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.

The house style Crane has established in her years at Domaine Carneros is a balance of the characteristics of France’s Champagne region and the Carneros appellation which straddles Sonoma and Napa counties. Upon selecting Crane to build his American branch, Claude Taittenger said to her: “We are of Champagne, you are of Carneros. If you try to make an imitation of us, it is not going to be good. It would be like Picasso trying to paint like Renoir - a total failure.”

Crane has more than delivered on this caution, producing a line of sparkling wines she describes as “classic, sophisticated, timeless and understated. Think Audrey Hepburn in the perfect little black dress.”

Early on, Crane was charged by Taittenger to purchase good vineyard sites if she found them. Little by little she has acquired five vineyards beyond the estate that was there when she was building the winery. Crane says, “The 2020 harvest will be 100% estate grown, and this is a real marker, because the great wines of the world are based on estate-grown and not purchased fruit.”

A role model and influencer

Crane doesn’t name any particular individuals she has mentored over the years except to acknowledge that there have been “lots of women.” She says she gets calls “once every other month” from women who ask for her advice on how to advance and succeed in the wine world. She tells them to research places that have a history of hiring and promoting women and “get a job there, any job - tasting room, accounting - just to show your mettle, that you will work hard and be enthusiastic. Of course, if you want to be a winemaker or enologist, you need to have a science degree of some type.”

Crane reminds them that the wine industry is agriculture, after all, and that they won’t make comparable salaries to those in high tech. She also notes that women who started their own brands, like Merry Edwards, or who became wine consultants, avoided some initial prejudice and discrimination and were ultimately successful.

“Eileen has been a professional and personal inspiration to me for 32 years,” says Kimberly Charles, a former head of communications at Gallo and now president of her own marketing firm. “I have always been struck by her incredible work ethic balanced out by a total joie de vivre. She has always known what she wants and how to live.”

Open book management

About 10 years ago, Domaine Carneros leadership moved to an innovative management system called “open book” which Crane says is “Fabulous, absolutely fabulous.” Employees can have as much information as they want about the organization, financial and otherwise, barring only access to individual salaries. Crane says they have a monthly company meeting, called “The Huddle,” where announcements are made open discussion takes place on a range of topics, for example, “This is how we dealt with a particular safety issue. Here is something new we have introduced this month.”

These gatherings also offer the opportunity for all employees - from the tasting room to the cellars to those who work in the vineyards - to ask questions. Crane says some of the questions surprised her, yet, upon reflection, made sense. The visitor center staff wanted to know, “What do we make the most money on?” This open style has been useful in other ways too. When Crane, the comptroller and HR were trying to determine benefits, they decided to query the employees. Crane recalls, “The people in the visitors center asked for memberships in health clubs. You don’t know what people desire or need until you ask them!”

Best environmental practices

Crane has said that “to tend to the vine is to do the right thing.” Under her leadership, Domaine Carneros received a 2019 California Green Medal Business Award - one of only four wineries or vineyards recognized each year - for demonstrating “smart business through innovation, efficiencies, and cost savings and from sustainable practices.” Hers was one of the first wineries in California to adopt solar power, and the array atop the pinot noir facility was the largest on any winery in the world when it was installed in 2003.

One Crane initiative is a packaging reuse program that reclaims both inserts and cases for in-house purposes. Since the program was started in 2011, it has saved an average of $75,000 per year. Another improvement is a new micro-grid that allows the winery to continue production if either seasonal fires or protective power shut-offs force the statewide grid to go dark.

“Eileen has broken new ground with her approach to environmental and regenerative land use. I can think of no better legacy to leave, especially now that climate change is challenging us all,” notes her colleague and sparkling winemaking successor Zak Miller.

A time of transition

After her decades overseeing the vines, Crane faces an upcoming harvest season that will be her last. She is about to transition out of her role as chief executive and lead sparkling winemaker at Domaine Carneros, staying only through the Fall 2020 harvest and cuvée blending.

The board of directors has retained a wine business executive search firm, The Cypress Group, to assist in finding the new CEO. Crane originally gave the board a year’s notice. That date has been adjusted a bit further into 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Several board members are in France, others are in Boston and New York, and nobody wants to travel; interviews are being conducted by teleconference.

Crane says that she can understand why a wine executive would be reluctant to make a big decision or “jump ship” in such uncertain times. She thinks it wouldn’t be ethical. But Crane is looking forward to retiring from the CEO position as soon as she reasonably can. “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool optimist and think the process may be over by the middle or the end of June. But I could be really wrong!”

Her retirement leaves Crane satisfied but not “finished” in any sense of the word. She still plans to do public relations for Domaine Carneros, and continue her civic involvement in Napa County, as well as participate on the boards of local nonprofits Collabria Care and Music in the Vineyards.

“I’m 71 years old. Some people want to work forever, but I want time to pursue the other things I enjoy and am passionate about. I’ve been working or studying since I was 16 with no more than a couple of weeks off, except the summer I spent in Europe when I was 20. I like the idea of having freedom-to get up without a rush in the morning, have a light breakfast, do some exercising, read a book, call my friends, maybe take a little jaunt someplace.”

Editor’s note: This article originally was published April 25, 2020.

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