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On March 6th, I hopped on a San Francisco-bound plane to work with a client on an upcoming event. That weekend I spent some time with friends in Marin, and our visit to Chalk Hill Estate was my last public outing before COVID got serious in California. I flew home on March 8th and woke up on Monday, March 9th to an entirely changed world. For a moment, let me go back to that time BC (before Corona). We took a jaunt to Sonoma and enjoyed the Culinary Tour at Chalk Hill Estate. And WHAT an experience that wine and food pairing was.

Chef de cuisine, Alec Graham

Chalk Hill Estate, in the Chalk Hill sub AVA of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma is a GORGEOUS 1300-acre sustainable property. There are 300 acres planted under vine and while there, vineyards are in your line of vision as far as the eye can see. This bountiful property gives us 26,000 cases of wine annually, and 90% of the produce served onsite comes directly from the property. Talk about farm to table. Truly.

Below are the fabulous wine and food pairing courses we enjoyed as a part of the Culinary Tour.

Executive Chef: David Thater
Chef de Cuisine: Alec Graham


Wine and Food Pairing: First Course

Lemongrass Custard | Root Vegetable Granola | Tomato Powder

2017 Felta Chardonnay $75

A weighty and full-bodied Chardonnay. Super-duper creamy, and I’m here for it. This wine and food pairing really worked. The custard really brightened up the wine and showcased the fruit: both citrus and green fruit.

Wine and Food Pairing: Second Course

Carrot & Parsnip Sofrito Blue Corn Tortilla | Avocado Mousseline | Pickled Cippolini

2016 Estate Pinot Noir $48

Bright red fruit plus cracked black pepper (both on the nose and palate). This pairing sings. The pepper from the wine plays well with the spice on the dish.

Wine and Food Pairing: Third Course

Roasted Pork Belly | Vegetable Dashi | Charred Broccoli & Romanesco 

2015 Syrah $60

Dark fruit plays with medium plus tannins and a full body. Super smoky on the backend. This smoke danced with the charred vegetables and the roasted pork notes. Divine. 

Wine and Food Pairing: Fourth Course

Angus Ribeye | Estate Sunchokes | Bok Choy | Onion Soubise | Sherry Vinegar

2016 Cabernet Sauvignon $85

There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon is in your glass. Distinct pyrazines (jalapeño) on the nose, moving into dark black fruit. Well-integrated tannins that cut right through the fat in the rib eye. Ab fab. 

The Culinary Tour Includes:

When life gets back to normal, I’d HIGHLY recommend you consider the Culinary Tour at Chalk Hill Estate. Your day begins with a brief excursion through the estate vineyards. Following the vineyard tour, guests are led through the new culinary garden where organically-farmed produce is the inspiration for the Estate Chef’s culinary artistry. You will then arrive at the Pavilion – a conservatory overlooking the equestrian center with panoramic views of the Chalk Hill valley. There, you will enjoy a sit-down tasting of Chalk Hill wines paired with small plates prepared by their Estate Chef. 

By Appointment | $120 per person | 2.5 hours

For appointments visit or contact Chalk Hill at (707) 657-4837. 


Bibiana González Rave and husband Jeff Pisoni are the embodiment of keeping it all in the family. Jeff is a 4th generation farmer in the Salinas Valley. His family grew vegetables, but it was his father Gary, who first planted grapevines in 1982. Gary planted 5 acres that he hand-irrigated. Literally. He drove water up the mountain in his truck for the vines. Jeff now tends to vines in both the Santa Lucia Highlands and Monterey.

Bibiana grew up in Medellin, Columbia and at 14 decided she wanted to make wine. She lived six years in France (Bordeaux and Burgundy) where she worked her first harvests and earned a degree in Enology from the University of Bordeaux. She considers herself a French-trained winemaker with more of a vineyard focus. Jeff handles all of the estate fruit and Bibiana buys all the sourced fruit. All in the family. They have two children, ages two and four and between the two of them, they manage/oversee six different labels/brands.

République hosted us at a press luncheon in March where we tried wines from each of their brands. Below is a brief descriptor of each brand, including my standout wine.

Why am I sharing this story and this family with you? Because I believe there is a level of integrity and authenticity that comes from wine crafted by a family. Crafted by real people with real skin in the game. Bibiana and Jeff have a portfolio of California wines that you should feel good about purchasing. You are supporting a real family, real people, and real dreams.

