Eileen Crane is the CEO and founding winemaker of Domaine Carneros—a joint venture of Taittinger Champagne and the Kopf family—and considered one of the top sparkling wine firms in California. Crane studied science and food before moving into wine, initially as a tour guide at the sparkling wine company Chandon California. Within six years, she had become the winemaker and vice president of another sparkling firm—Gloria Ferrer Caves. In 1978, Claude Taittinger, then president of Champagne Taittinger, personally selected her to plan and develop Domaine Carneros, including the winery’s stunning landmark château modeled after the Château de la Marquetterie.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Eileen Crane for WineSpeed in June 2019. Her video with her follows this interview.
Karen MacNeil: What was your first job in the wine industry?
Eileen Crane: Part-time tour guide at Chandon California.
KM: What was the toughest part of your early years?
EC: I felt I was not getting anywhere. I was working as a co-winemaker yet did not have a real title and commensurate pay.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
EC: My real mentor was Philippe Court, who was the equivalent to the COO at Taittinger. He was always slipping me good advice. And, when I was growing up, my father who came out of the slums of New York City to become very successful on Wall Street. He taught me about money and finance.
I fell in love the first time over a bottle of Champagne and a filet mignon.
Karen MacNeil: How old were you when you tasted your first wine and who gave it to you?
Eileen Crane: Eight years old. My father let me have a little glass (cordial glass at Sunday dinner).
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite wine. But, what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
EC: Heavy, tannic wines or over-oaked wines are undrinkable to me.
KM: Is wine a form of art in your opinion?
EC: Oh yes, the best of any skill including painting, sculpting, cooking, winemaking, gardening, etc. done to the sublime is art.
KM: Sparkling wine requires a certain “suspension of disbelief” because you can never know for certain what the wine might taste like years later and after it has bubbles in it. I can imagine that might be unnerving. How do you deal with that?
EC: I have made sparkling wine for 42 years and I can predict, to a great extent, what the wines will be like 3, 4 or 10 years later. Yes, sparkling is difficult as you are tasting base wines that have no bubbles, no age, no dosage. Yet, I have learned to factor these elements in when I create the cuvées.
KM: Is Champagne your model for great Napa sparkling?
EC: Fine Champagnes were the model, however, I also recognized that Carneros was a superb AVA for sparkling and our wines deserved to be an original not just a copy of Champagne.
KM: What’s the biggest barrier to getting more people to enjoy sparkling wine often?
EC: People sometimes assume sparklings are just for special occasions. (By the way, my occasion is Friday night.) I believe, thanks to the Prosecco craze, more people are willing to enjoy sparkling just when they want a glass.
KM: How often do you drink your own wine?
EC: I drink my wines usually two to three times a week. I enjoy trying other wines and they keep my palate fresh
KM: And what’s your favorite food to eat when you’re drinking good Sparkling?
EC: Do I dare to say, triple cream cheese. Also love it with smoked salmon or trout. However, I am happy drinking it with almost anything. I fell in love the first time over a bottle of Champagne and a filet mignon.
KM: In addition to wine, your other favorite beverage is?
EC: Guinness or a really good margarita (mostly during harvest).
KM: You live and work in Napa Valley. What other wine region inspires you the most and why?
EC: Certainly Champagne; and I find Willamette, Oregon, particularly interesting as it is evolving rapidly and differently from Carneros/Napa.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
EC: Our Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs and the open book management system (based on Zingerman’s) has changed the winery into a great place to work.
KM: Tell us something about you that would surprise most people to learn.
EC: I grew up in the “great winemaking” state of New Jersey. That’s where I tasted my first Champagne at eight years old and thought: this is for me! It took a while to find out how to get into winemaking, but I did and never looked back.