Women Winemakers: Carrie Sumner
I've recently become a bit of a natural wine fanatic and while I was in one of my local shops, I asked for a recommendation for a biodynamic wine. I was guided to Domaine des Enfants L'enfant Perdu 2013, which I promptly purchased. Before opening it, I did a little research to find out if I could include it in my Women Winemakers series, and lo and behold, Carrie Sumner is the woman behind the wines of Domaine des Enfants!
Carrie started out as a restaurant professional and worked in restaurants in Connecticut, the Maldives, and New York City. She spent time working in kitchens, then discovered that she wanted to learn more about wine. Carrie was encouraged to pursue this path and she took classes to become a sommelier. She spent 10 years working in various front of the house positions in restaurants in Manhattan, including the renowned Bar Boulud and Gotham. She expressed the desire to get some hands-on experience to go with her sommelier education, so she was introduced to winemaker, Abe Schoener, of The Scholium Project in Napa and worked a harvest with him in 2007. At the end of the harvest, he asked her if she would like to work on his French project, called Clos Thales, which she happily accepted. This brought her to the village of Maury in the Roussillon region of Southern France where she made harvest the following year. After harvest, Carrie returned to the restaurant scene for about two months, then quickly realized that she wanted to be a full-time winemaker. However, finding a steady winemaking position is quite difficult, so she moved between the Northern and Southern hemispheres where harvests take place 6 months apart from one another.
While working on Clos Thales in Roussillon, Carrie met her now husband, Marcel Bühler, who founded Domaine des Enfants in 2006. The name of the domaine is symbolic of finding your inner child, and living out your dreams, which I think is beautiful. Every cuvée they produce alludes to that dream in one way or another. Since childhood, Marcel dreamed of growing things and working with his hands outdoors, which brought him to wine.
Carrie joined Marcel at Domaine des Enfants in 2010. Together, they use biodynamic methods that result in pure, honest, and authentic wines. Carrie uses the term Cellar Master to describe her role because she and the rest of the team at Domaine des Enfants believe that wine is not "made", rather it's an exact expression of what the vineyard provides for each harvest. In Carrie's cellar, there is very little manipulation of the wine - instead it is nurtured to achieve its natural balance and maintain its purity.
You may be wondering what a biodynamic wine is, exactly. In some ways, it is much like organic wine - no chemicals are used for fertilizer or pest and weed control, naturally occurring native yeasts are used for fermentation, there are very little or no added sulfites, and the wines are not filtered before bottling, although white wines are a common exception for this step. If taken to the full extent, some biodynamic methods seem almost religious, such as harvesting during a particular phase of the moon, and filling a cow’s horn with either manure or quartz depending on the time of year, burying it for a season, then digging it out and mixing its contents with water to use as fertilizer in the vineyard. What I really stand behind though, is that biodynamics views the vineyard as one organism, from the soil up, and that it should all be kept healthy using natural methods with no chemical intervention. Much like “good bacteria” keeps your body healthy and balanced, a healthy vineyard begins with a soil rich in the proper bacteria, or flora. Biodynamics promotes this natural balance. A great amount of passion and manual labor is required for cultivating biodynamic wines and the result is a wine that is the greatest, purest expression of the area it came from, or its “terroir”; the aromas and flavors of the elements in the soil are much more prevalent in biodynamic wines. Drinking natural, biodynamic wines is also very much like choosing organic over processed foods. Not only does it taste better, but it's better for your body.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Carrie and she graciously agreed to answer some in-depth questions about what her career entails. I learned a great deal from her replies and I hope you enjoy what she has to say as much as I did!
When did you first realize that you wanted to become a winemaker?
It was never really a plan, but every year I am more convinced that this is a part of my life. I like taking natural products from the earth and transforming them into something else. This is also why I love to cook.
While I was working my first harvest in Napa, my boss Abe would always tell me that I was not going back to the restaurant industry and that I was becoming a winemaker. This idea sounded inconceivable to me at the time because I thought that I would always end up back in the kitchen.
I clearly remember the first time I considered the possibility of becoming a winemaker. I was wearing a dress and heels and standing at the front door of Bar Boulud (a company that I loved working for) on New Years Eve while a guest was reaming me out because they couldn't sit at a booth table. At midnight while everyone was celebrating and sipping champagne, I just stood at the podium and thought about the Pyrénées, the vineyards, and Barcelona. The next day I sent in my resignation, and soon after, I left New York.
Can you describe what you do on a typical day, and how that changes throughout the year?
Funny enough, I don't really have a daily routine. My daily routine is seasonal, and has changed most dramatically since the arrival of our 3 year old son, Jordi. The season of course begins once the leaves have fallen from the vines. This is when the pruning begins, and generally Marcel and I split our days in half. One person stays home in the morning with the little guy, while the other heads to the vineyards, then we switch in the afternoon. That way we both get the best of both worlds. We see this as a huge advantage in our lifestyle, and winter tends to be our favorite time of year.
The winter is also the season for selling and traveling. We do many expos which we divide by language, as with our son we can't really make the expos together anymore. The traveling bit is bittersweet. I love traveling, but I hate splitting up the family, and very rarely do Marcel and I get to travel together.
