Tom's blog

Bonjour, Domaine Serene -- et, bon chance?

Ken and Grace Evenstad have always loved the chardonnay and pinot noir from Burgundy. In the late 1980s they launched one of the most successful pinot noir houses in the Willamette Valley and sought to pursue their dream of making exceptional wine in the United States.  Indeed, Domaine Serene has been winning awards ever since.

But the Evenstads couldn't let go of their Burgundian dreams. In 2015, they purchased a 15th century chateau -- Chateau de la Crée -- in Santenay. I would think that breakthrough would cause a stir in the chateau's tiny village of Santenay. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Robert Mondavi was rudely rebuffed by the French in an attempt to plant a vineyard in Languedoc. 

But, the Evenstads were no Mondavis.

"The deal was completed in a few months," said Ryan Harris, president of Domaine Serene.

An American wine producer buying an historic chateau of this order is more unusual than a French producer buying wine property in the United States. Moet-Chandon was among the first to do launch a sparkling wine company in California in 1973. Champagne makers Taittinger and Roederer soon followed. Then came Clos du Val, Dominus, Opus One (a partnership of Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild). In Oregon, Burgundian Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin raised eyebrows -- and prestige -- when he launched Domaine Drouhin in Oregon's Willamette Valley. But the Evanstads were the first Oregonians to own a chateau in Burgundy.

Grace Evenstad, who was recently hosting a wine dinner in Naples, Fl., said the differences between making wine in Oregon and France were clear one day when she showed a Burgundian winemaker their Willamette Valley vineyards. 

"She said to me, 'Which rows are yours?'" Evenstad said.

In Burgundy, it is common for a vineyard to have multiple owners.

Harris said that throwing a lot of parties, meeting neighbors, and developing good relations with local officials paved the way for the purchase. But, the transition to making good wine was not so smooth.

Evenstad said, "Everyone is now gone."

Whether they left on their own or were replaced wasn't clear, but she said that they were surprised by the lack of "science" at Chateau de la Crée. She said vineyards lack adequate spacing between rows and even if the vineyards were bio-dynamically farmed -- whatever that means in France -- the pesticides and other chemicals from neighboring vineyards were wafting onto those of Chateau de la Crée.

Ken and Grace Evenstad.

Ken and Grace Evenstad.

She was quick to distance Domaine Serene from the pinot noirs being poured at the tasting. "They aren't ours," she warned, lest someone came away with an unfavorable impression of their new venture. 

Despite the caveat, I enjoyed the Chateau de la Crée Clos de la Confrerie Monopole Santenay.

The tasting bravely paired a Domaine Serene pinot noir with a Chateau de la Crée pinot noir and there was an obvious New World vs. Old World difference. The Santenay wines had an earthy, barnyard profile classic to Burgundy and its terroir. However, the Domaine Serene Evanstad Reserve was undeniably a superior pinot noir.

It will be interesting to watch what the Evenstads do with the wines from this historic chateau and how they manage the French. Will they Americanize them with bolder fruit, higher alcohols and more fruit extraction?

I don't think it is going to be as smooth as they think. They are asking the French to adapt to their practices and no matter how much better they are, it doesn't always go down well with the sensitive French.

Bon chance, Ken and Grace.

My advice for starting a cellar

A friend of mine had asked me to put together a list of wines he should buy for his new wine cooler. An avid wine drinker, he stuck to the same wines year after year, content to rely on a name rather than risk money on alternatives.

He wanted to buy 10 cases and take my list to local retailers who would then bid for his business. That's an interesting concept, but one doomed to fail. Not every store will carry all of the wines I would recommend. Any wine the retailer special ordered would have to be purchased by the case because retailers just don't want to put wines on their shelves they don't particularly want. Ideally, he would buy a half-case of each and thus diversify his collection.

But he was determined, so I put together the order. We agreed that 5 cases would be priced $25-$35 and 5 cases would range from $35 to $75. The first batch would be for current drinking -- within, say, 3 years -- and the second, more expensive batch would be for long-term cellaring.

I didn't choose wines that I thought were really special, simply because they would be too hard to find and unlikely would be carried by the retailers he was going to visit. So here's the list of wines of good value -- they surpass similar wines of the same price.

MERLOT: Duckhorn Napa Valley $54; Markham Merlot ($25) 

CABERNET SAUVIGNON (Calif): Chateau Montelena ($58); Robert Mondavi ($30)                   

PINOT NOIR: Domaine Serene Evanstad ($70); Ponzi Tavola ($27)                 

ZINFANDEL: Ridge Pagani Vineyard  ($35); Seghesio Sonoma County  ($18)                                

BLENDS: Franciscan Magnificat ($55); Marietta Old Vine Red ($16) 

ITALIAN VARIETALS: Gabbiano Chianti ($30); Altare Barolo ($50)                                               

SPANISH VARIETALS: Can Blau ($17); Artadi ($18)

FRANCE: Sociando-Mallet Bordeaux ($40); Guigal Cotes du Rhone ($16)