and programs driven at education. We’re expanding on that in 2021 with an employee mentorship program.”
Grand, Yes: Big, Not Really
Walking up the impressive steps to the balcony at Domaine Carneros, overlooking the vineyards that nearly surround the structure, one gets the feeling of grandeur, of pomp and circumstance. The wine list is impressive, not just for the many sparklings, but for the still wine selection as well. “Our winemaking program at Domaine Carneros is 80 percent sparkling and 20 percent still wine,” says Cohen. “This has been the balance for a while and is likely to remain. Our estate vineyards and our facilities were developed for this split. While our chateau may seem quite grand, our production levels are actually fairly limited, and we’re one of the smaller of the storied sparkling wine houses in California, in terms of production.”
Looking back on the year, with all the craziness and uncertainty, Cohen says, it’s been worth it. First pivoting to curbside pick-up, then figuring out how to conduct tastings safely (first outdoors, then in, then outside again). Then came the cooler weather and the need for tents and heaters. It’s been a logistical challenge, she says, and one that proved incredibly expensive—but they couldn’t afford not to do it. Through it all, guests and staff have remained positive. And there’s always a glass of amazing sparkling at the end of each day.
A Taste of Domaine Carneros
Each sparkling wine offers a unique way to enjoy the fruits of the vineyards. Grab a flute and let’s taste.
The 2015 Estate Brut Cuvée is Domaine Carneros’ signature sparkler, comprised of 53% chardonnay and 47% pinot noir. You can find the white label version of it (2016 now) in better grocery stores. A minimum of three years of bottle age sur lie in the cellar gives it complex toastiness and delightful bubbles. The 2015 blue label wine was Best of Show Sparkling at the 2020 Sunset Wine Competition and is exemplary for its pristine balance, complex orange blossom aromatics, and dense juicy pear and lemon filling, all spun in a fine mousse.
So gorgeous in the glass, the 2016 Brut Rosé, 58% pinot noir and 42% chardonnay, is a fruit riot of watermelon, rose petals, strawberries, pink grapefruit, and peaches. It combines the fruitiness of pinot noir and the structure of chardonnay into a sparkler you can drink any time, for any occasion.
I loved the 100% pinot noir 2016 Blanc de Noir for its utterly captivating key lime and blood orange aromas, followed by marzipan and Rainier cherry on the very soft and unctuous palate. So smooth. Very limited.
The 2014 Ultra Brut, 52% pinot noir and 48% chardonnay is compelling with its exotic citrus and vanilla nose, impressive structure, persistent mousse, vivid briskness, and outstanding crispness.
Wait until you taste the just released vintage 2014 Jardin d’Hiver, 52% pinot noir and 48% chardonnay, named for the gorgeous garden conservatory that was added to the Chateau in 2018. It’s a dry late disgorged Ultra Brut, never before made at Domaine Carneros. The stunning palate is creamy and rich with baked pear, lychee, and lime-scented crème fraiche. Cohen says it’s the winery’s most limited-production sparkler. Released around the holiday season, it sells out quickly.
The 2013 Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs is 100% chardonnay, and a tête de cuvée, roughly translating as the “head of the class.” It’s made from the finest of the year’s lots, and is just the wine you want for Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. Wonderful aromas of brioche, honey on warm biscuits, citrus zest, and ginger tantalize. On the palate, flavors of lemon cream pie with a honey graham crust arrest you. Savor this one from your very finest crystal.