Eileen Crane, America’s “Doyenne of Sparkling Wine,” On 40 Years in the Industry & Lessons Learned Along the Way

6/11/2018

This story is part of our “Women in Wine” series — an ongoing effort to highlight the women shaping today’s evolving global wine industry. From winemakers to sustainability specialists to executives, these are the women among the vines to watch in 2018.

If you’ve heard of sparkling wine, you’ve heard of Eileen Crane.

Crane is an industry veteran with 40 illustrious years under her belt. She’s been hailed as America’s “Doyenne of Sparkling Wine” and she’s considered the authority on all things bubbles. 

As CEO and founding winemaker of Domaine Carneros, Crane is living the wine enthusiast’s dream. But as storied as her career has been, achieving that dream has been a lifelong journey.

Crane saw wine as a treat as a child. Her family drank wine only on Sundays, but her father would let her have a few sips while imparting little known facts about the wines and where they came from.

“He didn’t know a whole lot about wine, but he knew enough to keep me enthralled with the stories,” she said.

Those stories were enough to generate a passion for wine in Crane that would last a lifetime. She’s had several career changes — from social work in Venezuela to teaching nutrition at the University of Connecticut — but there has always been one constant: wine

Throughout the course of a few years, Crane simply decided she was “so entranced with wine,” it was something she had to pursue. So, in 1977, she quit her job, drove across the country and began enology classes at the University of California, Davis.

Soon after she started work as a part-time tour guide at a sparkling house (Chandon) but after learning about her science background, management placed her in their lab. Fast forward to six years later and Crane ventured on to what she’s now known for: building wineries from the ground up.
 
After building and starting the sparkling wine house Gloria Ferrer, Crane registered on the radar of wine industry royalty. The Taittingers enlisted Crane to spearhead the founding of Domaine Carneros and she’s still dedicated to this after 31 years.

Throughout those 31 years as a female winemaker, Crane has seen her fair share of discouragement and discrimination. But she’s always been able to prove her doubters wrong.

Crane once faced a UC, Davis professor who told her she would be wasting her time trying to get a job in the wine industry. He said Crane wouldn’t be able to do the barrel work and he offered to call the nutrition department for her if she wanted to pursue a PhD.

“I said, ‘Don’t do it because I’m going to be a winemaker’,” Crane recalls.

Years later, Crane was invited to speak at an event where that same professor served as a moderator. He didn’t recognize her at first.

“I was telling my story and I could see in his eyes that he figured out who I was,” she said.

In addition to making her mark on the industry, Crane also consistently influences the people around her. She has a business acumen that rivals business school graduates and an unparalleled sparkling wine repertoire, but Crane knows it’s all about the environment you foster at work.

She’s at the top, but she is decidedly not a top-down kind of leader. Instead, Crane considers a collaborative atmosphere her home and is always willing to share the spotlight.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to create a management system that engages the whole team in the running of the business,” said Crane. “That’s just fabulous.”

Crane took a break from her CEO responsibilities to answer a few questions from Breakthru on wine, life and the industry.

You’ve been called the Doyenne of Sparkling Wines. What does that title mean to you?

That title was given to me by Karen MacNeil — she wrote the Wine Bible. And what does that mean? I am the person in the California industry who has spent the longest time being a hands-on sparkling wine maker. At this point, I've been an actual wine maker in the sparkling wine industry for 40 years. I'm the only person with that level of hands-on experience in the U.S. creating fine sparkling wine.

I've really enjoyed all of it. I have run this company for 31 years and been associated with a couple of other major sparkling houses. I think the breadth of my experience and commitment qualifies me.

Have you learned any lessons throughout your career?

If I didn't learn lessons, I would be back in the 1970s!

In the industry, I've learned owning your own vineyards is enormously important to wine quality. You can buy good grapes, but it is almost impossible to buy grapes of the same excellence as you can grow in your own vineyard. Estate grown is the gold standard of the wine industry. Over the years I've been here, I have purchased an additional five vineyards for Domaine Carneros and of course they're all in Carneros.

Is that what helps make Domaine Carneros special?

With the name Domaine Carneros, we can’t use any other appellation. We're 100% Carneros, which is an ideal cool appellation for producing fine sparkling wine. Almost all of our wines are estate grown at this point and very few people in the sparkling wine industry have gotten this close to being all estate grown. We’re 90% estate grown grapes and expect to be 100% in six years.

Domaine Carneros is committed to quality. My Board of Directors have never asked me to skimp on quality; and never being asked to skimp is a wonderful thing.

What advice do you have for women trying to break into the industry?

I think the industry is very much more open to women than ever before, and I do mentor women on a regular basis. They ask, ‘How do I get into a company? How do I find where the opportunities are?’ I always suggest looking at companies to see if they have promoted women. If you're applying for a job in a company that’s all men running the company, it's going be much harder to move up. If they've got a history of promoting women, that makes a huge difference. If you're interested in a job, if you know someone who knows someone at the company, double check and see how they feel. Ask them specifically, ‘Do women feel like they're getting paid equally? Do they feel like they have equal opportunities?’ You really have to look at the history of the company. I always recommend finding wineries where you can see that women are moving up.

What was your experience breaking into a field that was more male-dominated?

I was lucky because the winery where I was a tour guide was open to women and there were women who were starting to move up when I was there. 

I wasn't discriminated against then for being a woman and when I was hired by Gloria Ferrer to oversee the construction and development of a winery, I asked them why they were willing to hire a woman. They said that during the Spanish Revolution, the matriarch of the family had taken over the business so they were used to seeing a women running a company.

Champagne Taittingers also had women in important jobs in their Champagne house in France. The marketing director was a woman and the Taittinger daughters were also involved in the business. I was lucky.

This interview was edited and condensed for space and clarity.
 
Read Next Article See all Group news