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A Trip To Donelan Family Wines in Santa Rosa

Donelan Family Wines in Santa Rosa.

Undiscovered wine country isn’t just narrow, winding roads and rustic backcountry bodegas hidden in the hills; some of Sonoma County’s most exciting wines are made in business districts along the well-traveled boulevards of the county seat, Santa Rosa. Yet for many wine tasters, they are no less “undiscovered,” or at least seemingly hard to find and connect with.

I think you might count Donelan Family Wines among those wineries. Committed “cult Syrah” fans and subscribers to pricey critical wine review outlets like Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate may have heard about Donelan over the past eight years, or even followed what you might call the winery’s “prehistory,” but the winery is far from familiar to wine tasting locals and visitors alike.

In recent years, Donelan has opened up to wine tasting by appointment, and also to some of the other wines most beloved by Sonoma County wine tasters — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Joes’ Place

Your adventure of discovery starts by braving traffic on Santa Rosa’s Piner Road to find Donelan tucked inside a looming warehouse in the Pine Creek business park. There are two doors to the Donelan offices — I’m never sure which one to open, but they both lead to neatly arranged tasting areas furnished with tables and seating.

Visits include a tour of (and perhaps tasting) in the cellar (if chilly sounds like the right choice), and are either hosted by a family member or one of a few staff members they’ve brought on.

Although this is a closely held family business run by Joe Donelan with the help of his sons Tripp and Cushing, they are stationed across the country on the East Coast, Southern California, and Healdsburg.

The other Joe is winemaker Joe Nielsen, who’s been with Donelan since 2009 as the understudy of then-winemaker Tyler Thomas. Unusual in a land awash with University of California at Davis graduates, Nielsen studied winemaking at Michigan State.

For some longtime “cult wine” observers, the Donelan story begins nearly another decade previous, with the founding of the “Pax” brand of Syrah-dominated wines. Joe Donelan, a paper business executive who, according to his son Cushing, isn’t a big golf player, liked to entertain business associates with wine instead. Having become hooked on Rhône wines at a favorite restaurant, he toured the region with the sommelier, joined by a young master somm-candidate named Pax Mahle on a few trips.

When they started a winery together on Donelan’s dime, neither had any experience making wine, but their gangbusters-big Syrahs captured the attention of a certain 100-point-scale wine critic — and you know what happens after that.

It’s clear enough that there was little love lost after the breakup of that business partnership, but the story of the rebooted Donelan brand picks up on a different track: the Donelan wines are designed to be “food friendly,” yet more complex than that designation sometimes suggests.

And while they’re available primarily by mailing list (75 percent of production, with some in select restaurants and retail), they balance that exclusivity with a personal touch: ever the salesman, Joe Donelan phones up each person who signs up for the mailing list, and then hand-writes them a thank-you note with each purchase of wine — thousands a year.

The Most Expensive Condiment on the Table

“We just never wanted to be a ‘cover band,’” Cushing Donelan says of the winery’s focus on small, lesser-known vineyards throughout Sonoma County. What he means by that is that there are plenty of boutique outfits that buy a few rows of grapes from better-known, “marquee” vineyards and trade on that name recognition.

Instead, the Donelans focus on more obscure vineyards tucked into great terroir — which can have its risks. The Richards vineyard Syrah, for example, won’t be seen in future vintages, as the owner decided against continuing with that particular retirement project, and ripped up the vines.

On the one hand, Cushing, whose background is in television and film production (his brother Tripp worked in finance before joining the family team), says they’ve chosen to focus on the vineyard sites, “and have them do the heavy lifting.”

On the other hand, the Donelan style of texture and subdued fruit seems paramount in the lineup that I tasted, which Cushing suggests with the comment, “The wine should be the most expensive condiment on table.”

Where does your taste fall on the sometimes fine line between vineyard and varietal character and style? That’s an interesting question to explore in this kind of tasting.

Gateways and Postcards

The first time I visited Donelan, a few years ago, winemaker Nielsen described their new Pinot Noir and Chardonnay program as the “gateway drug” to their true passion, Syrah and Grenache-based Rhône-styled wines.

While these remain in key, finishing positions on the tasting lineup, wines like the toasty, yet silky 2014 Cuvée Nancie Chardonnay and the 2013 Two Brothers Pinot Noir, brooding and weedy at first, but paying off big in savory olive oil texture and buoyant plum fruit, are on the rise.

The 2013 Cuvée Moriah is a Grenache-based red blend that’s eminently table-ready, a go-to summer grilling wine with crunchy cherry fruit under a dusting of oak and white pepper. A “Sonoma postcard,” according to Cushing, the 2013 Cuvée Christine Syrah also gives up its plum, black cherry fruit in measured doses, overlaid with oily oak and finishing on a Rhône-like, stony note.

Fans of the more feral, “animale” side of Syrah might strain to find such characteristics in the 2014 Obsidian Vineyard Syrah — Obsidian is the only estate vineyard purchased by the Donelans after years of sourcing fruit from this Knights Valley property. But it is well integrated and complex enough to cause any red wine lover to pause awhile in contemplation.

In the neighborhood

What else could possibly be of interest in this commercial district of Santa Rosa?

Well, just down the way you can practice rock-climbing skills at the Vertex Climbing Center (3358-A Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-573-1608). Prefer the challenge of Death and Taxes? Try the locally renowned Moonlight Brewing Company’s new tap room (3350 Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-528-2537) on Friday and weekend afternoons. Still got spare change after buying a case of that cult Syrah—go thrift shopping, plus cats, at the Pick of the Litter store down the road, benefitting Forgotten Felines.

But that’s not all in this neck of the woods — get set up to make your own wine this year at The Beverage People (1845 Pine Road, Suite D, Santa Rosa, 707-544-2520), Santa Rosa’s pioneering, and very helpful beer, wine, and cheese-making outfitters. And by the way, you’re just around the corner from another hidden gem, the French bistro Chloe’s French Café (3883 Airway Drive, Suite 145, Santa Rosa, 707-528-3095; Open 8 a.m.–4 p.m., Monday–Friday).

Donelan Family Wines, 3352-D Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-591-0782. Tours and tastings daily by appointment only, 10 a.m.–3 p.m. $35–$60.

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