Forty Years of Domaine Chandon

I’d like to raise a glass to toast Domaine Chandon on the occasion of its 40th year. Domaine Chandon was a bold idea back in 1973 and it has grown to become both an iconic producer of sparkling wines in Napa Valley and an important element of the American wine industry.

According to Wine Business Monthly, Domaine Chandon is the 25th largest wine company in the U.S., producing 625,000 cases in 2012.

Humble Beginnings? Global Reach!

I’d like to say that there were humble beginnings back in 1973, when the winery began, and I’m sure there were, but it is a hard case to make. Honestly, they had audacious ambitions right from the start.

Domaine Chandon was part of Möet & Chandon’s early strategy to dominate the global market for sparkling wine by both promoting their signature Champagne and simultaneously establishing wineries in the most important regions including Australia, South America, and the United States. If someone was going to make and sell “champagne” around the world, why not the Champenoise themselves?  The master plan continues today — Chandon has recently broken ground on a major winery in Ningxia, China.

It is difficult to over-state the importance of Domaine Chandon at the time of its founding, which was only a few years after one important milestone — the opening of the Robert Mondavi winery — and three years before another — the famous “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting. Chandon was the first French-owned sparkling wine producer in the U.S. and a strong statement about both the potential of California to make quality wines (at a time when many Americans still doubted this) and the confidence of the French that Americans would drink them!

Soup and Dessert

One of the reasons for Chandon’s big impact is that the winery was conceived as something more than just a production facility.  A destination winery was constructed to allow the story of the wines and their makers to be told effectively (more than 250,000 visitors now come to the Yountville facility each year).

Wines, wine-making, history — all that was needed to complete the experience was great food and this was provided by étoile Restaurant, the first (and so far still the only) fine dining restaurant located within a Napa Valley winery.

No wonder people came by the droves and then came back and back again as lifelong ambassadors for both Chandon and for Napa Valley.

Sue and I have great memories of our early visits to Chandon in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I hate to admit this, but although we loved the wine it was really the restaurant that kept us coming back — especially for chef Philippe Jeanty‘s famous puff-pastry-crowned cream of tomato soup (which you can still enjoy at Bistro Jeanty  in Yountville) and the luscious chocolate desserts.

Fred’s Friends

Fred: Count Frederic Chandon

One of my favorite memories of Domaine Chandon involves a mystery that I uncovered back in the 1980s. I was rummaging through the wine bins at our local Safeway and I came across a colorfully decorated bottle of a still wine — Rosé of Pinot Noir — by a producer identified as Fred’s Friends.

I was a bit suspicious because the price was so low ($1.99), but I bought a bottle and took it home only to discover that it was delicious both as an aperitif and paired with salmon. Yum. We shared our discovery with friends Michael and Nancy and together I think together we bought every bottle that the local Safeway stores had in stock. It was our perfect summer wine.

We were happy to enjoythe wine, but who was Fred and were we his designated friends (and why was he “dumping” this nice wine under a made-up label at a bargain price)?

I guessed the wine’s real maker because the fictional winery’s location was Yountville. Who in Yountville would have enough Pinot Noir around to make a pink wine like this and then be able to sell it for such a bargain basement price? Only one possible answer: Domaine Chandon. Sure enough I was right.

I found  a crude black and white image of the original label (see above — probably made from a faxed document) on a trade-mark registration website and I uncovered more details about the origin of the still wine in oral history archives at Berkeley.

Our first couple of years when we started, we were making wine at Trefethen. Our deuxieme taille, the last cut on our press, we’d never use for sparkling wine. Yet when you get to that last cut, as a still wine you have the appearance in the mouth of a little bit more body because there’s more tannin in the wine, and the acids are a little less so it’s a bit softer.

We thought, “Gee, this is really pretty nice wine just to drink as it is .” I forget now why, but we decided we wouldn’t just put it on the bulk market, which is what we do today. I think it was partly because we were making sparkling wine, but it was going to take three years or so before it was ready to drink, so we thought, “Let’s have a wine that we could enjoy ourselves.” So we bottled some of that- -a thousand cases or so.

Came time to sell it and we were just going to sell it to friends of the company and employees. Michaela Rodeno, who was then our v.p. of marketing and communications, came up with the idea of Fred’s Friends. I guess it was shortly after Fred Chandon had been here on a visit. He’s a very charming person. He took us all out to lunch, the whole group; we had about twenty people working then. As I recall at that time, he had promised which he later delivered on- -that after we had sold a million bottles, everybody would get a trip to France. Everybody was quite intrigued with that; I’m talking mostly about people on the bottling lines, et cetera. So Michaela just came up with the idea of calling it Fred’s Friends.

Beyond Fred’s Friends

Fred’s Friends disappeared after a while, but the idea of making fine still wines with some of the wonderful raw materials on hand did not. Chandon’s still wine program today is strong and, as the attractive label indicates, has escaped from the anonymous Fred’s Friends shadows. Sue and I met Domain Chandon’s still winemaker Joel Burt at IPNC a couple of years and visited him in Yountville earlier this year.

Barrel tasting with Joel was fantastic, sampling the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier at different stages and with different oak treatments. The Pinot Meunier was especially interesting because the wine changes so much during its time in barrel and then bottle.

While most of the wines Joel makes are from grapes you would naturally associate with a sparkling wine house, he also makes a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, leveraging the fact that Newton Vineyards is part of the LVMH family and so some great Cab grapes are available. Total still wine production is between 15,000 and 19,000 cases a year, mainly five different Pinot Noir bottlings (9000 cases altogether) then Pinot Meunier and Cab (about 4000 cases each) and Chardonnay (about 2100 cases).

Chandon’s still wines were an unexpected discovery. Much more serious and refined than Fred’s Friends, of course, but just as surprising ..  and delicious!

Domaine Chandon has grown up to fill the big shoes that its founders envisioned.  At 40 years, has it entered middle age? I don’t think so. Maybe 40 is the new 30. In any case, I sense that the dynamism is still there and the ability to surprise and delight remains as well.

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Thanks to Joel for his hospitality during our visit to Domaine Chandon. You’ll see him in this video, which showcases all the elements of the Domaine Chandon experience.

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