There are certain wines that send a spark up one’s spine with an intense thrill that is all encompassing – that kind of ‘epiphany wine’ can range in style and place of origin as it is different for each person. For Remi Cohen it was the Comtes de Champagne – tête de cuvee (top wine) for Taittinger Champagne. She had collected various vintages of this exquisite Champagne and they were some of her most precious wines that would only be opened for really special occasions. But the idea that she would be a part of the great legacy of the Champagne winemaking world, let alone become an integral part of the wine that reached her heart and soul, was something that she could never imagine.
Remi thought she already had her biggest surprise much earlier in life as she grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and was on the path to becoming a doctor. Right before medical school she initially enlisted in a summer hospital internship but instead was drawn to spending the summer working at a fruit farm; it was during that time that she realized that there were master’s degree programs for making wine and in that moment she threw her life in a different direction when she decided to go out to California and go to U.C. Davis for winemaking.
She spent a decade working in the Carneros AVA, a wine area in the southern sections of Sonoma and Napa with consistent fog and breezes from the bay making it a cooler climate appellation, working in the vineyards and making wine, and eventually working her way up to becoming the vice president at Merryvale. She diverted from Carneros for almost ten years as she became VP of Operations and later COO of Lede Family Wines, focusing on Bordeaux grape varieties in Napa vineyards as well as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Anderson Valley plots – a cooler climate wine area. Remi thought she found her lifelong home as the owner, Cliff Lede, loves French wines like Remi, Cliff loves Bordeaux specifically, and he is a really cool guy who named a lot of his Napa vineyards after his favorite rock songs – it was a work environment with a really good vibe. But life would, again, present an unexpected fork in the road in a way that was unfathomable to her.
A Chance of a Lifetime Comes at the Worst Time
A recruiter reached out to Remi in late February 2020 as the founding winemaker and CEO, Eileen Crane, for Domaine Carneros would be retiring after 33 years of working there. Domaine Carneros is a joint venture between the Taittinger family and the Kopf family, owners of Kobrand – importer of fine wines and spirits, that started an ultra-premium sparkling house in the Carneros area of California in the late 1980s. Remi immediately told the recruiter that she was happy at Lede and she said that if she thought of someone else who was a good fit that she would let the recruiter know. “Are you sure you don’t want to have at least a conversation about this job?” asked the recruiter. That question seemed to knock Remi out of her determination to stay where she was happy and comfortable and brought her back to her love for sparkling, her love for Champagne and most importantly her love for Comtes de Champagne. And so she decided to become a candidate for the position but in mid-March, when it was down to her and only a couple of others, she realized that she was no longer living in the same world she lived in just a month before.
Covid-19 caught many people in the US off guard as in January and February of that year the virus seemed to be far away and only a real threat to those who were elderly or immunocompromised but it quickly became a fully blown pandemic that could even run an unpredictable course in some of the healthiest people once March of 2020 came along.
As Remi realized, like so many, that not only was coronavirus more serious than anticipated but it was already prevalent in her own community, her first instinct was to do the right thing for her current employer and co-workers and she called the recruiter and said that although it was painful to pass up an opportunity of a lifetime that she didn’t feel comfortable leaving her job in a middle of a crisis. That gesture of pure integrity really impressed the Taittinger family and so they agreed that it was not the best time to change out the CEO and they decided to wait until the summer before they choose the best candidate.
Previously scheduled meetings for the Taittinger family to fly over to meet Remi, of course, became impossible during that time and so in June they decided to speak to her over Zoom for an interview. As she talked to the Taittinger family, she started to pull out her bottles of Comtes de Champagne, such as the 1996 and 1998, to show them how much their Champagne has meant to her. Maybe it was going through such a life altering experience such as the pandemic, or maybe it was the reality of talking to the Taittinger family, or maybe it was both but she knew that if she didn’t do everything in her power to get this job she would always regret it. It still took some time for the Taittinger family to make their final decision as they wanted to pick someone who would stay at Domaine Carneros until they retired as to them it was important that Eileen passed the baton to someone who would run it like they were part of the family like she had done.
Remi ended up becoming the CEO of Domaine Carneros starting on August 3rd of 2020, the first day of harvest, and Eileen was kept on for a while as a consultant so she could make sure that Remi, as well as the winemakers, sparkling winemaker Zak Miller and Pinot Noir winemaker TJ Evans, were securely on track to continue the Taittinger family vision of making elegant, food friendly wines that were kept to a high standard.
