DOMINUS: Petrus’ Napa Cousin in top 5 California 50 index

The international secondary market in Dominus and the other top Californian, investment-grade wines is now sufficiently established for Liv-ex, the fine wine world’s equivalent of a ‘stock-exchange’, to create a dedicated benchmark; the newly launched California 50 index. In our current Californian series we take a closer look now at Dominus and the influence of Chateau Petrus on this top West Coast wine estate. 

Napa Valley’s Dominus, located in the volcanic foothills of the Mayacamas Hills close to Yountville, is the product of an exceptional Napa ‘terroir’ and the expertise built over generations of one of the top Bordeaux dynasties.

Key facts:

Owned by:                  Ets Jean Pierre Moueix

Area:                           Approximately 103 acres, 44 under vine

Varietals:                    Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot

Second wine:             Dominus Napanook

Annual production:   3,800 cases approximately

The origins of the estate start with the grant of 11,814 acres of land titled Rancho Caymus by the Mexican Government to early settler George Yount, after whom the nearby town of Yountville was named. Yount planted the first vines in 1838 in an area that would later become Napanook. John Daniel, owner of the Inglenook Vineyard originally acquired the grapes from Napanook to use in his Inglenook wine blends, acquired Napanook in 1943. The estate did not produce its own wine until after his death.

Robert Mondavi, one of the key architects of the Napa Valley fine wine industry, introduced Daniel’s daughters, Robin Lail and Marcia Smith, who inherited the estate in 1970, to Christian Moueix, of Ets Jean-Pierre Moueix, Bordeaux negociants and owners of  a number of high profile Bordeaux Chateaux including Trotanoy, La Fleur Petrus, and one of the most powerful fine wine brands in the world, the iconic Chateau Petrus.

Christian Moueix studied viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis in the 1960s and ‘fell in love’ with Napa. He continued his involvement with the family firm, became President of Ets Jean-Pierre Moueix and directed Chateau Petrus for 38 years (2008 was his last vintage). He formed a joint partnership in 1982 with Napanook’s owners and they made their first vintage in 1983 at the Rombauer winery using Napanook fruit. 

In 1995 Moueix achieved sole ownership of the estate and changed its name and the first ‘Dominus vintage’ was produced in 1996. Moueix established a culture of stewardship and respect for the land at Dominus with a view to continual improvement for future generations – a common theme of highly successful Bordeaux chateaux. With his leadership, Dominus has been at the forefront of the Napa wine community in adopting an environmentally responsible approach to wine production.

He introduced ‘Dry Farming’ early on, which encourages the vine roots to grow deeply to search for water and, through the clever use of cover crops, also preserves moisture in the ground and replenishes soil. Moueix believes that unirrigated soils find their natural equilibrium and Dry Farming is key to wines expressing the individual nature of their terroir. It’s a brave initiative in a state which is renowned for prolonged periods of drought and devastating wild fires. Moueix also states that irrigation increases alcohol levels in Napa wines.

Other initiatives include the introduction of crop thinning, reducing yield to optimise quality, and this practice was in place for the creation of the first Dominus wine in 1996. A Vistalys optical sorter is deployed to ensure the best grapes are used and winemaking is undertaken with minimal intervention. Wines are aged in 100 per cent French oak barrels.

The unique Dominus Winery was designed by award winning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and completed in 1997. Having also designed landmark buildings such as the Tate Modern London and Beijing’s ‘Birds Nest’ stadium, they received the Pritzker Prize for the Dominus Winery.

In terms of investment – international wine critics consistently rate Dominus vintages very highly and most notably Robert Parker Jnr has taken a keen interest and been instrumental in the development of the profile of the wines of this region. He has awarded the following in recent Dominus vintages:

Dominus 2015 – 99 to 100 points

Dominus 2014 – 97 points

Dominus 2013 – 100 points

Dominus 2012 – 98+ points

Both Dominus and Opus One’s price performance saw them as the only two Napa brands to be included in Liv-ex’s Fine Wine 1000 index when it was launched in January 2014 and in its Rest of the World 50 sub-index. During the broadening of the market between 2012 and 2014, Dominus and Opus One were top performers as non-Bordeaux wines led the market. In terms of specific wines, Dominus 2005 was the fourth best performing wine, behind two Burgundies and a Super Tuscan, rising 48.8% and the 2006 vintage experienced a 41% growth in the same period.

Market dynamism in the top Californian brands continued to grow from 2015 as the market for these wines expanded from an exclusively US focus to global distribution and demand grew significantly for the very limited supply of these special ‘Californian cult wines’. Dominus is recognised as producing wines that suit a more European palate and no doubt Christian Moueix’s Bordeaux influence has played strongly here.

The recent launch of the Liv-ex California 50 index sees Dominus and Opus One joined by Scarecrow, Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle as fine wines with a secondary market established sufficiently to warrant constant monitoring and a required benchmark for fine wine investors. Meanwhile Opus One 2015 started trading on Liv-ex on the 3rd September 2018 with a high score, current price offering value compared to similarly scored vintages and reduced supply available on the market – we will watch this space.

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