Winery Profile: Dominus

Historic Ground

The winery building itself is an architectural wonder and a testament to the founders' good taste

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I first reviewed it nearly seven years ago, when it was released, at a bottle price of $109 US. I wrote: “As good as the 2001 Napanook is, this wine is more intense. The fruit is lusher, the oak newer, the control more complete, but the kicker is the tannins. They’re powerful and dusty, and conceal the flamboyance, for now. Needs time; hold until 2010 and beyond.”

Napanook is the “second wine” of Dominus, although it certainly is no slacker. Dominus was founded in 1982 as a partnership between Christian Moueix, the proprietor of Chateau Petrus, in Pomerol, and the daughters of John Daniel, a Napan who had developed the Napanook Vineyard, in Yountville, and whose grapes provided the greatest wines produced by Inglenook, which Mr. Daniel also owned.

We are talking much history here. The old Inglenook Cabernets were as great as California Cabernet ever got. They were, however, made in an old-fashioned style, tight and tannic in youth, requiring extended aging. And a more modern generation seemed to lack the patience to age their wines for a decade, or longer.

When Mr. Moueix launched his new venture, therefore, some seasoned observors expressed skepticism. Yountville is the commune due southeast of Oakville; just a bit further to the south is the city of Napa itself. Here, the fogs and winds blowing up from the Carneros District are untempered by the heat of central Napa Valley. The danger in Yountville, they warned, was that it was too cool for Cabernet to ripen.

And indeed, the Dominus wines of the 1980s and 1990s were for the most part disappointments: lean, tannic and, in the worst instances, green. Unripeness in fact still occasionally mars the wines, as it did in 2000 and 2003. That Mr. Moueix warned the world it would take twenty years for him to begin to succeed hardly mattered.

Yet Moueix and his team have made changes in the cépage and in canopy management techniques that have greatly ameliorated the growing conditions, and in such years as 2007, 2006 and 2005, not to mention the 2001, Dominus produced very great wines. (Even in the 1990s, in superlative years, the wine thrived, as witness the 1997.)

The ‘01, as soon as I opened it, exhibited power and flair. It was near perfect, giving off the perfume of an aged Cabernet Sauvignon, with cassis and blackberry notes and the oak most beautifully integrated; and in the mouth, it drank clear, clean and sweet. The alcohol, at 14.1%, was fairly modest by today’s standards, but then, Dominus never has been an alcoholic wine, nor probably will it ever be, given Yountville’s terroir. The 2007, which was the greatest Dominus ever, similarly clocked in at 14.1%.

Mr. Moueix assumed full control of Dominus in 1994. The winery building itself is an architectural wonder and a testament to the founders’ good taste. Not a faux-chateau or a garish frou-frou fantasy, as so many Napa wineries are, but a latticework of stainless steel rods, filled with crushed basalt rocks from the nearby earth. From the inside, on a sunny day, thousands of pinpoints of light prick through, creating an atmosphere seemingly made of lasers. Next time you’re visiting Napa Valley, Dominus is a worthy visit. An appointment is required, but if you are lucky, your host may open a few older bottles. I, myself, would like to try the 1997, although when you get wines that old, bottle variation becomes an issue.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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