Dominus Estate’s Balancing Act

Christian Moueix presents four vintages of his Napa Cabernet blend, including Wine Spectator’s 2021 Wine of the Year

Dominus Estate’s Balancing Act
Though Christian Moueix's expertise was on Bordeaux's Right Bank, he ended up focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, eventually eliminating Merlot from the Dominus blend. (Rick Wenner)
Nov 9, 2022

“The first day I arrived in the vineyard [in 1981], I had the feeling right away,” said Dominus Estate’s Christian Moueix of his initial impressions of the historic Napanook vineyard in Napa Valley’s Yountville AVA. “And I said to my friend, ‘I think we can produce one of the great wines of California.’”

He did just that, creating one of Napa Valley’s benchmark Cabernets. He brought his Dominus Estate Napa Valley 2018 (97 points, $269), Wine Spectator’s 2021 Wine of the Year, along with three other vintages going back to 2002 to share with Wine Experience guests. Senior editor James Molesworth remarked that each of the four wines displays the unique fingerprint of the meticulously farmed 134-acre Napanook vineyard and its gravelly clay soils.

Moueix worked for his family’s négociant firm in Bordeaux for many years, but he also trained at U.C. Davis. He brought Bordeaux techniques to California, and describes his winemaking philosophy as “gentle”—except when it comes to water. “[Dry-farmed] vineyards are trained, especially in youth, to resist drought. The roots have no choice but to go deeper, as deep as 15 feet,” he said, explaining that dry-farmed vineyards are more resistant to drought and disease, and are better at self-regulating during challenging vintages.

 A server pours from a bottle of 2002 Dominus for guests at the 2022 New York Wine Experience
The 2002 Dominus was the last vintage to feature Merlot in the blend after Christian Moueix determined the site was too warm for the variety to excel. (Daphne Youree)

“There is such an extreme character [in Napa Valley],” said Moueix of his quest for balance in Napa Cabernet. “What’s most difficult to reach is equilibrium. And in 2018, by chance, I think we reached that equilibrium,” said Moueix. While 2018 was a drought year, conditions were ideal for the dry-farmed vineyard, with a steady, even growing season, and without significant heat spikes. “This is where you should find the equilibrium.”

The Dominus Estate Napa Valley 2013 (97, $250) came from a challenging, hot vintage, yet Moueix believes it’s one of their most successful and long-lived vintages due to its muscular, tannic structure.

The tasting culminated with the Dominus Napa Valley 2006 (95, $129) and 2002 (95, $109)—two classic-rated wines that Moueix was initially unsure of when the grapes were harvested. “There’s always hope,” he smiled. Sometimes equilibrium takes time.

Molesworth recalled Moueix expressing doubts in the past and asked if each successful new vintage brought him more confidence. “Just the reverse,” Moueix laughed. “The older I get, the more doubt I have, not only about my wines—but my own future!”

 A server holds up a bottle of 2013 Dominus for guests at the 2022 New York Wine Experience
The 2013 Dominus label featured a portrait of Christian Moueix by South African artist William Kentridge; the winery celebrated its 30th anniversary by returning to a practice from its early years. (Daphne Youree)

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