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John Tilson • 4/4/13        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

A Story Of A Recent Tasting Of 1986 Dominus Estate

Dominus Estate was established in 1982. It began with a partnership of Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, the daughters of John Daniel Jr., the owner of Inglenook winery, and Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus. The vineyards that were to be the basis of Dominus Estate were first planted in Yountville by George C. Yount in the mid 19th century. He sold what was known as the Napanook vineyard shortly thereafter. In 1946 John Daniel Jr. bought the vineyard. After he passed away in 1970, the ownership passed to his daughters.


Under this partnership wine was made and aged at Rombauer Winery in Napa. The first vintage was 1983. It was labeled as “Red Table Wine” and bore the notation “Produced & Bottled by John Daniel Society St. Helena, CA”.  I tasted this wine from barrel and reported on it in the Volume 6, Number 12 issue of The Underground Wineletter in July, 1985. To my knowledge, this was the first tasting note published on Dominus Estate. Below are some excerpts from my commentary on the new Dominus Estate venture as published in July, 1985.

“…Put this name down as one to remember. To us it represents how to do everything right in a Napa Valley/Bordeaux partnership to produce claret style wine.

  • Through vineyard selection, only the best grapes are being used for Dominus Estate and the balance of the grapes are being sold to another winery under long term contract.
  • Vinification is a mixture of California and Bordeaux practices with harvest at about 22-22.5 Brix designed to produce a wine with 12-12.5 % alcohol.
  • The entire production of Dominus Estate will be sold to Chateau and Estates Wine Company for the first five years of production.
  • Chateau and Estates Wine Company will distribute the wine nationally and, although a price for the 1983 has not been officially determined, it is expected that the wine will retail for about $30 per bottle.
  • The entire arrangement from vineyard selection, to vineyard practices, to wine production, to marketing and pricing looks like a real winner.”

From the Volume X, Number 4 issue of  The Underground Wineletter November, 1988 here is my first note on the 1986 Dominus Estate tasted from barrel:  “Dark ruby in color, with a purple tinge. Subdued nose, just now, of cherry-like fruit and cedar. Flavorful, quite a big wine with nice underlying fruit. Tannic, yet seems to be evolving beautifully. Should be another winner. Outstanding potential.”

From the Volume XII, Number 6 issue of  The Underground Wineletter January, 1991 this is my note on the 1986 Dominus Estate after the wine was bottled and released for sale: “The 1986 Dominus Estate is a lovely, deep, rich, intense wine from a cooler year yet masterful winemaking has produced a deep, rich, intense wine. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with 12% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc the wine has a lovely perfumed nose of deep ripe blackcherry-like fruit with hints of spice and vanilla along with nuances of pear and currants. This is a lush wine, well balanced with good depth and acidity and will need some time for the tannins to soften. It is more French in character in keeping with the aims of the venture to make the finest Cabernet with American grapes and soil with a French influenced style. Another tribute to Christian Moueix and the Daniels Venture team. Make no mistake this is an outstanding bottle of red wine and while it may not win many California tastings for its stylistic differences but “C’est la vie”. 6200 hundred cases of the 1986 Dominus were produced. Outstanding Plus.  $46.50″

Dominus Estate quickly established a reputation for their stylistic wines. But, within a few years after bottling the early wines closed down and became more subdued and lean. Christian later told me that they had made some mistakes with the early vintages which they corrected in later vintages as they became more familiar with the vineyard and its fruit. In my cellar, these early Dominus Estate wines have been asleep for many years.

Last year, my long time friend and Underground Wineletter associate, Edward Lazarus and I decided to get together to drink some old California wines from our cellars (this was featured in an article on Au Bon Climat and Qupé – click here to read that article).  One of the wines I chose from my cellar was the 1986 Dominus Estate. The 1986 was the first bottle of any of the early Dominus vintages that I had opened in over 20 years. Neither Ed or I knew what to expect. I opened the wine, and is my custom with old wines, poured it directly into our glasses.

Here is my note from the initial tasting May 16, 2012:

1986 Dominus Estate
Dark color showing some amber and amber at the edge there is a deep cedary perfume. There is ample fruit and a nice cedary complexity, but the wine is still tannic. In fact, the wine tastes much more youthful than its 25 plus years would indicate.

Ed and I both felt the wine was too tannic to be enjoyed at that moment and pushed it aside to drink some of the other wines that we had opened. After an hour two we came back to it and the wine had not changed at all. So I took the rest of the wine, poured it back into the bottle, put the cork back in and placed the wine in the refrigerator. The level of the wine at this point was mid shoulder. We both thought that the wine had probably dried out. And, it was my intention to taste the wine again in a day or two, but I forgot. Obviously, I did not have high hopes for the wine at this point.

Nearly two weeks later I noticed the wine and took it out of the refrigerator and let it warm up to around 55 degrees and poured a glass. The wine had the same color and the perfume had become more pronounced. But, the real surprise was the fruit, where a lovely mulberry and cassis character had developed and the wine had softened. The cedary flavors had also become more pronounced and showed a forest-like nuance with just a touch of spice. In short the wine had improved significantly and was delicious.

