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Dominus: Bordeaux in Napa?

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I’m just back from my most recent visit to Dominus, the Yountville winery owned by Christian Moueix, which longtime winemaker Boris Champy left last year, in order to return to his native France and work at Louis Latour. His replacement: Tod Mostero, who’s worked at Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s project in the Languedoc, Romanée-Conti, Haut-Brion and Opus One. So I think Mostero’s no slouch!

Moueix began Dominus back in the early 1980s as his own personal project. I didn’t think much of the Cabernet-based wine for years. It seemed thin and herbal, compared to its richer Napa Valley counterparts, and while it was fashionable to call Dominus “Bordeaux-esque” (and why not? Christian Moueix and his family own chateaux Trotanoy, La Fleur Pétrus, Magdelaine and the great Pétrus itself, along with other wineries in Pomerol and St. Emilion), somehow this didn’t quite compensate for the wines’ deficiencies. Moueix himself conceded he would need at least 20 years to figure out his terroir.

I began to notice dramatic improvements in Dominus in the mid- to late 1990s, although the wine still is very much vintage-driven. The Yountville site is an interesting one, a little further south than the prime tenderloin of Oakville-Rutherford and, possibly, too cool in a cool year, although most people I know would say the Cabernet tenderloin extends roughly from Dominus to, perhaps, St. Helena. (I know that’s controversial and there’s all sorts of caveats!)

The very greatest Dominus I ever had was the 2001, which I reviewed nearly exactly 4 years ago and rated at 94 points. Of course, that was also the Cabernet vintage I called California’s greatest ever up to that point. So it was fascinating to retaste it, along with a number of other Dominuses and its sister label, Napanook, and to find that, yes indeed, 2001 still stood head and shoulders above the pack. In fact, I elevated my point score to 96 points. Amazing wine, and frightening to think how much better it might get in the years left it still has to evolve.

Well, I said the 2001 was head and shoulders above the rest, but that was of the wines I’d previously reviewed. There was one better even than it, which I had never tasted before: The 1994 Dominus. I wasn’t taking detailed tasting notes (this was an informal, conversational tasting, not one for official rating purposes), but I gave it 97 points and wrote, simply, “A sensation!” Although I must say that Tod, I think, preferred the 1991, which I found a little tired. I also found the 1996 fragile and tired; when I said so, Tod said he had decanted it same time as the others, 3 hours previously, and that the wine had tasted much fresher on opening. We all agreed you have to be careful in deciding when to decant an older wine. The more delicate they are, the faster they can go downhill when air hits them.

Dominus hasn’t been getting the massively high scores from me and some of the other critics in its youth (although there’s nothing to hang your head over in the 90-95 point range). I think the reason for that is that, even though Moueix and team are picking a little riper than they used to, Dominus remains a tougher, more tannic wine when young than most other central Napa Valley Cabs. The 2006, which won’t be released until next summer, for example is very tannic, whereas the 2005, the current release, is fatter and more generous, although still fairly tannic. Simply put, these are wines that need time to develop. Napanook can be so close in quality to Dominus that, at about $40 a bottle (last I checked — everything’s going up lately) it can be a good value. Napanook 2006, released next summer, is a great buy.

Christian Moueix is as fierce in his ambitions to improve his wine as anyone I ever met. He will stop at nothing to get Dominus right, and he doesn’t really care what the critics say. I asked him why Dominus sells for about $130 a bottle, when Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Colgin, etc. sell for far more, and he gave me an answer I actually believe, instead of the hype and spin you usually hear. He said he doesn’t need for Dominus to make a lot of money because he owns Pétrus (which is retailing for $5,000 a bottle). He said he wants to give consumers a good value in a top Napa Valley wine. With the addition of Mostero (who’s from Southern California) to the team, in addition to dramatic changes in the vineyards, I predict Dominus will be the “Bordeaux in Napa” that Christian Moueix always wanted it to be.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    When Napanook was part of Inglenook under John Daniel and later United Vintners the wines rarely matched up to the richness of the its Rutherford cousins. It suffered in comparison in the cool years as well as the warm years. Tannins were always hard. I think it is a soil thing not a north south thing and one which modern viticulture and drip irrigation should (or has) solve(d). I think most of the vineyards on that shelf are similar. Whatever, Mouiex has made better wines than ever from that viticultural area.

    Dominus may have been outpaced by the Screamers because it may never have had a dynamic individual on the property 100% of the time doing everything possible every minute of the day to drive the business and its reputation forward. At least it seems to be one of the “quietest” wineries in the valley. You rarely hear or are caused to think much about it. Conversely, you see Bill Harlan everywhere.

    Early on, Dominus seemed to suffer in national distribution under Seagram. Certainly when compared to Opus. I remember seeing it in discount bins at 75% off suggested retail in backwater wine markets. I think then it was under Chateau and Estates. It is hard to build a brand in the U.S. if you treat it like a Trotanoy, a Magdelaine or a Pétrus. It might take as long.

  2. I don’t agree that Dominus was quiet. Christian took advantage of the Petrus connection (deservedly so) and attracted a huge amount of media attention he otherwise would not have drawn. Nor do I think that Dominus’s soils are that different from Oakville’s. Dominus runs from the flats alongside Highway 29 (which Christian admits has not been a good place for his Merlot) to dramatically steep slopes of the Mayacamas. The soils vary dramatically; you can eyeball the difference from the road, with volcanic soils increasing over alluvial soils the higher you go, the same as you can in Oakville or St. Helena. Wine reputations are mysterious, unpredictable things — otherwise, PR experts would be able to predict and control them — but I think as the pendulum swings back toward drier, more balanced and elegant wines, Dominus will benefit.

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    I didn’t compare Napanook to Oakville, I compared it to Rutherford. In my early days I had a backhoe in on both the Napanook and Rutherford properties and I can guarantee you there is a big difference…about twenty to thirty feet of alluvial gravel fan over eons from Bear Creek in the case of the Rutherford property. The great drainage, light soil, and the huge available root zone in Rutherford gave the property the ability to handle warm, cold, wet and drought much better than most areas of the valley. Simply put this is why Beaulieu (BV1) and Inglenook made the best Cabernets in the valley for decades in Rutherford. In Yountville the shallower soils on the slopes and the heavier soils at the bottom, and the lack of a deep alluvial fan require a lot more attention from the viticulturist.

    My experience is that American wineries create their own buzz and it is usually the result of a steady effort by an owner or a principal. Usually it is a personal effort, one person connecting to another, it’s about relationships and experiences. Wineries that outsource creating buzz to PR experts have more mixed results. The way luxury wine is sold today in America is very different than the way a Bordeaux growth is sold globally.

  4. Steve Tipton says:

    In the wine world, aside from any hype or buzz, nothing really speaks louder than tasting a winemaker’s work over a long period. I have seen a 10-year retrospective of Dominus, but never one like the upcoming 20-year retrospective offered in the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas’ Rare And Fine Wine Auction in Austin and online now and on April 18, 2009. Paired with great dishes (as it should) from Wink Restaurant, this really should tell the tale. A review of ratings for all the great Bordeax-style wines (including the first growths) shows few, if any, such wines average better scores. It will be interesting to drink all Dominus has had to offer since its inception (under impecable provenance) and leave it to each taster to draw a conclusion. I hope to score a seat at the tasting and hope I can confirm your suspicions and Christian Moueix’s dream.

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