There are certain wines that send a spark up your spine with an intense excitement that includes everything – that kind of ‘epiphany wine’ can vary in style and place of origin as it is different for each person. For Remi Cohen, it was Comtes de Champagne – tête de cuvee (top wine) for Taittinger Champagne. She had gathered different 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 part of the great legacy of the Champagne winery world, let alone become an integral part of the wine that reached her heart and soul, was something she could never imagine.
Remi thought she already had her biggest surprise much earlier in life when she grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and was on her way to becoming a doctor. Just before medical school, she originally enrolled in a summer hospital internship, but was instead attracted to spending the summer on a fruit farm; it was during this time that she realized that there were graduate degrees in winemaking, and at that moment she threw her life in a different direction when she decided to go out to California and go to UC Davis for winemaking.
She spent a decade in Carneros AVA, a wine region in the southern parts of Sonoma and Napa with even fog and breeze from the bay, making it a cooler climate appeal, working in the vineyards and making wine and eventually working her way up to become vice president in Merryvale. She redirected from Carneros for almost ten years when she became VP of Operations and later COO of Lead 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 region. 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 many of his Napa vineyards after his favorite rock songs – it was a work environment with a really good atmosphere. But life would once again present an unexpected fork on the road in a way that was inconceivable to her.
A chance at a lifetime comes at the worst time
A recruiter reached out to Remi in late February 2020 when the founding winemaker and CEO, Eileen Crane, for Domaine Carneros would retire after 33 years of working there. Domaine Carneros is a joint venture between the Taittinger family and the Kopf family, who own Kobrand – importer of fine wines and spirits, who 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 with Lede, and she said that if she thought of someone else who fit well, she would let the recruiter know. “Are you sure you want to have a conversation about this job in the first place?” 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 of sparkling, her love of Champagne and most importantly her love of Comtes de Champagne. And then she decided to become a candidate for the position, but in mid-March, when it was down to her and only a few others, she realized that she no longer lived in the same world that she lived for just a month before.
Covid-19 caught many people in the US out of guard as the virus in January and February of the same year appeared 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 even could run an unpredictable course in some of the healthiest people when March 2020 came.
As Remi realized, as so many, that not only was coronavirus more serious than expected, but it was already prevalent in her own community, her first instinct was to do the right thing for her current employer and colleagues, and she called the recruiter and said , that although it was painful to give a lifetime opportunity away that she did not feel good about leaving her job in the midst of a crisis. This gesture of pure integrity really impressed the Taittinger family, and they agreed that it was not the best time to change CEO, and they decided to wait until the summer before choosing the best candidate.
Previously scheduled meetings for the Taittinger family to fly over to meet Remi obviously became impossible during that time, and so in June, they decided to talk to her over Zoom for an interview. When she spoke to the Taittinger family, she began pulling out her bottles of Comtes de Champagne like 1996 and 1998 to show them how much their Champagne has meant to her. Maybe it was going through such a life-changing experience 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 did not 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 choose someone who would stay with Domaine Carneros until they retired, because it was important that Eileen transferred the baton to someone who would run it as if they were part of the family as she had done.
Remi ended up becoming CEO of Domaine Carneros starting on August 3rdrd in 2020, the first day of harvest, and Eileen was kept for a while as a consultant so she could make sure that Remi as well as the winemakers, the sparkling winemaker Zak Miller and the Pinot Noir winemaker TJ Evans, were safely on their way to continue Taittinger the family’s vision of producing elegant, food-friendly wines that were kept to a high standard.
“It has exceeded my expectations,” Remi remarked regarding working at Domaine Carneros, as she not only already knew how great wines were, but learned that Eileen worked with Taittinger in Champagne to develop the best yeast to create the fine bubbles for second fermentation as well as keeping the minimal aging on the carrier after the second fermentation, which is in line with the Champagne regulation, and her push to eventually produce all sparkling wines from 100% real estate, Remis took the appreciation of Domaine Carneros to the next level.
In addition, their commitment to sustainability was impressive, and 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 for any winery in the world at that time. . And today, Domaine Carneros is investing in a solar micronet and battery system that provides 75% of the vineyard’s power, allowing them to seamlessly continue to use energy even during power outages that have become much more common in the last few years.
But the most important 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 set up about a decade ago. Each month, Domaine Carneros gets the entire company together to review all of their key indicators as well as all of 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 vineyard, and although Domaine Carneros only produces about 80,000 cases, of which 60,000 are sparkling, they have anywhere from 120 to 150 employees depending on the season . And then bringing everyone from all sides of the company together, whether it be vineyards, winery, sales or marketing, gives all employees a chance to see the monthly number as well as to ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of vision and new goals.
And Remi has already added this very transparent environment by implementing a mentoring program internally so that people in entry level positions can have a chance to engage with management and then possibly have the opportunity to advance within the company. “We’ve had a lot of internal promotions in the last five months,” Remi said proudly.
The Taittinger family wanted to make a tête de cuvee for Domaine Carneros, as 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 castle among the Carneros Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards, which were inspired by their beautiful 18th century Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne, when the appellations Carneros and Champagne were two of the best for sparkling wine in his mind. After Claude’s speech, someone told him to call their Domaine Carneros tête de cuvee ‘Le Rêve’, which means ‘Dream’ in French.
And when Remi started talking about Domaine Carneros tête de cuvee Le Rêve, it had such a profound meaning when she worked for a Champagne family that she used to dream about, not even considering that she would eventually work for them one day and she presented their best sparkling Carneros wine that represented their own dream of creating another home in California.
When Remi used to drink the exquisite Comtes de Champagne, dreaming of a wine and a place that seemed to be of another world out of her reach, she did not realize that one day she would be a big part of the sparkling heritage ; sometimes the biggest misconception is someone who is not aware that she has the key to continuing the dream of which she so passionately wants to be a part.
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 small bubbles that have a creamy consistency 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, so they use 15-20% Pinot Noir rosé in the blend. Fresh strawberries and rose oil on the nose with cinnamon bowl along the lively body with zingy cranberry flavor on the bright finish.
2013 Domaine Carneros, ‘Le Rêve’ Blanc de Blancs: 100% Chardonnay. Incredible vitality with dried yuzu peel and green apple with roasted spices that have a powerful driving force of energy and mineral edge along the linear body that made this wine simply breathtaking on finish.
2018 Domaine Carneros, Estate Pinot Noir: 100% Pinot Noir. Lots of black raspberries with red cherries and a touch of dragon and rainforest after the rain – wild, yet generous, pure fruit with supple tannins and fleshy body.