Monday, November 14, 2016

Donelan Wines: Quality Not Quantity

The motto at Donelan Wines is: Wine Is A Journey Not a Destination. And that couldn’t be more true! How I made my way to Donelan Wines up in Santa Rosa was certainly a journey.

Cliche alert!! My I Love Lucy moment! Cliche alert!

About two and a half months ago I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a harvest at an artisan winery in Sonoma County. I was gifted this experience from a family member for my birthday back in July. They gave me a birthday card and a bottle of Donelan 2013 Chardonnay and said “give Cush Donelan a call”! Anyone named Cush is bound to be a good time, right?!?! I made the call, and two weeks later I was on a plane with him up to Santa Rosa to spend a couple days in the vineyard and at the winery.

Donelan Wines is a small-ish boutique, premium winery. They own a vineyard (the Obsidian Vineyard in Knight’s Valley) and also purchase grapes from about a dozen other Sonoma growers, plus one in Mendocino. The winery is in an unassuming industrial park in Santa Rosa with a total case production of 6,000-8,000 cases annually.

In chatting with Cush before the trip, he warned me that they run a tight ship up there. There are only four people who work in the winery, and they handle EVERYTHING. The team includes: a winemaker, assistant winemaker, cellar manager, and an intern. They are a well-oiled machine and work together seamlessly. First of all, the winery is clean. And I mean spotless! One reason for the extreme cleanliness is that Donelan does not use any commercial inoculations in their fermentation. They use only native fermentations. What this means is that they rely on the ambient yeast in the environment and in the winery to jump start the fermentation. There is a native flora that exists in the winery that needs to be maintained. A lot of the “cleaning” done in the winery is with water plus an organic, nontoxic, biodegradable detergent. Countless hours of scrubbing down every piece of equipment and surface, plus a water rinse, ensure the winery stay spotless. 

When you visit Donelan Wines at the industrial park in Santa Rosa, you may not know what you are in for. There are no romantic vineyard views and no Tuscan-style estate on the property. You drive into the park and see a series of white stucco buildings, one of which has a “Donelan Wines” placard. The tasting room is minimalist, yet comfortable.

Tasting Room

During my time at Donelan, I had the privilege of sitting in a tasting appointment. And yes, you need to make an appointment, as the tasting room does not keep regular hours. A “Meet the Family” tasting is $20 and a more extensive “Family Reunion” tasting runs $50. The tasting I witnessed, with a couple from Los Angeles, ran 2 hours.  There are no hurried pours here and no pourer who barely knows the wines he/she is serving. Cush poured every wine with care and shared the stories behind the wines (and the vines) with the couple, who were more than happy to hear about them. If the couple gave him no more than 30 minutes, I have no doubt that Cush would have treated the appointment with an equal amount of care and attention. He created a comfortable and safe space for this couple to taste. They drink and enjoy quite a bit of wine at home and have more knowledge than the average consumer, but they admittedly are not wine experts. Cush allowed them to guide the tasting (i.e. asking them what types of wines they like, and what they were interested in tasting) and let them share their impressions of each wine. There were no right or wrong answers, which is exactly how a wine tasting should be!

During my time at Donelan, I was in the way. A lot. As I mentioned, they are a well-oiled machine up there and really didn’t need me. However, I was happily superfluous to the process!

Day 1 entailed a lot of walking around, checking out barrels, fermenting tanks, cases of wine, destemming machines, presses, etc. Day 2 was going to start strong with an early morning harvest. I had participated in a few harvests in early August, so I felt like an old pro (at least in my mind). However, as Day 1 was winding down, we got word that the early AM harvest got moved to midnight that night. Holy crap….a midnight harvest...exciting! Cush and I grabbed a bite in town at The County Bench (try the chicken thighs!) and then retreated for a couple hours to get some shut eye before our midnight call time. Fast forward and I’m “napping” from 9pm-11pm and I get a text that the harvest got moved to 2am. Ok, back to sleep. Alarm went off at 1:15am and at 1:30am Cush and I (and our headlamps!) were en route to the vineyard! Harvest is quite a sight to see anytime of day….and a middle of the night harvest is no exception! Flood lights are set up to pour a bath of light onto the vineyard. The grapes were being manually harvested, and a large truck drove with the harvest team down the rows of vines. The truck had lights on it to shine directly on the vines, and had the large bins that the grapes were emptied into. For 2am, there’s a lot going on. A couple dozen people scurrying between the vines, a LARGE and LOUD truck making its way through the vines, a heavy (and wet!) mist coming over the vines, and not to mention the vines themselves! By 5am I was back in my room, moist from mist, and covered in dirt and bramble from the vines. But I was exhausted and tumbled into bed.