As we head into spring we start focusing on the ploughing and organic spraying. Marcel ploughs the older vines by horse (her name is Nina), and Bernard (our tractor man) makes all organic treatments and ploughs the younger vines. Shortly after bud-burst we make ébourgeonnage to diminish suckers and double canes, and soon thereafter leaf-thinning to prevent diseases. We put together a small team to accomplish these tasks which we tend to be a part of.
Spring is the time when I begin revisiting wines from the last harvest. I prefer not to taste during the winter as I feel the wines are too cold and young. I will head to the cave, shut myself in with some music, and taste every barrel. A process which will then continue regularly throughout the course of the year.
But as spring becomes summer the harvest very quickly follows, and I am consumed with the preparation of the cave. Cement tanks need to be treated, drains need to be cleaned, and machines need to come out of storage. Barrels of white wines from the previous vintage need to be racked and blended so that the barrels are available for the new vintage, and typically a bottling of this wine follows shortly after.
Summer is a crucial time to watch the fruit as it never ripens at the same time every year. We make multiple tours through all vineyards collecting berry samples which we taste together, and begin making decisions for picking. We are firm believers that the wine is truly made in the vineyard, but the winemaking is the final factor in how we want to express that vineyard. The fruit that has been picked is what you have to work with; there is no going back, so this is a time of considerable pressure.
Harvest always begins with the white fruit. Marcel and I head out with the picking team in the morning, and in the afternoon we press the fruit from the day before. Once we begin picking the red fruit, our vineyard days are mostly finished. Processing and vinifying become our main focus while Bernard continues picking with the team. This is another time when becoming a mother has changed my schedule significantly. I usually don't go into work until Jordi has been fed, and sent off to school. Marcel opens the cave and expedites the processing of fruit, and once I arrive I take care of the fermentations while assisting with processing.
As I said before, many of the winemaking decisions are already predetermined in the vineyard, particularly with deciding when to pick. My job now is to figure out how to best represent the fruit that we have brought in. Do we want to make a cold maceration? Which plots should be vinified together, and which plots are of such quality that they deserve to stand alone? What vessel do we want to vinify in? How much should we work on the tannins?, etc. Once all crucial decisions have been determined and fermentations are underway, I become a "wine nurse". I spend my days monitoring fermentations to make sure they are all healthy, and ensuring that they finish. Tasting is a key part of every day. As I measure and taste the wines I have a closer vision as to how much I should work on the skins, and how long I want to keep the skins in contact with the must/wine before pressing.
At the end of the day I usually leave a bit early to run home and make everyone dinner. We like to end a long day's work by enjoying a meal all together. By all together I mean stagiaires, the nanny, and any visitors that we've picked up along the way.
After every vineyard is picked, the work in the cave is at its peak. As we press away tanks, the work each day becomes less and less. Once all the pressing is finished, and all the wine is in barrel we can take some time off until the leaves fall and the season begins again.
What about winemaking has surprised you the most?
The living and wild nature of wine is what surprises me the most. Every plot is different, every fermentation is different, every vintage is different. Once the wine has been bottled, even the evolution of every single bottle is different. Particularly as we are working organically, and with indigenous yeast, there is no predictability. And if there is a problem, you have the pressure of an entire year's work sitting on your shoulders. You don't get another chance until next year, and regardless there is a lot of wine to sell. The problems are always different as well. Just when you think that you have conquered all (which is a ridiculous idea), nature shows up with something else. Sometimes it's very defeating, but usually it's incredibly rewarding, and in the end you always learn something new.
Which vintage has presented you with the greatest challenge(s) so far?
Every vintage presents us with new challenges. The greatest challenge is in fact learning to be prepared for unforeseen challenges. This is why we don't believe in a single recipe for making wine. Every decision from organic spraying options, to picking and vinification changes depending on the vintage. 2010 gave us torrential floods during the harvest, forcing producers to decide between picking grapes before phenolic ripeness or risking the chance of rot. 2013 gave us a shatter in the Grenache which cut our production in half, and as a result gave us a massive crop in 2014, which was diluted. 2016 was extremely hot, pushing the harvest forward several weeks, which really caught us off guard and, frankly, a bit unprepared. 2017 had severe frosts during the later spring which damaged a good percentage of our Syrah production.
I loved the 2013 L'enfant Perdu! This red wine is a blend of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, and Lladoner Pelut. Whilst I can only do a sip and spit at this point, what I did taste really had me wanting more. It showed dark fruit notes that were very fresh and lively: black cherry, blackberry, plum, and cassis with tobacco and eucalyptus. As if it wasn't already pleasant enough, a bacon note came in on the finish. The wine is so pure, well balanced, and has a lovely silky texture. My husband and I both enjoyed it so much that I returned to the store where I purchased it and bought all but one of the remaining bottles. The only reason I didn't leave the shelf bare is because I want someone else to discover this gem of a domaine!
In a recent and very exciting development, Carrie has started her own solo project on the side, called Chroma Soma. She will be focusing on single varietal wines that express the pure fruit character of each grape. The first vintage will be released this fall and is made with 100% Carignan grown in schist soils and aged in neutral French wood. She is also working with a Grenache Noir this year and has plans to continue expanding the project. So, keep your eyes peeled for these wines too!
Thank you again to Carrie for agreeing to an interview with me. I look forward to following your career and drinking your wonderful wines!