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12.03.08

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Phaedra

Domaine Carneros

By James Knight

H onoring last New Year's resolution, Swirl 'n' Spit has logged 11 months without making reference to the fascinating story of how a long-deracinated word was returned to its rightful homeland and replaced in California with "sparkling wine." As for the reason why, at the same time, merchants from France's Champagne region may insert replica châteaux into California appellations, sans ironie , well, that's easy. Because everybody loves a great big château, that's why.

Domaine Carneros was founded by Champagne house Taittinger in 1987, and its 350 rolling acres of vineyards were certified organic in 2007. Its architecture was lifted from Taittinger's Château de la Marquetterie, and strategically plunked down on the Carneros Highway. It's hard to imagine any wine country tourist driving by this and saying, "Honey, look at that lovely château. I'll bet it's stocked to the rafters with top-notch Champagne, but let's just skip it this time, OK?"

Luckily for us, this grand house welcomes the unwashed to enjoy the quaff of kings, seven days a week. For a little privacy, the Balcony Package ($250) is billed as an "impressive way to pop the question, celebrate an anniversary," or just hang out and burn some cash. We came strictly for the hanging out, which is more economically enjoyed on the ground floor.

Every last table was taken as we entered the tasting room, but I have a knack for that. Promptly, an attentive manager approached to put us on the waiting list; we had only begun killing time in the gift shop when he tracked us down. After politely shoving off another party that was already hungrily vulturing our table by the toasty fireplace (I was too busy suppressing any visible satisfaction with this arrangement to feel bad for them), he sent out a woman who poured our sparkling and answered our questions with chatty congeniality. If this is not some kind of fluke, and I don't think it is, then the floor is exceptionally well-run at this busy destination winery.

Roasted almonds come with the territory. The menu includes artisan cheese plates to pair with sparkling or red wine, respectively, and there's also smoked salmon and caviar. Our sparkling cheese plate ($14) was piled generously with wedges of Bellwether Carmody, French brie, goat cheese and dried fruit. The sparkling wine sampler ($15) included the 2005 Brut Vintage ($26); sharp apple-pear notes finished with appealing tangy-lemon custard flavor. I enjoyed the "luxury cuvée" Le Rêve Blanc de Blancs ($85) for its bouquet of hoary yeast, cashew butter and ripe linens that, in the best way, marks a fine sparkling for me. Tiny bubbles carried away the well-melded flavors of pear and crème brûlée, which then just slipped away like a dream.

Domaine Carneros, 1240 Duhig Road (at Highway 12/121), Napa. Wine flights $15; also available by the glass or bottle. Open 10am–5:45pm. 800.716.2788.


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