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Domaine Mumm Sparkling Wines a French-American Success Story

July 13, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

RUTHERFORD, Calif. — As you approach Domaine Mumm along the Silverado Trail east of this central Napa Valley town, you glance west and see a simple green roof and what appears to be a medium-sized winery.

What is only apparent as you stand on the main level looking down into a cavernous wine making facility is just how large Domaine Mumm really is. Or how state of the art.

Other French-American joint ventures have been far more ostentatious than this modest property. The design here belies the fact that the facility has more than 80,000 square feet of space, that it cost some $14 million, that it can make 125,000 cases without a hitch.

But of considerably more import is the speed with which Domaine Mumm has risen to the top of the sparkling wine world in America. Given that the first wines were made less than five years ago, that the first real look at Napa Valley grapes were made so recently, it's stunning that Domaine Mumm wines are as good as they are.

In my personal list of top American sparkling wine producers last January, I listed Iron Horse tops with Domaine Mumm second and Schramsberg third. I'd revise that list today, and the three would be tied for No. 1, evidence not that Iron Horse has slipped, but that the other two have risen. (More about Schramsberg soon.)

Differing, but Complementary

The reason for the success of Domaine Mumm, a Seagram property, is the working relationship between Guy Devaux, the French-trained Champagne master, and wine maker Greg Fowler, formerly of Schramsberg. The two bring differing views to the California sparkling wine scene, but both see the other's point of view.

One element in common is that neither man wants to try to duplicate the wines of Champagne. The goal is to make California sparkling wine that accentuates the fruit of the region. The result: the best French-owned American venture to date--though what's on the horizon at Maison Deutz, Roederer Estate, and Domaine Carneros (Taittinger's venture) are exciting too; more about that to come.

Devaux, possessed of an inordinately sensitive palate, is a master of creativity, constantly looking to try this or that for the sake of quality. (He has already made wine from Oregon grapes and continues to look at that region.)

Fowler, a sensible and no-nonsense scientist, has an innate sense of style for this most difficult-to-make product. Fowler noted that his job is multifaceted: "We are the only (French-owned California sparkling winery) that does both vintage and non-vintage wine, and we are the first one to do a vineyard-designated" sparkling wine.

Doing vintage-dated wine means having to get complexity from a blending of parts restricted to a single year; doing a non-vintage blend means having to hone a wine to a house style from disparate elements. The latter chore (which makes a less expensive wine) is actually the more demanding.

And no one knows how demanding it is to make a single-vineyard wine every year since no one in California has done it (though some sparkling wine producers make estate-bottled wine from grapes off the same property).

When the joint venture between Seagram and G.H. Mumm et Cie of France first rolled out its first Domaine Mumm non-vintage product three years ago, it was a hit. Succeeding offerings have been better. "The style (of the non-vintage) has to stay the same," said Fowler, "but it should improve consistently from batch to batch because we have more reserve wine to work with."

The current release of the non-vintage Domaine Mumm Cuvee Napa ($15) is a blend of five grape varieties dominated by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But Fowler and Devaux are also using Pinot Meunier (10% of the blend), Pinot Blanc (for depth) and now they are using Pinot Gris.

This is an example of the philosophy of the place and illustrates what Devaux brings here. Pinot Gris, a spice- and smoke-leaning grape of Alsace (where it's often called Tokay d'Alsace) and Italy (there known as Pinot Grigio), once was a prominent grape in Champagne.

Fell Out of Favor

However, it fell out of favor when growers rebelled at the variety's tendency to rot and reluctance to give much of a crop.

Now, a century later, Devaux has sought out Pinot Gris, and experimental lots of Domaine Mumm wines with a trace of it are fascinating. Mumm is the only winery I know of using Pinot Gris and its plantings of Pinot Meunier are extensive.

To make wines as good as they do, Fowler and Devaux draw from vineyards in 50 different locations. This gives them about 80 lots of wine from which they blend up the non-vintage, the Vintage Reserve wine and the Winery Lake Vineyard (also vintage-dated).

Despite its youth, Domaine Mumm already has reached production figures that allow it to be sold nationally. In 1988, this sparkling wine house sold 47,000 cases and it is shooting to sell 65,000 this year. And 80,000 cases were made last year, wine to be released over the next four years. Quality has improved markedly every year.

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