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. A couple of years ago, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a harvest at this artisan winery in Sonoma County. I was gifted this experience from a family member for my birthday. 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.
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.
In order to taste at Donelan you need to make an appointment, as the tasting room does not keep regular hours. A Donelan Portfolio tasting is $30 and a more extensive “Road Less Traveled” Reserve tasting runs $50. There are no hurried pours here and no pourer who barely knows the wines he/she is serving. Every wine will be poured with care and stories behind the wines (and the vines) will be shared. Bottle prices range from $25 for their rosé up to $150 for their single vineyard offerings.
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. Note that the tasting room and the winery are one in the same. Both are at this same location.
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.
How’s the Wine
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. 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.
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).
Speaking of unique experiences, during my visit to Donelan I had the opportunity to participate in an overnight harvest. 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 also carried 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 home, moist from mist, and covered in dirt and bramble from the vines.
The following morning our bounty (close to 4 tons of grapes) arrived at the winery for processing. The whole cluster grapes arrived on flatbed trucks and were immediately weighed. Some samples are pulled for the winemaker to do testing (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 (I Love Lucy stomped!). They only needed one person to do it, and that lucky person was me!
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.