But, I was curious and wanted to see the evolution of the wine. So, over the next week, I drank the wine and it continued to soften and showed complexity and beautiful fruit. Yet, there was still another surprise to come. You see, the amount of wine in the bottle obviously continued to go down as the wine was consumed, yet the remaining wine did not show any sign of fatigue. It was not until some 3½ weeks after the wine was first opened, with only about 6 ounces of wine left in the bottle, that the wine showed any sign of oxidation. And, even then it was not pronounced, just some browning of the color and a caramelized note becoming more evident. I did not drink any of the wine from that point forward, but it was not until another week or so went by that the wine had developed strong coffee and sherry like notes and had taken on the signs of advanced oxidation.

So there you have it. Yet another enigma wrapped in a riddle (to read about another intriguing old wine click here). Such is the mystery of old wine. It is a living thing and constantly evolving and changing. Hopefully, every wine lover will experience the joy and beauty of old wine. It is one of life’s great pleasures. To continue to drink only young precocious wines and never enjoy a wine that will age and develop over a long period of time is a real tragedy. That is analogous to arresting the development of children and never seeing them develop and advance into maturity. No question, there is a risk to both wine and people as the years go on. There will be surprises both good and bad. The good surprises are what we all aspire to, yet they are not always readily apparent.  In the case of wine, this story of 1986 Dominus Estate stands tall.

In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson


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  • ilan says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation. This is a preview; your comment will be visible after it has been approved.
    I am unequivocally captivated by the intellectual alchemy that transpires within the confines of your blog, as you deftly distill abstract concepts into digestible elixirs of wisdom, bestowing readers with the gift of enlightenment and intellectual transcendence.
  • Debbie says:

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  • Bill Tisch says:

    Thanks for such an intelligent discussion on methodology in tasting old wines. Engaging indeed. Cheers to you two.


    • John Tilson says:

      Thanks Bill,
      Yes old wines are always subject to surprises both good and bad. But, this one was a totally unexpected and positive surprise. Neither Ed or I would have ever predicted what happened. The lesson being that if an old wine is not brown or oxidized, don’t give up on it too soon!
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Blake Brown says:

    John, thanks for your reply. There seems to be a few pearls in this experience one can take away and use down the line.
    1] the ever changing dynamic of wine and its living evolution.
    2] not decanting “older” wines; simply open and pour.
    3] not using gas or vacuum pumping to “preserve” a wine.
    4] standing a long stored bottle up for days in advance of opening.
    5] tracking older and younger wines over days.

    None of these points are new to me except I have vacuum pumped a few bottles over the years and actually found them to be somewhat still viable when in other instances where they were not vacuumed, they were not.

    One area of clarification for this discussion and this probably depends on many factors, at what age does a wine become “old”?
    Certainly, when i recently opened some birth year wines, 1937, I merely pulled the cork, poured and tasted. Only out of habit, did I swirl until others reminded me to avoid to do so.
    In this case, we`re talking about a 27 year old Cabernet and for more recent white Burgundy, old might be in 8-10 years although
    that seems ridiculous to even state it.
    But, given proper handling, shipping, storage, vintage and vinification, at what age do we reconsider our methodology of opening and tasting wines?


    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Blake,
      There are always surprises and things to learn in the world of wine. That is one of the things that is most engaging.
      In Vino Veritas,

  • Blake Brown says:


    How many times have you opened up an older wine, discovered little if any fruit only to have it evolve within a week or two and find fruit notes and other nuances now showing up?

    What is the lesson we can learn from this? You chose not to decant this 27 year old Cabernet dominated blend. Would you reconsider that now? Did you swirl or just pour and taste? I`m assuming you did not gas or vacuum pump the bottle before refrigerating it from your comment.

    How will this experience impact you opening up later vintages of Dominus?


    • John Tilson says:

      Hi Blake,
      I must admit that the fruit showing up in an old wine is rare in my experience after a period as long as a week. More often, it can happen in hours or maybe a day, but in the case of this Dominus it is really rare. Maybe it is just because this happened as an accident. In the past, I may have given up too early and thrown out wines that might have improved. I don’t know. All I know is that wine is a living thing and often presents surprises!
      I guess if there is a lesson to be learned it is to not give up on an old wine (or a young wine for that matter) too soon. I don’t usually decant old wines anymore because I have had more experiences from old wines suffering from too much air than benefiting. I had stood the wine up for a few days before serving. This really did not matter because, like nearly every old wine in my cellar, the sediment had adhered to the side of the bottle as a result of years not moving from my cellar stored in cold, damp conditions, lying on its side. The wine was perfectly clear. We smelled and tasted it, swirled it a bit, and then pushed it aside. Like I said, our first impression was that it had dried out. The surprise came much later, quite by accident. No. I never use gas or a vacuum pump and I often keep wines that I am tasting in the refrigerator for a week or more and almost never have a problem with them oxidizing. This is an unknown fact to most people who think they have to drink a bottle of wine right away after it is opened. This is certainly true for most old wines (making the Dominus yet again a great exception), but it is most certainly not true for young wines. Most of these really benefit from air.
      The next old Dominus I open I will treat the same. Open and pour it. Should I encounter the same results, then the next time I open one I would decant it for a few hours. At this point, I seen no reason to change my methodology that has worked the best over 40 years of opening thousands of old bottles. But, like I said, wine is a living thing and one really never knows. That’s why I will always try to keep an open mind.
      In Vino Veritas,

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