Cattleya Wines

Started in 2011, Cattleya Wines are terroir-driven, small production wines. Cattleya is a type of orchid, the native flower of Columbia, found in the rainforest.

2014 Cattleya Cuvée Number Five Russian River Chardonnay $50 (current vintage 2017)

I find this wine super-duper pleasing. Very primary plus creamy malo notes and an elegant minerality. Ripe, juicy, and yummy.



Alma de Cattleya

Alma means soul in Spanish. These wines are produced from Napa and Sonoma Vineyards and represent the purity of each varietal from their specific appellation areas. Wine Enthusiast calls Alma de Cattleya Wines “a great taste of the freshness of Sonoma without the sticker shock”.

2018 Alma de Cattleya Sauvignon Blanc $20

A Sauvignon Blanc that is the perfect balance of CA style and NZ style. I get everything from citrus fruit to tropical fruit plus some grassy/green notes. This wine is made from Mostly Russian River fruit. 1000 case total production.



Shared Notes

This is the collaboration between Bibiana and Jeff. In their 6th vintage, these wines are inspired by the traditional Sauvignon Blanc wines from France.

2017 Shared Notes Les Leçons des Maîtres $65 (current vintage 2018)

A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon inspired by Bordeaux. Whole cluster fruit and a wine made in a reductive style showcasing both rocks (minerality) and fruit. Served in magnum. This wine is unfined and unfiltered.

Pisoni Estate

Was first planted by Gary Pisoni (Jeff’s dad) in 1982. Pisoni Vineyards consist of small vineyard blocks at 1300 ft altitude with wines made by Jeff. Pisoni makes only one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir every year.

2017 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir (allocation only)

Really polished. Not much else to say except that this is a stellar wine.



Lucia Wines

A collection of wines from the three vineyards farmed by the Pisoni family. These are limited production wines that afford the Pisoni family complete control of the farming and winemaking process, ensuring consistently superior quality.

2017 Lucia Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands)

Fruit from the Soberanes, Gary’s, and Pisoni Vineyards. This wine is barrel aged and was the creamiest Chardonnay of the bunch, but in a GOOD way.


The charismatic younger sister of Lucia Wines. A limited production rosé produced annually with $1/bottle donated to breast cancer research.

2018 Lucy Rosé of Pinot Noir (allocation only)

100% estate fruit. A stellar rosé.



And I’d be remiss if I did not mention Margarita’s baguette and Normandy butter that was served to us at République. Normandy butter is most certainly liquid gold. The best butter I have ever tasted.


Pinot Noir, for many serious wine lovers, is “lo maximo” (which in my homeland of Argentina means: the maximum/best) when it comes to red wine, with Burgundy, being the pinnacle or the most pure expression of the grape. To be transparent, I have not enjoyed as much Burgundy as I’d like. Newsflash: good Burgundy is expensive, and that’s just not how I roll. I tried a couple pricey Burgundies in my WSET Diploma class, but other than that, my Burgundy exposure has been basic Bourgogne Rouge and maybe a handful of Village level selections.

At the Wine Bloggers Conference last year in Sonoma, I attended a Wine Discovery Session on Pinot Noir with Jon Priest, head winemaker at Etude Wines since 2005. Priest’s winemaking is not heavy-handed, as he wants the fruit and the region to shine. This session did not feature any Burgindies, but I was eager to explore a grape that is not readily on my “go to” list.

“Etude was founded on the philosophy that winemaking begins in the vineyard long before harvest, and that superior grape growing allows our winemakers to craft wines of exceptional varietal expression and finesse. This remains our approach today as we continue to build the Etude legacy.”

– Jon Priest

Grace Benoist Ranch which spans 600 acres and several vineyards is Etude’s estate flagship property in the Los Carneros AVA of Sonoma. It was developed in 2000 with seven Chardonnay clones and 17 Pinot Noir clones. The first harvest was in 2003 and since 2004, all Pinot Noir for their wines is sourced from these estate vineyards. Sustainability is an important part of Etude Wines. Native Oak and Bay trees onsite protect nearby waterways, 12 miles of wildlife corridors were incorporated in the vineyard to preserve the natural migration of wildlife, wetlands are protected, and an erosion control plan was implemented. In the winery, solar panels supply about a third of Etude’s energy needs, recycled water is used for landscape irrigation and employees manage a composting and recycling program which diverts a large percentage of waste away from landfills. The Etude team also manages an onsite garden, with a portion of the produce donated to the Napa Food Bank.

