All in the family…

My shoes were dusty, my feet sore, my stomach queazy – up and down the 1000 foot elevation Sonoma switchbacks do that to me – but I never felt so good! I had been in Sonoma for less than 24 hours and I was falling in love with the place all over again.

Sonoma is rustic, rural and real. Unlike its upscale neighbor just over the mountain (the Mayacamas), where it’s all spit and polish with grand wine edifices and yes, many equally grand wines, Sonoma feels (and is) very different than the heavily marketed Napa Valley. It captures your heart with its laid back manner and won’t let go.

While I can’t speak for all the wines and wineries in the vast and varied Sonoma viticultural region, I can certainly vouch for the stellar lineup of Donelan Family Wines.

Patriarch and owner, Joe Donelan invited me to come out and kick up some dirt and walk between the vines of the 14 vineyards Donelan sources grapes from, including the Obsidian Vineyard, their recently purchased estate property.

It is no secret that Joe is a fan of Rhone-styled wines. Parker and Galloni have labeled Donelan as “syrah specialists”, awarding them a number of high 90’s and a few perfect 100 point scores.  But the Donelans’ – Joe, sons Cushing and Tripp, along with Winemaker Joe Nielsen, make equally captivating chardonnay and pinots and for my money, the single best roussanne, labeled Venus, I’ve ever tasted!

While most of Napa’s vineyards can be reached fairly quickly – barring the increasingly agonizing congestion on Highway 29 – tracing the Donelan vineyards, which reach from the Perli Vineyard high up on the Mendocino Ridge AVA to the flatlands Lazy W Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, with no less than a dozen unique vineyard sites in between, was a two-day excursion.

Many wineries tend to plant large, single-site parcels and use any myriad of tools and techniques to craft a wine that consumers are more than happy to pull the cork, sip,and then forget. This mass-market approach is just not in the Donelan DNA and once you’ve had a wine from the Donelan lineup, I can promise you won’t forget them.

Not taking this easy road is also adopted by the “extended” Donelan family, the dozen of “grape farmers” who work in tandem with Donelan Winemaker Joe Nielsen.  Experienced far beyond his 30 years of age, I was fascinated by Nielsen’s grasp of each of the extraordinarily diverse plots the Donelan grapes are grown on. Walking row after row with Winemaker Nielsen and the growers, it was obvious these second and third generation farmers yield a tremendous amount of respect to Nielsen, who for many is young enough to be a grandson.

Considering that the vineyards Donelan and the growers source grapes range from the postage-stamp size 1/2 acre Kobler Vineyard, where Donelan’s viognier produced just under three barrels, or 72 cases last vintage, to the 6 1/2 acres under vine at the estate vineyard Obsidian, you begin to realized how much emphasis the Donelan’s dedicate to terroir and the quality of the grapes they select.

They are masterful at locating hidden gems of grand cru family-owned plots, like the Richards Family Ranch in Sonoma Valley (near Kenwood) and the Barbed Oak, a new one-acre site in Bennett Valley, the source for the incredible Cushing’s Block pinot noir from a Calera clone, rumored to have been suit-cased in by Josh Jensen from a DRC vineyard.

Producing truly world-class wines is not easy and it certainly isn’t cheap. In the 2011 vintage – one of the most difficult in California history, Joe Donelan made the very painful, and costly decision to drop the entire crop from vineyards he deemed unworthy of putting a Donelan label on. Every grower was paid that year even though not a single drop of wine was made from some of the vineyards!  That is virtually unheard of in the world of wine.

For the Donelan’s, wine is a journey, not a destination.

For more information and to purchase Donelan wines visit the website or call them.

(707) 591-0782 





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