This Sunday is Bastille Day. As France celebrates the birth of its republic, the first French winery in Napa Valley is celebrating its 40th birthday.
Domaine Chandon was an epic business experiment. Its French parent company Moet & Chandon invested $22 million – a lot of money at the time – to test if they could make a quality wine out of California grapes. And – well before the U.S. became the world’s largest wine market – they also had to see if Americans would drink enough wine to turn a profit. Domaine Chandon was also a social experiment that has changed the face of leadership in the wine industry.
Michaela Rodeno was one of the first employees at Chandon in 1973. She walks into her private study and pulls out a dusty stack of papers – the work of John Wright, the American management consultant who started the company. “He was a bit of an amateur,” Rodeno laughs.
His report from 1972 is 6 inches of yellowed typewritten paper. At the time Napa was being reborn after Prohibition, with just 30 wineries. Wright was trying to convince French companies that it was a great place to invest.
Turns out Wright was right about Napa, but for the wrong reason, Rodeno says. “Wright (said) that all the money’s in grape-growing, not in winemaking. It’s absolutely the opposite. I know because I’m a grape grower.”
Rodeno recalls that Wright convinced Moet & Chandon – the largest champagne house at the time and maker of Dom Pérignon – to bet on California as the new frontier in sparkling wine. They couldn’t buy enough vineyards in Champagne to keep up with growing demand. So they became the first French company to buy land in Napa.
They also gave Wright his first job as a CEO. Rodeno joined Domaine Chandon when it was still a startup in Wright’s garage. She says her boss’s lack of experience “was great for most of us because many of us didn’t have any work experience that was relevant. I’m an example of that. I had a master’s in French literature. Ha! Now what do you do with that?!”
Wright passed away last year. Rodeno has just published a book about being his right-hand man, so to speak, called “From Bubbles to Boardrooms.”
As we talk, her fellow Chandon alum, winemaker legend Dawnine Dyer, walks in and joins us. The two look at a page in Rodeno’s new book. It’s a picture of Chandon’s vice presidents – two out of five being women, which was a rarity in the industry. Dyer jokes, “There we are! I practically have a butch, my hair is so short.”
Dyer runs her own winery now. But it was her work at Chandon that made her famous in wine circles. She’s mentored hundreds of other winemakers – women and men. Dyer recalls, “I was 25 when I started at Domaine Chandon, so probably 28 by the time I was a captain of industry!”
Rodeno remembers the early days were full of adventure and internal struggle. She and Wright fought with the parent company and its French representatives to treat Americans like real wine drinkers.
“The golden nose whom they sent over to check out the scene in ’73 really had it lodged in his head that he didn’t need to use pinot noir, the good stuff,” Rodeno explains. “And John said, ‘Over my dead body. We’re going to do this the right way.’ ”
Visiting Domaine Chandon in Yountville today, it’s hard to imagine a crew of inexperienced capitalists in charge.
The facility, founded in 1977, is palatial. The retail operation is huge – 250,000 people visit a year and buy $10 million in wine on site.
I walk passed a fountain and up the winding staircase, through the crowded bar and onto a quiet patio to meet Tom Tiburzi. He is the company’s sparkling-wine maker, and was one of Dyer’s recruits back in 1989.
Tiburzi now oversees the making of 400,000 cases a year. He pours us a taste of his Etoile Rosé. Before tasting, Tiburzi smells and parses out the different elements. From the pinot noir (that so-called good stuff), Tiburzi says, “I’m getting like plum and more developed fruit characteristics.”
And from the chardonnay, he continues, “There’s a background to me of apples and pears. And if you were going to be serving this with food, it would go with a wide variety of foods. That good acidity would go with briny things like oysters.”
Dyer and Rodeno pioneered winemaking in Napa. Tiburzi is helping launch Chandon’s next operations in China and India.
“I get emails weekly, mostly from the folks over in India with questions,” he says. “For instance, like once in a while the wine will gush. That’s part of having a production line. And we don’t freak out about it because we see it come and go a lot. They’re new so they freak out about it.”
Robert Smiley, dean of the business school at UC Davis, is surveying dozens of wine CEOs about their growth strategies. He says many are looking to emerging markets in Asia because of those countries’ growing middle class. Companies are also looking to millennials – defined as ages 21 to 35. “A lot of new products are both catchy, as far as marketing,” Smiley says, “and also a little bit sweeter.”
Ray Johnson, the head of Sonoma State’s Wine Business Institute, says Domaine Chandon helped put Napa on the world stage. But that stage is growing dramatically, and sparkling wine has to compete with still wine in the market. “How do you stay ahead is the big question. How do you stay competitive when you have some markets that are just gaga about Bordeaux?”
Domaine Chandon’s history offers a clue. Back at Michaela Rodeno’s house, Dawnine Dyer chuckles, remembering the combination of people, time and place that made Chandon possible. The French thought their foreign child behaved a bit oddly, but cut them slack as a bunch of Californians. Californians cut Chandon slack as a French company.
Dyer says with a mischievous smile, “And there was a lot of places where we were kind of allowed to develop a unique system because everybody thought, ‘Oh, that must be the other influence!'”
Today Napa Valley is like Champagne – with just about as many wineries and grapevines as it can hold. But Dyer recalls Domaine Chandon’s lesson: Emerging leaders, just like great wines, need room to breath.