Interview with Sparkling Winemaker Zak Miller of Domaine Carneros

WAS THERE A MOMENT THAT YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU KNEW THAT YOU WANTED TO BE A WINEMAKER?

I’m only here because my wife wanted to make wine. We loaded our vehicle and drove to Napa for some fun adventure. What we didn’t expect was that we would both enjoy the weather, the food, and of course the wine so much that we would grow roots and stay. I guess you could say winemaking chose us more than we chose to be winemakers.  

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST WINE JOB? WHAT LANDED YOU AT DOMAINE CARNEROS?

My first wine job was at Saintsbury, after that I went to New Zealand, back to Napa, to Chile, and finally I landed at Domaine Carneros upon my return to Napa. Since then I’ve never looked back.

HOW DOES BEING A WINEMAKER FOR A SPARKLING HOUSE VARY FROM SOME OF YOUR OTHER WINEMAKING ROLES IN STILL WINEMAKING?

 Many things are similar, many things are different. It’s an interesting contrast. I’d say one of the most distinct differences to get used to is the timing of the operations. For sparkling wine we harvest earlier, usually in August, we blend immediately after harvest, and we are putting the wine to bottle in the spring. We also bottle the entire vintage in one shot, rather than multiple bottlings throughout the year.

CAN YOU SHARE MORE STYLISTICALLY ABOUT DOMAINE CARNEROS SPARKLING CALIFORNIA WINE?

Eileen Crane, Domaine Carneros’ founding winemaker, always says our wines are classic, elegant, and timeless.  Like Aubrey Hepburn in her iconic black dress with pearls from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I think that is a perfect analogy.  

We were started by Champagne Taittinger, so we will always have an old world mentality to our wine making style.  We follow many of the Champagne traditions and laws. For instance our Tête de Cuvée, Le Rêve, is a Blanc de Blancs, which is more of an old world tradition than one that is followed in the US. Additionally, we age all our vintage dated offerings for a minimum of 3 years, which is a French law for vintage Champagne. It’s in part a way to pay homage to the Taittinger’s, as well as a stamp of quality that we feel adds value to our wines.

All that being said, we are making Carneros Sparkling Wine which is entirely from Carneros, so we have our own unique sense of place. All our fruit is Estate, meaning we own the vineyards, farm them ourselves with our in-house vineyard team, and truly can control quality from the beginning of the vines life all the way through each and every harvest. We are not trying to replicate Champagne, we are trying to express the unique terroir we get from Carneros.

FOR THOSE UNFAMILIAR, WHAT DIFFERENTIATES A SPARKLING WINE FROM A CHAMPAGNE?

Champagne is bubbly from the Champagne region of France. Sparkling Wine is bubbly from anywhere else. Some countries have invented their own designations for bubbly grown in their top regions. The US hasn’t done that and frankly, sparkling wine is a fine designation. I’d rather focus on where it is from, we call ours Carneros Sparkling Wine to represent a sense of place.au

One similarity, for us anyway, is making wine in the traditional method. This means the second fermentation happens in the bottle. This produces the highest quality Sparkling Wine/Champagne with the tiniest bubbles. 

WHAT IS THE “HOUSE STYLE” FOR DOMAINE CARNEROS?

Our house style is a Champagne-inspired Carneros Sparkling wine. Clean, complex, intriguing. We want the first thing you notice to be the great aromatics, followed by impeccable balance in the palate, and finally a long lingering finish. Back to Audrey Hepburn. Classic, elegant, and timeless. We feel this can only be achieved by adhering to the old world standards like Estate fruit, Methode Traditionelle fermentation etc.

WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE ABOUT NAPA VALLEY’S WINE COUNTRY THAT MANY CONSUMERS MAY NOT KNOW OR HAVE A MISCONCEPTION ABOUT?

Although we enjoy a Mediterranean climate in Napa, we are very close to a variety of outdoor activities. In a little more than an hour we can get to the ocean, the redwoods, the snow, or even San Francisco. This makes family day trips or quick weekend trips very accessible and enjoyable.

AS A WINEMAKER YOU TASTE (AND SPIT) LOTS OF WINE, WHAT WINE DO YOU FEEL BAD ABOUT SPITTING BECAUSE YOU LOVE IT SO MUCH?

Any of our wines are tough to spit, but it’s especially tough to spit our Blanc de Blanc, Le Rêve. We age our Le Rêve for a minimum of 6 years, and it’s such a pleasure to taste, even after all these years. Additionally I would like to add the Comtes de Champagne from Taittinger to the list. The Comtes de Champagne is the inspiration that created our Le Rêve. This is a rare treat and always enjoyable. 

WHAT WAS ONE OF THE BIGGEST MISTAKES YOU HAVE MADE IN YOUR WINEMAKING CAREER?

Not learning Spanish earlier in my life/career.

WHO HAS BEEN THE MOST INFLUENTIAL MENTOR IN YOUR CAREER?

I’ve had many influential people in my career. Chris Kajani, Dominica Totty, TJ Evans, even my wife Shawna have all had an immense impact on my career.  Eileen Crane, however, is by far the most influential mentor I’ve ever had. I had the pleasure of working with, and learning from Eileen for 13 harvests prior to her retirement. She is still a valuable resource and I’ll always appreciate her trust, support, and insight.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE AFTER WORK DRINK?

Domaine Carneros bubbly of course! I can drink a bottle a day no problem. It really depends on the time of year.  Sometimes I enjoy our Ultra Brut, which is a favorite of mine, when dungeness is in season, sometimes it’s the Brut Rosé, a perfect accompaniment for summer, and of course I can never say no to our Le Rêve.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LOCAL SPOT IN NAPA VALLEY?

Don Giovanni’s is a current favorite. They have expanded their outdoor seating and it is simply delightful. I enjoy having a nice bottle of bubbly with their flavorful food, outdoors under the trees. Amazing ambiance, delicious food, even more delicious wine, it’s a recipe for success.

TELL US SOMETHING THAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT YOU?

I grew up on a chicken farm in Virginia. For that reason I do not like chicken to this day. There is too much good food out there to waste time on chicken.

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