Winemaker Talk: Eileen Crane

The California trailblazer worked her way up from tour guide at Domaine Chandon to winemaker and president of Domaine Carneros
Aug 2, 2007

Eileen Crane, 58, is the president and winemaker of Domaine Carneros in Napa, where she makes sparkling wine, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The New Jersey native, who holds a master's degree in nutrition from the University of Connecticut, studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., and took enology and viticulture courses at the University of California at Davis. She became a tour guide at Napa's Domaine Chandon in 1978, and worked her way up to assistant winemaker. In 1984, she was hired to oversee the construction of Sonoma's Gloria Ferrer winery, where she produced sparkling wine. Three years later, Crane was recruited by Champagne's Taittinger family to manage the development of their $17 million Domaine Carneros, which produces 45,000 cases of wine a year.

Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Eileen Crane: My father, a former military police officer, landed at Omaha Beach in France on D-Day, and he became very interested in wine while he was [in Europe]. He came back and headed up the international department at Dean Witter, and we lived in New Jersey. He had a wine cellar, which was very unusual in the 1950s. That was the time of real cocktails. We'd look at the labels and he'd tell me stories about the bottles—where they were from, what the wine would taste like. He let me taste wine at Sunday dinners from the time I was eight. So wine was part of my upbringing, and it was an exciting thing.

WS: When did you start considering a career in winemaking?
EC: Being a winemaker was not a career option when I was growing up—you were a secretary or a schoolteacher or a nurse. So I moved to Venezuela and did social work, and then came back and did my graduate work in nutrition at UConn. I taught nutrition at UConn for a few years, and then took a summer off and enrolled in a 10-week program at the CIA. While I was there, I [learned that] UC Davis was giving [viticulture and enology] classes … I made an appointment at Davis to talk to a professor, and he was very discouraging. He said, "You'll have to do four years of undergraduate, two years of graduate school and then nobody will hire you because you can't do the barrel work, which is the starting position in wineries." But another professor there, Ann Noble, said, "You don't need another degree. You've already got a master's in a science. Come and take some classes, and convince someone you can do it." So I went home, packed up my Impala and drove across the country.

WS: How did your first job in the wine industry come about?
EC: I was at Davis for four months, and when I finished taking classes, wineries weren't hiring technical people because it was summer. So I applied to be a tour guide at Domaine Chandon—I loved bubbles, I knew that was my thing. Then their pastry chef quit, and since I had gone to CIA, they asked me to work in the pastry kitchen. While I was downstairs rolling out pastries, a woman asked if I'd like to work harvest in the lab. So I started to work in the lab and the job continued.

WS: What was it like going from assistant winemaker to building your first winery?
EC:When I was hired at Gloria Ferrer, I thought I was only there to make the wine, but as the son of the owner was leaving I asked, "Who's going to oversee the construction?" He said, "You are. A winemaker in Spain does the construction, why wouldn't you do it?" So I said, "Sure!" I'd never even done any home improvements at that point, but I did a lot of reference checking, made a lot of inquiries, found a good contractor and oversaw the construction and development of the winery.

WS: How did the Domaine Carneros project come about?
EC: While I was at Gloria Ferrer, the Taittinger family and the Kobrand Corporation were considering building a [California] winery. They called me, we met and I showed them around Gloria Ferrer. When it became time to find someone to put their project together, they ran an ad in the Napa Register looking for some young guy out of Davis. Jim Allen from Sequoia Grove [represented by Kobrand] called me and said, "Aren't you interested in this?" I said, "Well, they seem to have an approach to quality that I'd be very interested in, but they're looking for a kid." And he said, "They think they are. Would you be willing to at least come talk to them?" So I did, and it was a real match.

WS: How would you describe your winemaking style?
EC: 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. I don't make blousy wines. I don't make wines that are heavily out front. I make wines that you need to pay attention to. As you sit there and sip the wine, its layers come to you piece after piece. You say, "Ah yes, it's got a really nice nose, but the body is there too."

WS: How do you determine which clones to use in each?
EC: Take our Le Rêve. We have five different clones of Chardonnay, and they all offer something very different to the blend. For instance, we have one that's minerally, kind of steely. We have one that comes across as lemon-cream and one that's got real Muscaty character. I've learned over the years that the Muscaty clone makes really good backbone for body and finish, and the clone that's got heavy cream is just right for middle body. People say, "Show me how you do the blends," and I don't even have words to describe so much of it. It's almost like I get to the right blend and it's like, "Ah ha, that has it."

WS: Is it hard to trust that "ah ha" moment sometimes?
EC: You have to know your vineyards, and you don't get that in one harvest. I've worked with the Domaine Carneros estate 20 times through harvest, and it really took me five, six, seven, eight years before I felt I had a handle on it. I probably have more experience in sparkling wine than any other winemaker in the United States, and yet I feel like I'm just starting to get my hands around it all. André Tchelistcheff came to the winery when he was 89 or 90 years old, and he said, "It's such a shame. I know that I'm going to die in the next few years, and I feel like I just really got it."

WS: Are there any misconceptions about sparkling wine that you'd like to change?
EC: I'm hoping that in the next decade people can see that fine sparkling wines are ageable, that if you lay them down in your cellar they pay dividends. We never release our Le Rêve before six years, because it needs that long to begin to show its stuff, but you can age it for another 15 years. A few years ago, our Japanese distributor said to me, "Can I buy five cases of the Le Rêve for my daughter's wedding?" I was worried about the time it would take to get through Japanese customs, so I said, "Well, when is her wedding?" And he said, "Oh, she's not one year old yet." He could see the ageability of the wine.

United States California People

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