Self-proclaimed “Jersey Girl” Remi Cohen is stepping up as CEO of Domaine Carneros. Taking over for the legendary Eileen Crane, who retired in 2020 after a 33-year run, is no easy task — especially during a year that brought us a global pandemic and wildfires in Northern California, which have become an annual occurrence since 2017. But, having spent more than two decades in wine at places like Saintsbury, Merryvale, Bouchaine, her own wine consulting company, and, most recently, Cliff Lede (where she acted as COO), Cohen is well qualified to continue the legacy of strong leadership at Domaine.
Cohen talked to VinePair about her path into the wine industry, how she ended up at Domaine Carneros, and her thoughts on the role of women in wine.
1. What was your first experience with wine?
Growing up, wine was not a family beverage. My parents didn’t really didn’t drink that much in general, but I was a little precocious and partied in high school. My friends and I got into craft beers and were probably some of the only people in my New Jersey hometown that cared about craft beers, so the owner of a local liquor store thought we were older and sold us alcohol. We would buy Marques de Caceres Rioja and Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio to pair with salmon and grilled asparagus. God, we thought we were so cool at 17. I wish I could say my first experience was sparked from a fancy European trip to a wine region, but it came from just managing my way through what I thought at the time was sophisticated.
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2. Did you start out in college knowing you wanted a career in wine?
No. I started at University of California Berkeley as pre-med but soon realized that I had a stronger connection to agricultural science after taking a few plant biology classes. At 21, I heard you can make a career in wine, so I remember thinking, “That’s what I want to do. This sounds amazing.” That led me to apply to the University of California, Davis Viticulture and Enology master program. I love science, being social, and nature, so the program seemed perfect for someone interested in the viticulture side of the business.
3. I’ve been told your first harvest is a flashpoint for those interested in wine. What was yours like?
While at UC Davis, there was an enologist from Saintsbury Winery that came to give a vertical of 1990 to 1999 Reserve Carneros Pinot Noir from Saintsbury. I had never had a vertical before and absolutely loved the wines. To see similarities and nuanced differences of the vintages was an eye-opening experience. I stayed after to ask him many questions. I must have impressed him because he asked me what I was planning after graduation. I smiled and told him, “Finding a harvest job, hopefully.” He offered me a harvest job at Saintsbury in part because he said, “The majority of people are focused on the winemaking side. We need smart, passionate people that focus on the viticulture side.”
I remember the moment during harvest that I realized winemaking wasn’t my path because of all the physical cleaning involved, which was very repetitive. I enjoyed going outside to count clusters, flag diseased vines, and walking around in some of the most beautiful places in the world. Entry- level winemaking is washing the floors and cleaning the tanks. My attitude was like, “I’ll take the vineyard, thanks.”
4. What was your first full-time job in the industry?
Bouchaine Winery was my first full-time. I really fell in love with the Carneros AVA. I love the fact that it was rootsy and agrarian, which for a viticulturist is a dream. Bouchaine is located right down the road from Saintsbury, so I didn’t move far. They hired me as vineyard manager at 24 years old, which, looking back, is crazy as I had never had a job in the industry. Please understand this was 20 years ago, and there weren’t many women viticulturalists — and certainly not any young Jewish girls from New Jersey like me. The people from Bouchaine were like, “Here is the vineyard, and you are going to manage it.” Reflecting on it, they must have wanted someone that could grow with the company versus someone more seasoned, as they took a chance on this girl fresh out of school who was highly motivated and organized, but not experienced.
5. When and why did you want to be more involved on the business side?
At Bouchaine, I was involved in hiring my boss Mike Richman who became and remains one of my biggest mentors. He came on as general manager shortly after I was hired as vineyard manager. He was the one that planted the early seed idea of me moving out of the viticulturist role. He thought I communicated well and with passion, so he provided opportunities for me to grow in those areas. I remember he asked me to host a bunch of distributors out in the vineyard and teach them about sustainable farming, the ecosystem at Bouchaine, and the importance of being a soil farmer. Mike’s philosophy was that the person growing the grapes should have involvement in the winemaking process.
As my experiences broadened, I thought my skill set was better suited as a generalist. I felt I was a good viticulturist, but not the best. I really loved engaging with people and telling the story of the brand. One of my strengths is distilling complex science and making it understandable and approachable. However, to be clear, I would never want to be at a place where I couldn’t be engaged with vineyard operation and winemaking.
