Eileen Crane began her wine career as a part-time tour guide at Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley. Today, she looks back on 42 years in the business as she steps down as CEO of Domaine Carneros, one of California’s leading sparkling wine producers, and transitions out of her winemaking duties.
“I started working at a Howard Johnson’s when I was 16 and now I’m 71. Some people wait too long, and maybe I’m one of them,” Crane says with a chuckle. She will stay on as lead sparkling winemaker through this year’s harvest and then Zak Miller, who has worked with her for more than 10 years, will take over.
Although she grew up in New Jersey with her father working in international finance, Crane's upbringing led her into the wine business. Thanks to her dad’s extensive cellar, she was talking about and tasting wine early on. “I fell in love with sparkling wine as a kid,” she recalls.
After earning a master’s degree in nutrition, then teaching and taking courses at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Crane drove her Chevy Impala across the country to study enology and viticulture at the University of California at Davis in 1978. A male professor there told her she could never be a winemaker because women couldn’t handle the barrel work. She persisted.
After getting her foot in the door at Domaine Chandon, Crane moved up from tour guide to pastry chef, then was offered a job doing technical work in the winery lab, finally ending up as an assistant winemaker for Dawnine Dyer. (Learn more about the history of women in California wine and other trailblazers of the 1970s and ’80s.)
In 1984, she was hired by Spain’s Ferrer family, owners of Cava house Freixenet, to head up their new California sparkling wine operation, Gloria Ferrer. She not only made the wines but also oversaw construction of the winery.
Just three years later, Champagne Taittinger president Claude Taittinger selected Crane to develop the company’s new California project, Domaine Carneros. Once again, she supervised construction of the winery, designed to look like a French château, which majestically overlooks Carneros Highway in Napa. She also established the house style, a delicate balance between Champagne and California.
In a 2007 interview with Wine Spectator, she described the style this way: “It's like Audrey Hepburn in the perfect little black dress. It's not just a black dress—it's a perfectly lined black dress, with the perfect strand of pearls, the wrap, the whole thing. It's not fancy, it's not overdone. In winemaking, I do that.”
Crane is also known for her early championing of eco-friendly farming and winemaking initiatives, starting in 1987, including natural pest management, composting, water reuse and extensive recycling that reduced waste by 90 percent. The winery was one of the first in California to adopt solar power, in 2003, and today it and the vineyard are certified sustainable.
With the world in flux due to the novel coronavirus, Crane has her plans for the future on hold, but she does know she’ll remain a regular at Domaine Carneros when it reopens to the public. “I’ll just come and sit on the terrace, whenever I feel the need for a glass of pink bubbles.”