On the Trail

The Understated Elegance of Dominus Estate

James Bradshaw

As you approach Dominus Estate, westward off Highway 29, and then north on Madison Street, you will witness an unusual phenomena. It’s as if, for a brief moment, the winery isn’t there at all. What you see, rather, is what appears to be the shadow of a cloud slowly making its way along the base of the Mayacamas Range. It is not until you make your final turn onto Napa Nook Road, with the winery now directly ahead, that its distinctly modernist frame comes into focus. This illusion is not the result of happenstance, but like so much at Dominus Estate, is the product of thoughtful planning. Designed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the winery at Dominus Estate is, quite simply, an architectural masterpiece. Its brilliance arises not only from its striking design, inventive use of materials, and masterful blending of form and function, but also, (and perhaps most importantly) the manner in which it closely adheres to the philosophical approach of winemaker Christian Moueix.

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The Napanook Vineyard was first planted under vine in 1836, by the city of Yountville founder, George Yount. Over the subsequent years, ownership passed from one family to another, until, when, in 1982, owners Robin Lail and Marcia Smith joined into a partnership with the Bordeaux scion, Christian Moueix. Moueix, with his experience at Château Pétrus in Pomerol, brought a distinctly French sensibility to this new project. From the outset, he wanted the wine of Dominus Estate to offer a true sense of place. In short, he wanted to bring the unique terroir of Napa Valley to the forefront that was its due. Just one short year after embarking on this new partnership, the inaugural 1983 vintage was produced. After a string of highly successful vintages and countless accolades, Moueix took full ownership of the winery in 1995. Despite his long tenure in the winemaking making business, Christian maintains a youthful ebullience and a spark of curiosity that breeds constant innovation. It as precisely these characteristics that informed his decisions when working with the team of Herzog and de Meuron in the construction of the winery (previously the wines were made at Rombauer’s facility not far from Napanook Vineyard).

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Moueix once noted: “A wine is only as good as the grapes from which it is produced.” This primacy of the vineyard informs all the decisions great and small at Dominus Estate. First among them, is the decision to dry farm. In an effort to coax the most from his fruit, Moueix places his vines under hydric stress, forcing them to access water not from the convenient drip of an irrigation hose, but rather from the water table deep below the vineyard. This, coupled with Hopper Creek which winds its way through the estate, provides the vines in Napanook with just enough moisture in which to thrive. In addition to dry farming, Moueix employs a host of sustainable practices, which not only reduces the environmental impact of the vineyard, but also greatly improves the overall quality of the grapes. Erosion control, the re-introduction of local flora and fauna, natural methods of pest control, and cover crops are just a few of the many techniques employed. It goes without saying that none of this is the easy way of doing things, but after thirty-four vintages of Dominus, it is a time-tested and proven recipe for success.

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All of this brings us back to the winery itself. Given the primacy of the vineyard, Moueix wanted a structure that would seamlessly integrate with the surrounding landscape. With its Mies Van der Rohe-esque lines and sharp angles, the building proposed by Herzog and de Meuron seemed an unlikely candidate to achieve this goal. However, it is precisely its understated design that allows the winery to effortlessly dissolve into its surroundings. Gabions, or small cages, filled with Basalt rocks from nearby American Canyon, form the exterior cladding of the building. These gabions serve the dual function of tying the structure together with the rock-laden soils of the valley and as an ideal insulator from the heat and cold. Temperatures in the valley reached the low 80s during our visit, but one would never guess based on the cool interior of the winery, which was a breezy 20 degrees cooler. We were astounded to learn this was achieved without the use of any temperature-control units. Much like the wines of Dominus Estate, the winery reflects how a gentle touch and a respect for the land can result in an understated elegance.

During our visit, we were invited to taste the 2015 vintage of Napanook and Dominus. The wines were in a word: ethereal. Perfectly composed with excellent richness and texture, we all agreed that they were among the best we’ve had from this singular estate. The 2015 Napanook while still very youthful was supple, inviting with layers of black fruit, mocha, Asian spice, and mint. While the 2015 Dominus, for its part, was massively structured, but remarkably open-knit and dynamic. Its dusty tannins hit at the end suggesting a very long and fruitful life ahead. While not as monolithic as the 2012 or 2013 vintage, it is still a very rewarding wine and one the deftly shows the undeniable prowess of the winemaking at Dominus Estate.  

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While we learned a tremendous amount on our visit to Dominus, perhaps the biggest takeaway was Moueix’s unwavering commitment to drawing the best out of this iconic estate. Change is always afoot at Dominus with each successive vintage conveying this thrilling dynamism. The wines from Dominus are among the most remarkable produced anywhere in the world and it was an honor to see first hand the meticulous and thoughtful manner in which they are crafted.

-James Bradshaw