The first time I visited Dominus, I was warned that rattlesnakes lived in the outer walls, and I’ve approached it cautiously ever since. One of the most striking wineries in the valley, Dominus was constructed under the principle that it should blend invisibly into the landscape. It has an unusual double skin, with an outer construction of stones packed into netting hiding the construction inside—in the valley, it’s sometimes called the stealth winery. It was founded in the historic Napanook vineyard in 1983 by Christian Moueix of Petrus, originally as a partnership, and in 1995 he became the sole owner. Looking through an arch in the center of the building as you approach, it seems to be floating in front of the Mayacamas Mountains.
Christian Moueix has strong views on irrigation, and Dominus is dry farmed. “We’ve never had as much water stress as this year,” manager Tod Mostero says, and the vines are smaller than usual due to the extended drought. “Actually they do better than irrigated vines, because dry farming forces them to make deeper roots with smaller vessels for taking up water,” Tod explains. The vineyard is on an alluvial fan, with its apex opposite the winery at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains. Below the fan is a hard pan of clay, and water flows from the mountains on top of it from April until September. “We’ve even built drains to allow it to go into the creek at the end of the vineyard,” Tod says.
“Our style is more reserved, less obvious, we’re not looking for a fruit bomb,” Tod says. Indeed, Dominus is one of the reserved Cabernet Sauvignon blends from Napa Valley, typically with 80-90% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest split between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Merlot was included until 2002, but was abandoned because its profile did not really complement the blend. “Now it’s too dry and hot for Merlot.” A second wine, Napanook, was introduced in 1996, with a very similar varietal composition.
“It’s not our concept to make a second wine from left-over lots,” Tod says. There are no designated plots for either cuvée, although wine from the blocks closer to the Mayacamas usually go into Dominus. “Napanook should easier to drink sooner, the wine is a little more friendly and fruit forward. Dominus is more austere and meant to be aged. It takes five years for Napanook to be ready and ten years for Dominus for the fruit to really appear.” Emphasizing the value of aging, there’s an annual release of a library box of Dominus containing 2 bottles from each of 3 vintages: the latest release had 2001, 2008, and 2012.
The difference between Dominus and Napanook when they are young is partly a matter of readiness, but you certainly sense greater complexity in Dominus and more potential for flavor variety as it develops. Personally I would not describe Napanook as ‘approachable’ on release: the structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon flattens the fruits and requires patience. Dominus is yet more reserved, but its extra depth is already evident. These are far from typical wines for Napa Valley, built for potential rather than immediate gratification.
Tasting Notes on the 2018 Vintage
Deep color with some purple. Fruity black nose with just a touch of lifted blackcurrant aromatics. Pretty reserved on palate, blackberry fruits showing as a little brambly and then some impressions of bitter chocolate on the finish. Even though this is the second wine, it is rather well structured, certainly showing its dominant Cabernet Sauvignon, and still needs time 90 Drink 2023-2035
Nose is more reserved than Napanook with black fruits pushed more into background. Palate certainly shows a resemblance to Napanook, but fruits are less obvious, very black, with blackberries and blackcurrants in the background. Tannins are firm but not aggressive and there’s a touch of tobacco on the long finish, which gives a sense of the complexity to come. This is something a coiled spring waiting to unwind, but it has the structure and the fruits for longevity. It does soften and develop just a little in the glass, emphasizing its greater complexity compared to Napanook. 94 Drink 2025-2040