Carrie Sumner and Marcel Bühler of Domaine Des Enfants. ##Photo provided

Toy Story

French winemaker sends playful blend to her native Oregon

By Michael Alberty

Meet the poster children for happenstance: Carrie Sumner and Marcel Bühler. By no stretch of the imagination should these two have met. Now, they are married and making wine in the Roussillon region of France. 

Sumner is a Lake Oswego native who broke into the New York City restaurant world after graduating from culinary school. Bühler grew up near Zurich, Switzerland, and his 10-year banking career made him miserable. He bailed on banks and headed to a cooking school in Paris. He didn’t like that much, either, so he looked for something new to study.

While attending viticulture school in Spain, Bühler fell in love with the idea of making wine in Priorat. The only problem was the land was too expensive. One day, Bühler was having lunch in a small Spanish village when his waiter overheard him lamenting Priorat’s high prices. The waiter said, “You should go to Roussillon.”

Carrie Sumner of Domaine des Enfants.##Photo by Michael Alberty

Armed with the best advice since “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” Bühler purchased vineyard property near the village of Maury in the Agly Valley. He established his winery, Domaine des Enfants, in 2006.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a desire to learn more about the winemaking process took Sumner from New York City to the Napa Valley. There she worked harvest for Abe Schoener of The Scholium Project. “Abe was an amazing teacher. He was like Socrates, always asking questions and expecting you to answer,” Sumner says.

Schoener was also part Nostradamus. Schoener predicted Sumner would abandon restaurants to become a winemaker. When he convinced Sumner to work a harvest at his Clos Thales wine project in Roussillon, he also predicted she would fall in love and marry the “cute Swiss winemaker” next door.

“I scoffed at that second prediction,” Sumner says.

After a few years of ignoring one another in Roussillon, Sumner and Bühler finally bonded over their mutual love of nearby Barcelona. Love, marriage and the cutest little boy in all of France arrived in rapid succession. That little boy is starting his first full year of school this fall while his parents live out their winemaking dreams together at Domaine des Enfants.

Sumner and Bühler own approximately 60 acres of grapevines on small plots scattered throughout the Agly Valley in Roussillon. They grow grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, Grenache Gris and Macabeo. Over half their grapevines were planted before WWII, and some are more than 100 years old. The soils are diverse, but all of them are rocky, running the range from black schist to terra rossa.

The air in their valley is hot, and the winds are constant and harsh. Where the rocky valley floor ends, sun-bleached limestone cliffs rise to the sky. If it wasn’t for the Mediterranean scrub brush and grapevines, you might think you were walking on the moon.  

Domaine Des Enfants 2017 VDP Côtes Catalanes “Le Jouet”. ##Photo provided

At Domaine des Enfants, Bühler handles most of the vineyard work while Sumner rides herd over decisions made in their wine cave. They produce approximately 2,500 cases of beautiful, thoughtful wines each year, including the Le Jouet, which retails for roughly $18. 

Domaine Des Enfants 2017 VDP Côtes Catalanes “Le Jouet”

The name of this wine translates to “the toy,” which is perfect for a winery named in honor of childhood dreams. Each vintage, Sumner toys around with different grape blends, techniques and vessels when making the toy.

While experimental by design, Le Jouet is made within the same underlying construct used for all Domaine des Enfants wines: no manmade pesticides or herbicides in the vineyards, weeding by hand and horse, native yeast fermentations, minimal sulfur additions and no fining or filtration before bottling.

 This Le Jouet is 40% Grenache, 40% Lledoner Pelut (an exotic relative of Grenache), 10% Carignan and 10% Syrah. The grapes were hand-sorted three times and de-stemmed before fermentation. A portion of the Grenache grapes underwent carbonic maceration, and the wine was aged in a combination of small concrete tanks and old 600-liter oak barrels.

The wine is the color of onyx. Swirling the liquid black marble produces aromas of blackberries, dried herbs, chalk and a savory quality reminiscent of grilled meat with a side of tapenade.

Le Jouet tastes playful on the palate. The carbonic maceration gives it a bit of ripe blackcap raspberry and cassis flavor to go along with the wine’s spritely acidity. You would never guess 14% alcohol with this lithe wine. The fruit is joined by notes of bittersweet dark chocolate and anise.

Le Jouet is a snapshot of what Domaine des Enfants is all about. At $18, it is an incredible value. Domaine des Enfants wines are available on the East Coast and in Portland and California. Go find them.

The Changeup, a monthly column by Michael Alberty, is a baseball pitch designed to disorient and confuse. It’s the perfect representation of the unknown and its mastery over those who think they know what to expect. This column is devoted to those unorthodox Oregon wines you never saw coming.

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