Day 2 was exciting, because our bounty (close to 4 tons of grapes) was going to arrive at the winery for processing. The whole cluster grapes arrive on flat bed trucks and are immediately weighed. Some samples are pulled for the winemaker to do some testing on (pH, TA, and Brix levels). The grapes are first put through a mechanical shaker, which helps to release the MOG (matter other than grape), such as: leaves, stems, bugs, rotten grapes, etc. Immediately after the grapes are shaken, they go on the conveyer belt sorter and we all manually sort through the grapes and pull out more MOG. It’s a fast process and you really need to concentrate and focus, because it’s easy to zone out and almost forget what you’re doing. After the grapes are sorted, they go into a destemming machine that magically (really, it feels like magic) de-stems the grapes. The grapes are cold soaked for a couple days, then a nutrient add, then the beginnings of fermentation. Some of the grapes needed to be stomped. Like, I Love Lucy stomped. They only needed one person to do it, and that lucky person was me!  So much fun!

What I love about Donelan Wines are the personal touches. Within 48 hours of anyone adding themselves to the email list, they get a personal call from Joe Donelan, the founder of Donelan Wines, welcoming them to the Donelan family. Cush also stays in touch with many of the Donelan clients. “We value customer service over everything and want that to be synonymous with Donelan. It strengthens our commitment to quality and reassures people that a family is behind it on all levels.” according to Cush. About ¾ of their annual production is sold direct to consumer (either online or in their tasting room).

The wines. Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir are their bread and butter. About half of their wines are even named after Donelan family members. Their focus is on cool climate varietals on great sites, according to Joe. Retails range from $48-$150. The quality of Donelan Wines is second to none. Robert Parker agrees, as he has personally visited the winery and given some impressive scores to various Donelan wines.

Joe Donelan got into the wine business as a second career right around the year 2000 with a business partner. In 2008 he started his own label, Donelan Wines. Joe’s son Tripp, in addition to being the Director of Sales, handles shipping and operations, whereas Cushing has more of a marketing focus on building brand awareness, business development and wholesale relationships. How did Joe get into wine? In his 30’s he spent some time in Europe and was exposed to great wines and the European sensibility with wine that every day is a celebration, and that every day calls for wine. A day with loved ones is a day to celebrate. He believes in living life to its fullest daily, and not just waiting for Fri/Sat/Sun. Joe says he has no plans for immediate retirement, because he’s having too much fun. He loves people and a sense of adventure the wine business provides him.  As mentioned earlier, about 75-80% of their wines are sold DTC (direct to consumer).  Joe doesn’t want to change that. He likes to meet these people and help them in their growth and journey to learn about wine.

What’s next for Donelan? According to Cush: We have experienced tremendous growth in the last 3 years: great vintages, an estate property, expanded the portfolio, a new winemaker and new territories. We are continuing to strive for the highest quality while maintaining a great customer experience. In the future we would like to acquire more property and ultimately a stand alone winery to call our own.

Enjoy some photos from my trip:

Barrels waiting for the juice
pH?  Brix?  TA? 
2am harvest decisions
Clusters just before harvest
Each large bin is about half a ton
Ready to go
Stems, stems, and more stems!
One more gratuitous "I Love Lucy" shot

Thank you to Cush for allowing me to tag on his harvest trip. And thanks to both Joe and Cush for allowing me to conduct these interviews. It was an absolute pleasure.

Have you experienced Donelan Wines before? If so, leave me a comment below and tell me about it!

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