Many Napa Valley travelers begin their day with a stop at Domaine Carneros in Napa. Many travelers also end their day there. One reason for this is the winery’s strategic location almost equidistant between the twin capitals of northern California wine country—four miles from Napa and five miles from Sonoma.
There are, of course, many other reasons to stop at this lovely hillside winery built in the style of an ancient French chateau. Only the state’s second-smallest volume producer of champagne, Domaine Carneros nonetheless has a giant reputation in the world of quality sparkling wines, winning many awards for its products.
For those who love Marilyn Monroe’s favorite drink, here are five things you must do when you visit Domaine Carneros:
Take in the views
There is not just one view to be seen at Domaine, there are many. There is that moment when you spot it at the top of the hill when you’re driving the Sonoma Highway (also highways 12 and 121), and there is the view of it as you turn off the highway and drive up Duhig Road into the parking area. Once out of your car, walk to the base of the steps and look up to the chateau. At the top of the terrace, after you climb the steps, look back down across vineyards and the mountain ridges that flank Napa Valley to the east. The terrace and lawn on the north side of the chateau offers still more views of the diRosa preserve and lake and surrounding landscape.
Meet the Little Queen
Behind the reception desk in the front lobby you will see a painting of one of the most famous females in French history, Madame de Pompadour. Knowing a little about this sexy lady in the flowing gown will help you better understand why the architecture of this place is so unlike other wineries in the area built in the traditional Napa farmhouse style.
A mistress of Louis XV who became a leading 18th century cultural and artistic tastemaker, Madame de Pompadour owned and oversaw the creation of many castles and chateaux in the French countryside. She was a young girl when the Chateau de la Marquetterie was built near Reims, so she had nothing to do with its creation. But she may have lived in the chateau or spent time there after she and the king became lovers and she rose to power in French politics. She died in 1764 and the chateau passed through various hands until 1932 when the Taittingers bought it and turned it into the central landmark of their champagne-making dynasty. Then, in the 1980s looking to expand to California, Claude Taittinger acquired some grape-growing land and established Domaine Carneros, building it as an homage to Chateau de la Marquetterie where the woman known as “the Little Queen” now looks coquettishly off to the side as guests approach.
Take the tour
The day we went to Domaine I had press obligations and so we had to take a somewhat abbreviated version of the tour, which normally runs up to 90 minutes. We did walk through many of the steps, however, beginning at the pretty Chardonnay vines that grow near the side terrace and lawn. These vines alone are a wonderful feature. On some winery tours the vineyards are located elsewhere on the property and sometimes you barely see them if at all. But at Domaine they’re right there, and you can walk up to them and see the fruit growing on them. There’s a connection between the land and your wine-drinking experience.
Of all the tours I’ve been on in wine country, Domaine Carneros boasts the most dramatic reveal of any I’ve seen so far. Madame de Pompadour, who was a bit of a drama queen herself, would surely have appreciated how tour visitors are led into a room in which one wall has a window covering over it. Then suddenly the covering begins to lift, revealing—ah, but what would be the fun of spoiling the surprise? I hate it when people tell me the end of a movie I haven’t seen. Just go. It’s a nice moment.
Wine educator Mike Park conducted our tour with verve and charm. One of these days I’ll go back and get the full version. I recommend it.
Drink a glass of Le Reve Blanc de Blancs
Our tour ended with a tasting hosted by Domaine’s CEO and chief winemaker Eileen Crane, a taste leader herself who has guided the winery since its inception. “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool winehead,” she explained to us. “I do the rest of the job but what I love is making the bubbles.” Ah, those bubbles, those tiny little bubbles that deliver, as she said, “a little tickle across your palette.” Our tasting consisted of five varieties, including a 2008 Famous Gate Pinot Noir—though Domaine Carneros is not as well known for making Pinots, perhaps it should be because this was splendid—and my favorite, a 2006 Le Reve Blanc de Blancs. Reve in English means “dream,” and this sparkler was pretty dreamy stuff, all right. Don’t leave without sticking your nose in a glass or maybe even taking home a bottle ($99 per).
The views. The chateau. The intriguing Madame de Pompadour. The tour and the grand reveal. The winemaker and those tiny little bubbles she has helped to create. One of these things, or all of them combined, is sure to inspire you in some way. Go with it, then: Be inspired. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while. Resolve to get out of your daily rut and pursue more adventures. Embark on a grand enterprise. Conceive of a breakthrough idea. Find a new way to improve people’s lives. Make love to your soulmate. Whatever it is, however you are so inspired, just remember the drink and the place where your inspirations first found flight.
Domaine Carneros, 1240 Duhig Road, Napa. Daily tastings are held 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. starting at $30. Tours take place daily at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; $40 per person plus tax. Reservations are recommended. Special “connoisseur” tastings and other events begin at $95 per person. 800-716-2788.