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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.

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 [1] 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 [2]). 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