Joe Donelan was a paper executive who believed in the power of reinvention. Like many successful people, he traveled in California and France and fell in love with wine—not wine by itself, but the culinary universe that accompanied it, along with the fellowship and bonhomie that wine culture inspired. That passion eventually caused him to actualize his belief in reinvention and pursue a career in wine.
In 2000 Donelan joined forces with Pax Mahle to create Pax Wine Cellars, a venture dedicated to making Syrah from cool-climate vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino. The company was dissolved in 2008; the following year, Joe founded Donelan Family Wines with his two sons, Tripp and Cushing.
Donelan Family wines is dedicated to making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the Burgundy model, as well as Rhone-style blends. The operation is based in Santa Rosa, but fruit is sourced from cool-climate vineyards throughout Sonoma County. The Donelans now own the Obsidian Vineyard in Knights Valley, and have contracts on fruit from three other parcels: Richards Family (Sonoma Valley), Kobler (Green Valley/Russian River) and Walker Vine Hill (Russian River). A total of 15 wines are produced, and 80% of the output is sold through a mailing list, but there’s enough available for key restaurants and retail shops. The Donelan wines are subtle, elegant and complex, yet very pleasurable to drink.
The 2013 Nancie Chardonnay ($52, 1620 cases produced) has a seductive nose with aromas of citrus and tart green apple, along with strong evidence of acidity. The wine is medium to full-bodied in the mouth, delivering all the acid promised on the nose; flavors of Meyer lemon and vanilla mix with an intriguing edge of spice, and hints of cinnamon keep poking up through the citrus. The finish is exceptional: long, rich and resonant, with echoes of spice and vanilla.
Two Brothers Pinot Noir 2012 ($60, 1942 cases made), from the North Coast, is named for Tripp and Cushing Donelan—directors of sales and marketing, respectively. The nose offers a range of pleasant earth notes, with enticing aromas of dark berries mingling with whiffs of forest undergrowth. It’s light and pleasant on entry, but expands quickly in the mid palate to reveal flavors of black raspberry, rhubarb and red cherry. The texture is feather-light and the mouth feel is graceful—despite an alcohol level of 14.2%, there’s no suggestion of heat.
On the Rhone side, the 2012 Cuvée Moriah is a blend of 64% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre and 12% Syrah. The nose reveals rich aromas of black raspberry, leather, black pepper and bramble. In what seems to be the Donelan signature, the wine starts out as smooth and full-bodied but expands significantly in the mid palate with mineral-infused flavors of tart black fruits, amplified by good acidity. Balance is the key element here: fruit, tannin and acidity complement each other as the wine builds toward the finish, which is dramatic and persistent.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.