“It has exceeded my expectations,” noted Remi in regards to working at Domaine Carneros as not only did she already know how great the wines were but learning that Eileen worked with Taittinger in Champagne to develop the best yeast to create the fine bubbles for the second fermentation, as well as keeping the minimum aging on lees after the second fermentation that is in line with Champagne regulation and her push to eventually make all the sparkling wines from 100% estate fruit really took Remi’s appreciation of Domaine Carneros to the next level.
Furthermore, their commitment to sustainability was impressive as well as not only have they been certified by some of the most respected sustainability programs in California but they were also pioneers in solar energy when, in 2003, they installed the largest solar collection system of any winery in the world for that time. And today Domaine Carneros is investing in a solar micro-grid and battery system that will supply 75% of the winery’s power and allow them to seamlessly continue using energy even during power outages which has become a lot more common in the past few years.
But the major thing that has been extraordinary to Remi, as she has never experienced it in a family-run winery until this time, is the system of full transparency for all employees that Eileen setup around a decade ago. Every month Domaine Carneros gets the whole company together to review all of their key performance indicators as well as all the financial details for that month with the exception of people’s salaries. Sparkling wine is a very labor intensive process from hand picking whole bunches in the vineyards to gently pressing and handling the wine in the winery and so although Domaine Carneros only makes around 80,000 cases, 60,000 of that being sparkling, they have anywhere from 120 to 150 employees depending on the time of year. And so bringing everyone from every aspect of the company together, whether it is the vineyards, the winery, sales or marketing, gives all employees a chance to view the monthly numbers as well as to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of vision and new goals.
And Remi has already added to this very transparent environment by implementing a mentorship program internally so people at entry level positions can have a chance to engage with management and then possibly have the opportunity to advance within the company. “We have had a lot of internal promotions within the last five months,” Remi proudly stated.
The Taittinger family wanted to make a tête de cuvee for Domaine Carneros like they had done for Taittinger with their Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) and so Eileen tried every year, starting in 1988 until she nailed it in 1992. During a business trip, Claude Taittinger gave a speech talking about how Domaine Carneros was a dream come true when they built their château among the Carneros Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards which was inspired by their beautiful 18th century Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne, as the Carneros and Champagne appellations were two of the best for sparkling wine in his mind. After Claude’s speech someone told him that he should call their Domaine Carneros tête de cuvee ‘Le Rêve’ which means ‘The Dream’ in French.
And so when Remi started to talk about the Domaine Carneros tête de cuvee Le Rêve it had such a deep meaning as she was working for a Champagne family that she used to dream of, not even considering that she would eventually be working for them some day, and she was presenting their top Carneros sparkling wine which represented their own dream of making a second home in California.
When Remi used to drink the exquisite Comtes de Champagne dreaming of a wine and place that seemed to be of another world beyond her grasp, she didn’t realize that one day she would be a big part of that sparkling legacy; sometimes the biggest misconception is someone not realizing that she holds the key to continuing the dream that she so passionately wants to be part of.
2017 Domaine Carneros, Estate Brut Cuvée: 57% Chardonnay and 43% Pinot Noir. Jumps out of the glass with peach cobbler ,candied pecans and lemon drops with tiny bubbles that have a creamy texture and intense stony notes on the finish – delicious.
Domaine Carneros, ‘Cuvée de la Pompadour’ Brut Rosé: 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. They do not add red wine to get the color but give a couple of their Pinot Noir tanks some skin contact and so they are using 15-20% Pinot Noir rosé in the blend. Fresh strawberries and rose oil on the nose with cinnamon toast along the lively body with zingy cranberry flavors on the bright finish.
2013 Domaine Carneros, ‘Le Rêve’ Blanc de Blancs: 100% Chardonnay. Incredible vibrancy with dried yuzu peel and green apple with toasted spices that has a fierce drive of energy and mineral edge along the linear body that made this wine simply breathtaking on the finish.
2018 Domaine Carneros, Estate Pinot Noir: 100% Pinot Noir. Lots of black raspberry with red cherries and a touch of tarragon and rainforest after the rain – wild yet generous, pure fruit with supple tannins and fleshy body.