Eileen Crane hung outside the doorways of oenology classrooms at the University of California in Davis hoping to gain a seat. A professor had told her that pursuing an education in winemaking was pointless for a woman since she didn't have the natural strength to pick up a barrel of wine. That was a few decades ago when wine was new to California and women had to own their own winery -- or jointly with husband or other family members -- to be taken seriously.
A few weeks ago, Crane stood outside another classroom, this one on the fourth floor of the academic building at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, where I had invited her to join my class of nascent food writers.
Crane had not let that professor get in her way. She already had a Master's in Nutrition from the University of Connecticut, where she had also taught for two years, and had taken a 10-week course in Baking and Pastry from the Culinary Institute of America, which at the time was located in a 40-room mansion near Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Ultimately, Crane was allowed into some courses at UC-Davis, but earning her way into wine took combined luck and persistence. As she sat in front of a whiteboard at J&W, she explicated her tale of beginning as a tour guide at Napa's Domaine Chandon in 1978. When that winery had a sudden need for a pastry chef, she stepped into the kitchen. From there, she showed interest in the winemaking process and worked her way from harvest to production. In 1984, she moved to Sonoma's Gloria Ferrer winery to oversee construction and produce sparkling wine.
Today, Eileen Crane is the CEO and winemaker for Domaine Carneros, which was established by the French Champagne house of Taittinger (founded in 1734) with partner Kobrand Corporation in 1987. Claude Taittinger personally selected Crane that year to oversee the planning and development of what is now a 36,900-acre viticultural area on the southern border of Napa and Sonoma counties, and to become the first winemaker, a job she continues today. Domaine Carneros turns out 45,000 cases of wine a year.
Crane has produced an estimated 28 million bottles, but noted that since winemaking is a year-long process, she has only made sparking wines 30 times or so. She pointed out that chefs typically make their specialty dishes that many times in a week.
Crane's story is one of determination, a story that resonated with this group of J&W students whose backgrounds are diverse. Several members of the class came from other careers -- one a real estate attorney -- while others had only stepped into the kitchen for the first time last fall. Crane's story had been told before at countless wine dinners and press interviews. But there was something refreshing to hear the retelling of a personal narrative in front of people who had only read biographical information but not tasted her product.
To her side, the Kobrand rep poured flutes of sparking wine. She eyed her glass: "Champagne was not invented by the monk as many of you have been told. It was developed in England." She recounted how her fascination with wine, specifically white wines, was spawned by her father. In fact, she grew up in a northern Jersey house equipped with a wine cellar, an unusual feature then.
"My wines are made in the méthode champenoise," she continued.
Wine sales are about relationships. The reason wineries offer tasting rooms and tours of their facilities is to develop bonds with potential customers. Winemakers travel extensively to foster these relationships.
But here was this tall, elegant woman wearing flat black shoes and evoking that California sense of laid-back calm -- the very antithesis of what's going on in a glass of bubbly -- discussing sparkling wine to college students who predictably drink more beer than wine. "You know the wine preservers with the flip sides can preserve sparkling wine for a week in the fridge. You can get six glasses out of one bottle so you can have a glass every night."
One student asked Crane's opinion of the developing North Carolina wine industry. "It's not even a blip on our radar," she confessed.
Crane showed two sparklers, a Brut and a rose, as well as a pinot noir. Several students later wrote in their journals how impressed -- and inspired -- they had been with the story of her career, not that she was one of the first female winemakers in the United States, or the preeminent sparking winemaker in the United States, or even that her vineyards are now certified organic. What resonated with them was how seemingly serendipitously she created a dream career.
Taking Crane's advice that sparkling wine makes any occasion celebratory, they had purchased her Brut to share the next weekend. For them, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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