6. How did you end up at Domaine Carneros?
In 2020, I got a call from a recruiter about the CEO role at Domaine Carneros, which came as a bit of shock as that meant Eileen Crane was retiring. I knew Eileen’s story and met her many times. I was always blown away by her professionalism and how she is so polished. She was in her 70s and at Domaine for 33 years. This was my dream job, but it took me a minute to realize it because I wasn’t in the mindset to leave Cliff Lede after eight years at the time as COO. It’s funny now, but on my first call with the recruiter, I initially brushed her off. Luckily, she paused and said, “Are you sure you don’t want to have a conversation about the opportunity?” When I got off the call, I came to my senses and realized I was perfect for the job. Domaine is estate-driven, rooted in viticulture, and it’s in Carneros, which was where I spent the first decade of my career. Also, it helped that I knew the winemakers and no one does hospitality like Domaine Carneros.
The interview/offer process was longer than expected due to Covid. I didn’t feel comfortable leaving Cliff Lede at that time. I told the recruiter I didn’t want to lose the Domaine opportunity, but I have a responsibility to Cliff Lede. Perhaps Eileen feels the same and would be willing to stay on a little longer at Domaine. Besides, a “pandemic transition” could be difficult for all parties. Admittedly, I had some concerns about delaying the opportunity, but it wasn’t going to trump my greater concerns about leaving Cliff Lede in March of 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic. Fortunately, Domaine agreed, and I started on the first day of harvest later that year.
7. How has Domaine practiced sustainability?
In 2003, Domaine was one of the first wineries with a solar array. Since the beginning, Eileen Crane was focused on the resources of sustainability. For example, during her tenure, Eileen decided to collect the storm water and transfer it to our irrigation pond, and thus, Domaine does not have to pull as much groundwater. In addition, Domaine invested in a microgrid, which is an expansion of our solar capabilities. Currently, we store energy in our battery to use at night instead of giving the energy back to the power grid. In the next 10 years, we may be able to power the entire winery as battery capacity technology matures.
8. What is Eileen Crane’s legacy at Domaine and in the industry?
She is an icon. If you think back to when she was hired in 1987, there were barely any women winemakers at all, let alone women that had a decade of experience in sparkling wine. Prior to joining Domaine, she started her career at Chandon, working her way up to assistant winemaker and then helping to build Gloria Ferrer Winery. When the Taittinger family purchased the property that would become Domaine Carneros in 1986, she was literally the best fit because she made sparkling wine and understood how to build an estate winery. She is America’s most influential sparkling winemaker, with 40-plus years of experience before she retired. In regards to Domaine, she built the house style Domaine Carneros, known as one of the most elegant in terms of high acidity, no barrels, and minimum malolactic. Domaine is lauded for how delicate our bubbles are, which is Eileen’s direct contribution. Lastly, as a woman, I have to admire and recognize how difficult it must have been for her back in the ‘80s. Eileen was admittedly intense because she had to be. She was challenged all the time in France, the U.S., and around the world because she was a woman winemaker. Almost half a century later, we owe her a debt of gratitude.
9. How have you seen the wine industry improve for women? Is there still room for improvement from your point of view?
I was really naïve to the whole women in wine thing, because my master’s program at UC Davis 20 years ago was 50 percent women. So, when I got there, I wasn’t like, “Where are all the women?” Also, I’m an optimist and admittedly have lived a privileged life. I grew up in a household where my parents said I could be whatever I wanted, so I never felt there were barriers. In fact, in school, I met women like Mia Kline, Heidi Barrett, and Eileen Crane, so these women and many others did the work for future generations. Thus, it would be unfair of me to feel like I had to struggle. Now, I may have been a little naïve, but not blind. There were nuances like people treating you like an administrative assistant — or an incident where someone assumed that one of my older male interns was in charge. Today, we call these microaggressions, which unfortunately can turn into macroaggressions, but it took for me to get into more advanced positions in my career to really start seeing it. Now I see that, yes, it was pretty equal in school but not equal in the top positions in terms of quantity and compensation. I have been more vocal about these inequities in the last 10 years. I believe in coachable and actionable moments that make a difference — not just victimizing oneself.