Friday, July 06, 2007

The Power of Pink: Eileen Crane, Woman Winemaker, and the Domaine Carneros Rosé

"There comes a time in every woman's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne,” Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance (1943).

Eileen Crane sits in calm repose as waiters fuss about, lining up champagne flutes and wine buckets, already dripping with icy condensation. A daytime soap star at the next table curiously glances over. “Madame Pompadour introduced champagne to the court at Versailles,” says Crane, confidentially, “She said it is the only wine a woman can drink and remain beautiful.”

The President of Domaine Carneros has traded the majesty of her Napa Valley chateau for a few days at the Hotel Bel Air, on a recent trip to Los Angeles. Considered among the most breath-taking wineries in North America, its design is a nod to the original Chateau de la Marquetterie in Epernay, France, owned by Champagne Taittinger, a founder of Domaine Carneros. Set amid softly rolling hills, the Northern California property boasts sweeping staircases, an opulent Louis XV-style tasting salon and a terrace overlooking rows of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. One can’t help but wonder if this respite from her everyday job is a step down.

Still, the rise to rule her own domaine has been a struggle against the sexist notion that women don’t belong amongst the vines, or rather, overseeing them. Now approaching her 20th anniversary with Domaine Carneros, the Lady of the Manor reveals a continued passion for her 30-year career, “I still sit out on the terrace, most evenings, with a glass of wine.”

Food and wine are lifelong loves for Crane, whose father allowed her tiny tastes from his own cellar since age 8. After completing a Masters in Nutrition form the University of Connecticut (where she was known as the dorm “wine guru”) Crane did a 10-week stint at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). However, observing chefs toiling weekends and nights, Eileen decided it was not her ideal career. “I work very hard,” she shares, “but, by 7:30, I want to be on the terrace or home, cooking dinner with my husband.”

While in cooking school, a fellow student, Eric Miller told Eileen about the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis. She remembers, “The light went on. I knew this is what I was waiting for, all my life.”

Shortly thereafter, she visited California. With a hint of bitterness, Crane recalls her reception by the man in charge of the Davis enology program in the late 1970’s, “He told me: ‘This is a six-year program and, when you’re done, no one will hire you.’”

Disheartened, Eileen turned to then-Professor Ann Noble, a legendary figure in the development of female winemakers at Davis. Noble suggested that Crane take classes anyway, and convince employers that she could do the job.

So, Eileen immersed herself in study over the next 4 months, and gained confidence. “Maryann Graf (one of the first woman winemakers after prohibition) was trotted out in one of my classes,” she remembers. “However, prior to Prohibition, 10% of wine makers in California were women.”

Crane also became a part-time tour guide at the Chandon winery. When their pastry chef quit, Eileen replaced her. When their winemaker left 2 1/2 months later, Eileen seized the opportunity to become an assistant to the new female winemaker brought aboard. By the time she completed a 6-year run with her mentor, Crane had become Assistant Winemaker. In 1984, the Freixenet group hired her, and three years later Taittinger “spirited” her away. “By then,” she smiles, “I had experience in building wineries.”

Crane nimbly maneuvers another succulent morsel of crabcake onto her fork, and takes a sip of sparkling rosé, which is dry with soft strawberry, peach and citrus notes. An attentive waiter swoops in to top up her glass, but she waves him away, explaining, “Filling glasses only 1/3 full keeps every sip cold.”

Ninety percent of Eileen’s time at the winery is actually making wine. “I’m a hands-on winemaker. I love making wine.” Continuing the female mentorship, her Assistant Winemaker is also a woman.

With a glimmer in her eye, Crane asserts, “We are a gals team.”

Until 20 years ago, there wasn’t much American interest in sparkling rosé. However, Crane’s open mind helped change that. Influenced by a regular visitor to the winery, a Texan with a longing for pink bubbly, Eileen decided to make 150 cases of it, as an experiment. She marvels, “We sold out completely! We made twice as much the following year, and sold out again – and most of those sales were to Texas!” Eileen’s rosés continue to soar, in the Lone Star State, and beyond.

Crane explains that a sparkling rosé is difficult to produce due to color consistency. She also imparts that although the skins of the Pinot Noir grapes give the rosé its pink color, it actually contains less Pinot than the (golden) Brut. In fact, the rosé is 45% Pinot Noir and 65 % Chardonnay, while the Brut is 60% Pinot Noir and 40 % Chardonnay (and a hint of Pinot Blanc).

Big, red wines are judged by their “finish,” but Eileen points out that all wines should carry through the palate. She attributes the tightly knit nose, body and flavor of her sparklers as a reason why they beat out French rivals. Domaine Carneros maintains an exalted reputation in the elegant niche of sparkling wines and Pinot Noir.

“Unlike Merlot, there is no good Pinot Noir under $10,” explains the vintner, “It would be like looking for a designer dress under $50.”

Women’s progression to winemakers from mere muses reflects the evolution of women in society. For example, it is rumored that the shape of a champagne saucer was molded from Queen Marie Antoinette’s breast. “The bowl shape allows bubbles to escape faster, so the joke,” says Eileen, “was that ‘men preferred their women, and their wine, flat.’” With more than 34 million women making up 57% of annual consumer wine sales in the US, today, it is safe to say that wine companies are less concerned with women’s breasts than their bucks. And, one trend popular among female buyers, in general, is sustainability.

With the vineyard producing virtually all the grapes used for her wine, Eileen decided to turn her already sustainable winery into an organic one, noting the “super vibrancy” when walking through organic vineyards. At first, cost was a concern. However, she claims that with better eco-friendly tools available to winemakers, the added cost of “going green” has dropped from 10% to practically 0%.

It takes three years to be labeled “certified organic,” and Domaine Carneros will become so, next Spring. Built in 2003 to resemble a carriage house, the winery also has the largest solar collective system in the world, among vineyards, allowing the winery to produce 50% of its own energy.

By the time the plates are cleared and the last drops of Domaine Carneros have been sipped, the gracious CEO, and groundbreaking female enologist, sweeps up her designer bag, which contains a copy of the best-selling Eat, Pray Love. Measuring her success by the ability to satisfy her cravings, Eileen declares, “I knew I was rich when I could buy all the books I wanted.” She heads off to her room for a rest, leaving a wake of bustling white-gloved servers behind her…


Deb said...

Sister.... I know what you have to do (in all your spare time!). Do a bi yearly Liquid Muse gals weekend. Set teh date, everyone shows up and takes care of their own trip..plans, hotel, yada yada. Fun no? Always sounds great but do they ever really go off? A trip up north for a winery weekend??? I'm there! ;)

Anonymous said...

We sent back a bunch of the rose when we stopped at Domaine Carneros in October! Glad to this great profile.