Grace Benoist is at a higher elevation and close to the Petaluma Gap in a cooler growing region. The fog and maritime breezes off the Pacific Ocean and the Bay keep daytime temperatures low, creating the perfect environment for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The property has three distinct soil types: the Petaluma Formation (coarse sand and gravel deposited through moving water), the Sonoma Volcanics (rocky), and QTU (young bedrock; volcanic pebbles and boulders).

Wines Tasted

Let’s get to the wines! Pinot Noir is well-known for expressing the place and terroir in which it was grown to a degree that no other wine varietal can. Here we will explore seven Etude Wines, all Pinot Noir.

2015 Etude Grace Benoist Ranch Estate Grown Pinot Noir Carneros $47

Jon’s notes include: turned earth, dark fruit, with quenching acid. My notes: This wine is medium ruby in color, with strong notes of earth and forest floor (VERY Pinot Noir), red/blue fruit (cherry, blueberry), baking spice, pepper, medium + acid, and medium – smooth tannins. This wine is a bit earthier than the next wine coming up.

2015 Etude Heirloom Grace Benoist Ranch Estate Grown Pinot Noir Carneros $95

These grapes are not certified “heirloom” or “heritage” but they do know that the vine has been passed down from vigneron to vigneron. This wine is more delicate (floral/perfumed) on the nose than the first one. It is a baby at the moment and will only improve in the bottle.

2014 Etude Yamhela Vineyard Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton District Willamette Valley $65 (current vintage 2015)

This is a youthful wine with red fruit (cherry, plum), though this fruit presentation is a bit more demure than the Carneros fruit. Grainy/powdery medium tannins.

2015 Etude Ellenbach Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast $65

This vineyard is 4.5 miles from the ocean with the vines sitting just above the fog line, meaning they see vibrant, bright sun and also get the cool ocean breeze. Red fruit jumps out of the glass with this wine.

2014 Etude North Canyon Vineyard Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley $55 (current vintage 2015)

Deeper, darker fruit than the others, though the fruit is not quite black. A slight perfume with a higher alcohol than the others at 14.1%. These vines are in Santa Barbara County in an area cooler than some of the other expressions presented here. Santa Maria Valley is a transverse valley with long arroyos that run E/W versus the more common N/S. This wine is soft and delicate on the palate.

2014 Etude Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir Sta. Rita Hills $50

This wine is nervy! It has youthful fruit with a graphite/minerality note. The soils are on ancient seabeds in the Santa Ynez Valley between Buellton and Lompoc. This is a cooler area that is defined by the ocean influence.

2014 Etude Bannockburn Pinot Noir Central Otago, New Zealand $60

Central Otago is unique in that it is the only continental climate in New Zealand. It is very dry there with flinty, loess soil. Funk prevails with this wine. Savory, umami notes and a meatiness with minerality/iron due to the soil.

Recently I had the opportunity to taste through samples of Kenwood Vineyards’ latest releases. Kenwood puts out 500,000 cases annually. As you may know, I don’t tend to steer towards larger producers, but I have started making some exceptions. For one, I like to see and taste what’s being made out there on a larger scale. I also continue to see some of the larger producers having a hand in meaningful sustainability practices. It is fascinating to see how these larger producers can scale sustainability that we usually associate with smaller producers. This is not a “who is better” argument. It is simply a great comparison what can be done on different levels and with different scales.

Kenwood Vineyards recently partnered with Sonoma County Trails Council on a preservation endeavor. They pledged $100,000 to the Trails Council as well as staff volunteer time with the end goal to help people get outdoors and reconnect in the wild. Wine, as a consumer product, does employ a nice little carbon footprint, so it’s good to see large producers helping to offset their piece of the puzzle. Kenwood is also “talking the talk” when it comes to their grape growing and winemaking. They employ sustainable practices including reducing waste, recycling, and lower energy consumption.

Here are some members of the Kenwood team doing trail maintenance and other fire-related recovery efforts.

