Napa sparkling wine trailblazer Eileen Crane of Domaine Carneros reveals the passion behind her long career
If she had been born a son to an Italian family in upstate New York, instead of a daughter born to an English-Irish family in New Jersey, Eileen Crane’s ambition to be a winemaker may not have been so unusual. But with a father, who cultivated tastes for French and German wines while serving in World War II, and hers, that rare 1950s family with a wine cellar, a seed took root.
“We had wine on Sundays. I was allowed to partake and had my own special glass. One day, when I was 8, Dad pulled out a bottle of champagne,” Crane remembers. “After one sip I thought, ‘This is for me!’”
And 43 years later - the last 33 as CEO and head winemaker at Domaine Carneros - Crane can look back on a career that combined financial acumen, effective management and a refined palate to become what wine educator, author and journalist Karen MacNeil called “The Doyenne of Sparkline Wine.”
It took Crane awhile to find out how to get into winemaking, but when she did, she never looked back.
Early in her career, she did social work in Venezuela, taught nutrition at the University of Connecticut and attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
At the age of 28, she drove her Chevy Impala across the country to enroll in oenology and viticulture courses at the University of California, Davis. There she was told by a male professor that she would never get a job in the wine industry because a woman couldn’t push around heavy wine barrels. At the time, women may have had jobs in the laboratory, but weren’t seen in the vineyards or in cellar work. But Crane refused to be discouraged. With the support of Ann Noble (the first female faculty member in the enology department at Davis), she forged ahead.
Crane started at Domaine Chandon in 1978 as a tour guide, moved to the pastry kitchen and then to a position in the wine lab, eventually becoming assistant winemaker to the sparkling wine trailblazer Dawnine Dyer.
In her sixth year at Chandon, Crane saw an announcement in a wine magazine that the owners of Freixenet in Catalonia wanted to start a California operation. She sent a letter of inquiry and subsequently met with members of the Ferrer family at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. After several months of discussion, Crane had her final interview with Pedro Ferrer who hired her for what she thought was the head winemaker position.
“When I asked who was going to oversee the construction of the facility, Pedro replied, ‘You are.’ That’s how it was done in Spain. During the Spanish Revolution, the matriarch of the family had taken over the business so they were used to seeing a woman run things. I had never even organized a home improvement project before this! So it was sink or swim,” Crane says with a laugh.
She checked references, asked the right questions, assembled a team, and bought grapes. “It took about 15 months. The Ferrers were surprised when I told them it was time to start preparing for the opening party. They had been building a winery in Mexico for 10 years.”
Thus, Crane oversaw the initial design and construction of Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and developed its line of sparkling wines. Three years later, Crane would be selected as the founding winemaker and manage the construction and development of Domaine Carneros, becoming the first woman to get two prominent European sparkling wine houses up and running in California.
“I wasn’t looking for a job when I had the opportunity to meet with the distinguished Taittenger Champagne family in 1987. I didn’t even bring my resume with me,” says Crane. “We had an immediate connection, and after 20 minutes of talking, it became clear to me that this was a project I wanted to do. Champagne Taittinger also had women in important positions in their operations in France. In that regard, I was lucky.”
The Domaine Carneros château, located at 1240 Duhig Road off Highway 12 between Napa and Sonoma, is a landmark familiar even to those who have never ventured up the hill for a tasting. Surrounded by estate vineyards, totaling approximately 400 acres (125 planted to Chardonnay, 225 acres planted to Pinot Noir), the building was inspired by the Taittinger family’s 18th century residence in France. With its grand staircase, formal gardens, expansive outdoor terraces and marble-floored fireside salon, the château is an elegant setting for savoring fine sparkling and still wines, and for an extensive calendar of events. Two years ago, Crane oversaw completion of the Jardin d’hiver (Winter Garden) off the north terrace - a glass-walled conservatory where guests can take in breathtaking views while being protected from the wind.