by Fred McMillin
for February 14, 1997

Welcome to WineDay, the electronic Gourmet Guide's daily update. Monday through Thursday, WineDay presents a wine profile. Then on Fridays we present the Winery of the Week to take you through the weekend

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A Grape for the Lake

Last Rites for Sulfites

From Assisi to Sonoma

A Zinfully Good Bargain

Winery of the Week

The Chandon Cyclone

Prologue: "What would happen if the renowned French Champagne House of Moet and Chandon applied their centuries of know-how to a vineyard in our marvelous Napa Valley? The answer is coming, for Domaine Chandon has been hard at work in Yountville. While the wine world is anxiously awaiting the results, you need not. Join us in a preview tasting of the first releases in our next class."

-- McMillin Wine Class Announcement, December 1, 1976.

The Rest of The Story: Only 2,000 cases existed at that tasting of sparklers made by the first French champagne house to set up shop ($52 million investment) in California. The class, and a few months later, the public heartily approved of the bubblies. The first 2,000 cases sold out in two days.. And things haven't changed much. They still sell over 2,000 cases every two days, for production is approaching a half million a year.

I blame such dazzling success primarily on the two winemakers, one resident, one itinerant. Dawnine Dyer joined the winery the year my class tasted those first releases in 1976. Twenty years later she's a Vice President but has not relinquished her winemaking responsibilities. Certainly, part of her success comes from a sound grounding in enology at U.C.-Davis. However, she generously attributes it to a visitor she met the year she joined Chandon. He seemed to know a bit about champagne production... And little page wonder. He was none other than Moet and Chandon cellarmaster from Epernay, Edmond Maudiere. In the Napa cellar, "he was able to explain what he was doing and thinking, while he was going through all the decisions" in making that first sparkler, Cuvee 174 Napa Valley Brut. Edmond returned every year, as the array of wines expanded to include a Rose (roh-zay), a Blanc de Noirs from their 770 acres of Carneros grapes, their flagship "etoile" (a blend of their finest cuvees), etc. If you want to find out what this talented team hath wrought, I'd recommend buying two bottles, the "etoile" in the $25 range, and the Chandon Brut at half the price. The Brut is a fine value, and the "etoile" is a fine wine.

Just the Facts

Name Domaine Chandon
Location Yountville, Napa Valley, CA (9 miles north of Napa)
Owner Moet-Hennessey, Luis Vuitton
Aging Capacity Six million bottles
Winery Buildings 236,000 sq. ft.
Vineyards 2,200 acres.
Hennessey's Role Hennessey merged with Moet and Chandon in 1971.
President John H. Wright. His three-volume study of the American wine market in 1972 convinced Moet-Hennessey to create Domaine Chandon, and to select John to lead it

Postscript: I learned of the Hennessey plan VERY early. In 1972 my wife and I were in Cognac writing an article. Staying at the Hennessey guest house, we inadvertently heard about Napa. Our hosts offered to buy our silence with a sip of Hennessey distilled when Abraham Lincoln was President. We readily accepted, and I have never mentioned it until now.

PPS: One of my students asked if there were any connection between winemaker Dawnine Dyer and long-time Sterling winemaker Bill Dyer. Anwer: Yes. Bill is her husband.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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