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Dominus Debut Arrives--Finally : Teaming of Moueix, Napa Valley Soil Produces Long-Awaited Wine

March 10, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — With one of the European wine establishment's most dominating figures in attendance, Dominus arrived here last Friday and instantly was reported gone.

Dominus, the long-awaited red wine that is a joint project of French conception and Napa Valley soil, was presented to about 100 persons at the elegant Fleur de Lys restaurant here, but it wasn't the wine all had expected. It was a year later.

It has been almost five years since a joint venture was announced teaming Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus and the daughters of the late Napa Valley legend John Daniel Jr. The first wine produced under that agreement, a 1983 Dominus, was long anticipated.

After numerous delays in the release of this first wine--and rumors that the wine wasn't particularly great--last Friday's luncheon was all the more intriguing. And then attendees never got a chance to try the 1983.

'83 'Backward, Unready' at This Time

The 1984 Dominus will be released first, Moueix announced. The 1983 will be out in some 15 months, possibly even after the release of the '85. Moueix said the decision was made because the '83 remains backward and unready to be evaluated at this stage, though it it is a great wine, he said.

The details of 1984 Dominus:

--Price: About $40.

--Production: 4,000 cases.

--Composition: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, the remainder Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

--Availability: Very limited, essentially sold out at the winery.

Wine shops around the country have already received word that they will get a small number of six-pack wooden boxes of the wine. Typical allocation: six boxes (36 bottles) per account. Shop owners contacted around California all said their allocation is so small they are limiting all but their best customers to one or two bottles at most.

Seagram's Chateau and Estates division, which is marketing the wine, said it is all but sold out. Chateau and Estates president Ab Simon, here for the unveiling, said production of Dominus would rise in coming years, to about 5,000 cases of the 1986 vintage, 7,000 cases in 1987 and to a maximum of 20,000 cases at full production.

Release of the 1984 Dominus ahead of the 1983 is a brilliant stroke since wine experts throughout California feel the 1983 vintage is generally not as successful as 1984, yielding wines that can be hard and astringent. Another reason is that there is twice as much of the '84 Dominus as the 1983.

Because of the worldwide reputation of Moueix's Chateau Petrus in Pomerol, release of Dominus was as much a media event as was the first release of the 1979 Opus One, the joint venture between Robert Mondavi of the Napa Valley and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. And curiously, the wines--both made from grapes growing within a few miles of each other--are structured differently from one another.

Similar to California Cabernet

Whereas the aroma of Opus One is most Bordeaux-like and the taste similar to the accessible California model, Dominus is quite the opposite. The aroma of this Dominus is very heady, with an appealing cherry, currant and floral tone, with violets and cassis, a very complex wine, not unlike a California Cabernet made from mountain-grown grapes. But the taste is more akin to Bordeaux, with a hardness in the mouth, very dry and slightly austere.

Clearly it will be better with time in the bottle to soften it. Moueix said he wouldn't open a bottle for at least five years.

However, Simon, commenting on the attention the wine has received in the press, said he expected many to pop the cork as soon as the wine is out of the box. Which is another reason it's just as well to have the more accessible '84 out first, he said.

Moueix added: "It was a very difficult decision for me to make, (but) the '84 was the lightest of the five vintages ('83 through '87). The '83 is the biggest, most tannic wine."

The joint venture that produced this wine is called the John Daniel Society and it is an agreement between the promotion-minded Moueix and the daughters of the late Daniel, Robin Lail of St. Helena and Marcia Smith of Yakima, Wash. The vineyard they inherited from their father at his death in 1970, Napanook, was owned by Daniel when he was president of Inglenook Vineyards. Daniel was the grandnephew of Gustave Niebaum, founder of Inglenook.

Napanook is a 124-acre vineyard that is just west of Highway 29 in Yountville, four miles south of the vineyards that produce Opus One. Napanook is adjacent to land once owned by Inglenook that now is owned by Japanese-held Markham Vineyards of St. Helena.

Serious Venture

Dominus Estate, the formal name for the project, is more than just a plaything for Moueix, who is committing millions of dollars to the venture. A winery building, to be constructed at Napanook, will be designed by the world-famed New York architect I. M. Pei, whose recently unveiled pyramid entrance to the Louvre is the talk of Paris.

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