At Dominus Estate, a Green Oasis in Drought-Wracked Napa Valley

Winemaker Tod Mostero and owner Christian Moueix are achieving elite wines in the face of California's ongoing devastating droughts; the 2018 Dominus, Napanook and Ulysses Cabernets are a case in point

Published June 19, 2021

I was swamped with tastings on my most recent trip to Napa, trying to get through the bulk of wines that will make up our annual California Cabernet report slated for the Nov. 15 issue. But I was able to wrangle a free day to kick the dirt at Dominus Estate in Yountville.

Walking the vineyard with winemaker Tod Mostero, who has been here since 2007, was eye-opening from the first few steps. With the hillsides in the distance browned and dotted with dying trees and the sparse cover crop in some of the rows beige and crackling, the signs of drought were everywhere. Rainfall this year has been just under 14 inches so far, well below the historical average of 31 inches. 2018, 2019 and 2020 were also drought years, with only 2017 providing a respite in the run of vintages dating back to 2012.

But despite all that and amid the sea of brown and beige, the vines themselves were verdant and healthy looking. Granted, their shoot growth is considerably less than where it normally is at this point, but that was a sign of the vine regulating itself, according to Mostero.

Dry farming has consequences,” says Mostero. “It results in deeper roots, and denser wood around the trunk. Because of this, the vine is more resistant to drought and disease and more self-regulating.”

According to Mostero, the site has been dry farmed since it was first planted to vines in 1838. That long run gave owner Christian Moueix the building blocks he needed to continue the practice.

Taking over a dry-farmed vineyard is easier than converting one from irrigation to dry farming, but the latter can be done—Mostero and Moueix did it at their nearby Ulysses.

“Vines take eight years for their roots to reach maximum depth, and some of the parcels at Ulysses didn’t react well to the shift. It took us time to realize that, which is why we replanted some blocks and just now we’re starting to see the benefits of it.”

As for the soon-to-be-released 2018s, the news is pretty much all good. While it was a drought year, the rain that did fall came at the right times. A rainy November in 2017 offset a dry October and December, allowing the soil to replenish itself heading into the 2018 growing season.

“November we had above-average rain, but then December was dry, so the soils got a chance to drain out, giving the soil the air it needed,” says Mostero. “Organic material needs water, air and warmth to thrive in the soil. While overall the total rainfall was less than normal, a year is more than just harvesttime, or summertime. It’s the full year. If the water is well-timed, as it was in 2018, it’s not necessarily a guarantee of quality in the end wine, but it’s very important.”

“The 2018 season saw warm but very steady temperatures, without heat spikes. The ripening was even, there was no sunburn and no dehydration. The crop set was heavy and the early water spurred canopy growth, so there was always work to be done to manage that. But there was no stress, no rush to do anything, no emergency work,” he says.

The evenness of the season shows in the wines. They are vivid yet restrained, with copious fruit that isn’t at all bombastic. The structures are fine-grained and very linear, giving the wines outstanding length.

“I see similarities to 2006, 2013 and 2015,” says Mostero, discussing the 2018s. “But ’18 is a quieter, more centered vintage. There’s even a touch of mystery to the wines, unlike the other years. Though they were all warm early and cool late as well.”

The 2018 Dominus Estate Napanook Napa Valley shows the vivid and polished fruit of the year, with cassis, plum and violet notes extending gracefully through a mineral-edged finish.

The 2018 Dominus Estate Napa Valley is shades richer and deeper, with its cassis and plum flavors moving methodically and authoritatively.

The 2018 Ulysses Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley is the best vintage yet for this still-young project (it debuted with the 2012 vintage), with a dense but beautifully defined core of plum sauce and melted licorice, pliant structure and a lilting floral hint in the background.

With the clear effect of severe drought all around, this splash of Dominus’ green in the middle of a sea of brown is part proof it works. The rest of the proof is in the bottle. Economic questions (dry farming results in lower yields) are the major hurdle for those growers who are pondering the shift. But what’s better for longevity and quality: a healthy vineyard with lower yields that can survive for multiple generations, or an irrigated vineyard that cranks out larger yields but needs to be replanted every 25 years? This is one of the main questions Napa vintners, particularly those on the valley floor, will be grappling with in the coming years. Moueix and Mostero seem to have found their answer already.