Dominus, a legendary wine worth more than a prayer
For our precious sommelier, Steven Molloy, the wine is one of his absolute favorites, and he had nothing but praise for the 2012 vintage in advice. For a long time, all the critics of the wine world hailed Dominus as the masterpiece from Napa Valley. We wanted to take a look at this mythical domain which combines the expertise of a Bordeaux winegrower with a miraculous terroir of the New World.
A love story
In the late 1960s, while attending the University of California, a young French man, descendant of the wine royalty of France, the Moueix family, owners of Château Pétrus in St-Émilion, fell in love with Napa Valley and its wine production. Christian was the son of Jean-Pierre Moueix, the famed wine merchant and producer from Libourne.
Once his graduate studies in viticulture and enology were finished, Christian had to return home to manage the family vineyards. A viticulturalist at heart, Christian Moueix’s tenure has been marked by the introduction of revolutionary vineyard techniques including, from 1973 on, crop-thinning as a means to improve grape quality. Today he produces wine from the eight family chateaux. He led Chateau Petrus for 38 years, ending with the 2008 vintage.
But his love for Napa stayed with him and inspired a vision. In 1981, coming back, he discovered an historic vineyard, Napanook, west of Yountville, an ancestral land famous for its grape cultivating conditions. In 1982, he formed a partnership to produce Dominus from these vineyards. Adapting his French technical approach to Californian conditions, his focus has been on grape growing, arguing for dry-farming as both an ecological measure and a means to produce grapes of the finest quality. His principle was to give maximum attention to the vineyard while having a minimalist approach to winemaking.
His lifelong passion, focus on quality, stewardship and personal qualities of integrity, rigor and humanity, have earned him recognition over his exceptional 45 year career as one of wine’s great visionaries. In 2008, he was named both a Legend of Wine by the James Beard Foundation in New York City and Man of the Year by Decanter Magazine in London. In 2011, Christian was awarded Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award.
A rich history
En 1836, Rancho Caymus, an 11,814-acre land that belonged to the Wappo indians was given to George C. Yount by the Mexican government.
When Mexicans arrived to colonize California, Wappo villages existed near the present-day towns of Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga, the basis of what is today called Napa Valley. Those on the south shore of Clear Lake were completely absorbed and dispersed to the Spanish missions in California.
The name Wappo is an americanization of the Spanish term guapo, which means, among other things, “brave”. They were known as brave for their stubborn resistance to Mexican domination, particularly their resistance to all military attempts from General Vallejo and his enlisted allies. It seemed the Wappo already were aware of the inebriating properties of fermented grapes. By the early 1850s, after being dispossessed of most of their land, the surviving Wappo were reported to number around 200. However population dropped by 1880 to 50, and the 1910 Census returned only 73. They are now considered extinct.
George C. Yount, who would give his name to Yountville, was born in North Carolina and grew up in Missouri. He fought in the War of 1812 and the Indian Wars. Yount was a farmer but in 1826, after business difficulties, he went to Santa Fe to become a trapper.
Yount eventually made his way to California, where he trapped sea otter on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. After being given land, he became the first permanent settler in the Napa Valley.
He then planted the first vines of the valley on the location of what became Napanook vineyard.
In 1850 the property was bought by Charles Hopper, who then sold it to Hugh La Rue, a pioneer in the use of rootstock before John Daniel Jr., the owner of Inglenook Winery, bought the estate in 1943. Daniel dedicated his life to uncommonly high winemaking standards before dying, in 1970, broken, bitter and disillusioned after financial hard times forced him to sell this Napa Valley treasure. Those who have had the opportunity to taste Daniel’s Inglenook Cabernets know that they were among the greatest red wines ever made. But hard times caught up with him in the 1960’s and in a move that stunned most of his friends and colleagues in the valley, he sold Inglenook and much of its vineyard for $1.2 million to a unit of United Vintners and later Inglenook became part of conglomerate Heublein and the wine quality declined.
The saviour from Pomerol
Fortunately, in 1981, Christian Moueix was in search of a vineyard in Napa Valley. Robert Mondavi put him in touch with Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, the daughters of John Daniel. This association began with a first vintage, Dominus 1983. Twelve years later, in 1995, Christian Moueix became the sole owner of Dominus Estate, bringing Philippe Melka (Château Haut-Brion and Cheval Blanc) from Bordeaux for support.
The winegrower of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion is above all a gentleman of the wine world. Spending a few hours listening to him talk about his philosophy allows us to appreciate his mastery of the vineyard and his great humility in front of nature and the wine ecosystems. If he succeeds in Napa as well as in Pomerol, it is most certainly because he takes nothing for granted and always asks questions.
“At the table, my father would often ask ‘What is the first quality of wine?’ and then provide the reply, which was ‘Quantity’. This was his humorous way of asking for more wine – but it has meant that when producing my family’s wines, I have always kept ‘drinkability’ in mind. I think this is very important indeed.”
A significant name
Moueix chose the name “dominus” or “lord of the succession” in Latin to highlight his longstanding commitment to the stewardship of the terroirs. This name reflects Christian Moueix‘s deep commitment to this historic vineyard and his concern to preserve it for generations to come. It is reflected in a respectful attitude towards the vines and their irrigation-free cultivation on the 42 hectares of the estate, divided into 27 plots, 83% of which are planted with cabernet sauvignon, the remainder being distributed between cabernet franc and petit verdot.
The works of vine and cellar are carried out with rigor, combining tradition and innovation. United by this common desire to produce a harmonious, balanced wine of exceptional quality, the Dominus team concentrates its efforts to express the essence of this terroir. Their goal is the search for a perfect grape quality and optimum maturity in order to produce a pure and complex wine, with great aging potential, and which will give real pleasure to its consumer.
A unique approach
Renowned for its complexity and balance, Dominus demonstrates the potential of a wine produced on an exceptional terroir. For Christian Moueix, the creation of this wine is what he is most proud of and it is certainly not because of the sometimes stratospheric prices that it can attain.
When asked what is biggest disappointment might be, the answer comes loud and clear: “You might not believe me, but I am disappointed that top Bordeaux costs so much. It means that many great restaurants now have just a handful of top Bordeaux red wines, and that the younger generation of drinkers and sommeliers barely knows Bordeaux.”
He loves daring and mixes the artisanal side with creativity and audacity. In 1996 he asked two famous Swiss architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to design a revolutionary cellar, a kind of long black monolith integrating in the vines, barely visible from the road. It is an idea of genius to use fencing to retain stacks of basalt extracted from a neighbouring canyon. They allow the structure to be economical to build and, thanks to this stone curtain, to ensure a natural air-conditioning of the glass and concrete building.
On the other hand, one does not visit the property or the cellars, following perhaps, the sacrosanct discretion that the family has always shown. And, unlike a majority of California plantations, for Dominus, the vine is grafted, an inheritance from Hugh LaRue, to be able to fight against a possible push of the phylloxera, which remains a terrible memory for all French winegrowers having heard the horror stories of the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when this parasite ravaged the European vineyards.
The Dominus is a typical example of the successful export of French know-how on an exceptional terroir of the New World.
We wish you to be blessed with the sacrament of the Dominus well before the end of your days.
The exceptionnal cellar, created for Dominus Estate, by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.