Remi Cohen joined Domaine Carneros as CEO on the first day of the 2020 harvest. Despite her 20 years of experience in many facets of the wine industry, Cohen could not possibly have been completely prepared for a harvest season impacted by the effects of Covid-19 and wine country wildfires. Protocols had to be set in place to protect vineyard workers from potential exposure to Covid-19, and two weeks later wildfires impacted the area surrounding the vineyards and winery.
Most recently, Cohen was Chief Operating Officer at Cliff Lede Vineyards, where she held a variety of titles during her ten-year tenure, including director of winemaking and vineyards and vice president of operations. Prior to that she had worked as director of vineyard operations for Merryvale and Starmont and vineyard manager at Bouchaine Vineyards.
Continuing Domaine Carneros’ history of female leadership, Cohen is taking over the position vacated by founding winemaker and former CEO Eileen Crane. Cohen holds a Bachelor of Science in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, a Master’s in Viticulture from University of California, Davis and an MBA in Finance from Golden State University. She is also a certified sommelier, which is an advantage overseeing a winery which is known for its luxurious hospitality and tasting program.
Located on the Napa Valley side of Carneros, an American Viticultural Area that straddles the southern end of both Napa and Sonoma counties, Domaine Carneros is known for its traditional method sparkling wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It was founded in 1987 by Claude Taittinger, who at the time headed up the family-owned Champagne Taittinger. Its large French-style chateau sits among the estate vineyards from which 95% of its grapes are sourced.
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We had an opportunity to speak with Cohen about her first challenging days at Domaine Carneros, the experience that led her to this position, and the winery’s trajectory for the future.
World Wine Guys: You stepped into your role at Domaine Carneros at the start of the 2020 harvest. How did Covid-19 and wildfires affect harvesting and winemaking operations?
Remi Cohen: My first day at Domaine Carneros was August 3rd,which coincided with the first day of our sparkling wine harvest. The challenges from Covid-19 were immediately obvious. Many of our harvest rituals, such as the celebratory commencement toast, had to be modified for social distancing, or cancelled completely as in the case of the harvest party. Everyone has events they missed this past year, and all of us at Domaine Carneros and especially the owners, the Taittinger and Kopf families, were disappointed we were not able to host a retirement party for my predecessor and founding winemaker Eileen Crane. It was also unusual that I was not able to meet any of the family members in person prior to joining the team, and I look forward to doing so once it is safe.
The production team developed safety protocols, stocked up on personal protective equipment, and modified workflow to keep everyone safe through harvest. Everyone’s diligence and all the measures were worthwhile, as we did not have any workplace related Covid cases.
The first round of fires that impacted the area began on August 17th, and we were fortunate that we finished our sparkling harvest that very day and were not impacted. We were able to quickly harvest our Pinot Noir for still wine before the smoke became an issue, and we are really pleased with the quality.
Our visitor center was restricted to outdoor-only tasting experiences throughout most of the summer and fall. We implemented health and safety measures to keep our guests and staff safe, which was further challenged by several smoky days in August and October where we had to close completely because of air quality. We are grateful we did not experience any damage from either fire, our employees and their homes are safe, and we had a successful 2020 despite all the challenges.
WWG: Domaine Carneros is about 16 miles away from Cliff Lede Vineyards, your most recent employer. What are the differences in terroir and climate between these two locations?
RC: Although the wineries are located relatively close and both within Napa Valley, they are quite different. Each of the wineries is known for growing grapes best suited to their region and for producing outstanding wines with varietal and site typicity.
Cliff Lede Vineyards is located in the Stags Leap District and their estate vineyards surrounding the winery showcase the unique terroir of that region. The Poetry Vineyard rises dramatically from the valley floor to the highest elevations of the district, with volcanic rocky soil and steep hillsides perfect for growing very concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon.
Stags Leap District is north of Domaine Carneros and has less marine influence, so the daytime temperatures are significantly higher. Stags Leap still benefits from afternoon marine breezes more than the appellations further north such as Oakville and Rutherford, and therefore cools down dramatically at night retaining freshness and acidity in the Cabernet. The resulting wines are both powerful and elegant, rich and ripe with beautiful bright acidity that contributes to their ageworthiness.
Domaine Carneros has six estate vineyards, all in the Carneros region which is a unique appellation that spans the southern end of both Napa and Sonoma counties. Due to the proximity to the San Pablo Bay, Carneros is heavily marine-influenced and the milder temperatures, morning fog, and breezy afternoons are ideally suited to growing the cool climate varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These are the main varieties grown in the Champagne region of France, and we produce our sparkling wines using these grapes and traditional Champagne methods.
The soils in Carneros are predominately gravelly clay loam which limits vine growth and creates very concentrated berries. The cooler climate provides optimum conditions for slow, even ripening of berries with beautiful bright acidity, ideal for sparkling wines and our still Pinot noirs, which we craft from a variety of French clones and California heritage field selections planted in our estate vineyards.
WWG: How did you make the move from winemaking and viticulture to winery management?
RC: Early in my career, I decided I wanted to become a general manager of a winery. My first full time position in the wine industry was not in winemaking, but as the vineyard manager at Bouchaine Vineyards, working alongside then general manager Mike Richmond. Mike encouraged me to think outside the box, not limit myself to viticulture, and play on other strengths like passion for wine and my ability to share technical wine information with all types of people in a way they can relate to and engage with.
From that point on, I always made an effort to volunteer to help in other areas of the business, from winemaking, where I participated in blending trials, to sales and marketing. Eventually, that paid off, and when I was working for Merryvale Vineyards, they expanded my role from director of vineyard operations to also oversee all sales and hospitality in a vice president of operations role.
Later in my career, another mentor of mine, Cliff Lede, promoted me from director of winemaking and vineyards into a chief operating officer/general manager role, and I was able to use the skills developed throughout my career in all aspects of the industry.
WWG: Do you have any plans for change at Domaine Carneros?
RC: Eileen Crane, the founding winemaker and former CEO of Domaine Carneros, has left an amazing legacy for me. Both of the families that own Domaine Carneros, the Taittinger and Kopf families, are pleased with the current trajectory of the business so any changes will continue to build upon, refine, and expand the existing vision. As an example, Domaine Carneros has long been recognized for our sustainability efforts, and we just launched plans to expand upon our investment in solar energy by building a microgrid which increases the amount of energy we generate ourselves to approximately 80% of our needs, and also allows us to operate as an island in the event of a power outage as has become all too familiar in California during fire season. Another example is our hospitality program that we are so well known for, where we will continue to augment our offerings at the winery to provide unique, fun, and educational experiences that also highlight the versatility of our wines in food pairing.
WWG: At what point in your life did you decide on a career in wine?
RC: After graduating from UC Berkeley, I was interested in working in plant biology and was researching graduate schools in the Bay Area. I came across the program at UC Davis for viticulture and enology, and I thought it sounded so fascinating and incorporated many of my interests. I immediately enrolled, and one of the first classes I had to take was tractor driving and farm equipment.
One day, my mom was visiting me at Davis, and I brought her to the class. The professor wanted to impress her, so he gave me the keys to a very expensive gigantic tractor to take her for a ride. As we were climbing up to the cab, the professor asked my mom if I got my green thumb from her. She laughed hysterically and said, “I’ve never even mowed the lawn. When Remi was young, she came home from kindergarten and asked if we could plant some flowers in the yard, and I told her ‘Go ahead!’’’
Despite my childhood having nothing to do with agriculture, or wine for that matter, I fell in love with the wine industry first through the science of viticulture. Over time, my passion for wine deepened as I discovered how each individual wine is deeply rooted in geology, geography, history, and more!