Sonoma is at the heart of every wine produced at Kenwood Vineyards. Some wines are single vineyard and some wines include fruit sourced from the entire country, but you can always know that the Kenwood wine you are drinking is truly representative of Sonoma County. Winemaker Pat Henderson says that his “focus as a winemaker is to make wines that showcase the vibrant fruit flavors and distinctive terroirs that make Sonoma famous.”

Wines sampled are below:

2016 Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma County Chardonnay $18

Grapes are sourced throughout Sonoma County for this wine. This wine has seen oak and went through full malo (twice actually!), so we see aromas/flavors of dairy/yogurt, vanilla, and toast. There is also a strong citrus (lemon curd) note along with green apples on the palate. I detect an ever so slight residual sugar, but I cannot confirm as RS was not listed on the spec sheet.

2015 Kenwood Vineyards Six Ridges Pinot Noir $30

The grapes from this wine come from the Russian River Valley. A warm spell before harvest in September gives the fruit on this wine an intense, rich character. This is a nice and ripe Pinot Noir, if that is your style. Lots of ripe red fruit (cherry, plum, strawberry) along with baking spices (cinnamon and allspire).

2014 Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon $35

This wines name comes from the fact that Kenwood has been exclusively crafting wine from single vineyards on novelist Jack London’s historic ranch. This was a very dry year as we were in the 3rd year of California’s historic drought, which increased the intensity of fruit. On this wine we see a combination of red and black fruit (including cherries and blackberries). On the palate I get the same fruit, plus black pepper, and tobacco.

Thank you to Double Forte PR for this sampling opportunity. Cheers!

Imagine hopping on a shuttle bus to an “undetermined location” in Sonoma wine country. What’s the worst that could happen? Nothing, it turns out! Me and about 30 of my fellow Wine Bloggers Conference attendees ended up at Thomas George Estates in the Russian River Valley. It was already nightfall, so we did not get to see the sprawling vineyards onsite, as it was already dark. We exited the bus and were immediately whisked into the wine cave/tasting room and greeted with a glass of bubbly and some charcuterie. Not bad!


This property originally belonged to Davis Bynum, a legend in Russian River Pinot. The Baker family purchased the land and winery from Bynum and founded Thomas George Estates in 2008. Since then they have acquired other vineyards and now maintain close to 100 acres of vines! All wines that Thomas George produces are estate and they focus on site-specific Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. In addition, they also grow: Grenache, Zinfandel, and Viognier.

My wine friends and I arrived and enjoyed the reception in the beautiful cave setting. The bubbly was a hit, and the nibbles were delectable.

We then headed to the gorgeous and dramatically lit table for dinner. The full menu, including wine pairings, is below. It was a great meal, wonderful people, and will be remembered!




Black Pig Salumi & Antipasti

House-made cured meats, roasted & marinated vegetables, crostini

2014 Brut Blanc de Blancs, Starr Ridge Vineyard, “Cooper Block” 14.2% ABV, $50

Oh boy is this wine good. Crisp green apple, brioche/toast, lees aging detectable. Bitter almond on the finish.

First Course

Roasted Brussels Sprout Salad

Black pig bacon, Asian Pear, Marcona Almonds, Aged Sherry Vinegar, Bohemian Creamery “Capriago”

2015 Chardonnay, Sons & Daughters Vineyard 13.9% ABV $35

No malo and no oak. The wine was aged sur lie in both stainless steel tank and concrete egg. This is a ripe Chardonnay with notes of citrus, stone fruit, and tropical fruit. Great acid makes this a nice everyday Chardonnay.


Cracklin’ Pork Belly + Star Anise Liberty Duck

Black Rice, TGE Estate-Grown Pomegranate, Watercress

2014 Pinot Noir, Baker Ridge Vineyard 14% ABV $70

This wine paired famously with the pork belly and duck. Aromas of red and blue fruit plus floral violet notes. On the palate, strong acid with red/blue fruit, violet and earthy notes.



Backyard Quince & Apple Tartin, Bourbon Gelato

2012 Late Harvest Viognier, Baker Ridge Vineyard “Baby Block” 17% ABV $35

Divine. Just divine.


Eppie and Chuy Ordaz

Many of us can relate to being an underdog at some time in our life. In studying for the WSET Diploma, I find myself to be an underdog. I don’t work in the wine and spirits business, so I don’t get to talk about wine all day, nor do I have access to the myriad of bottles that someone in the industry has access to. I’ve had to learn about wine mostly through reading (books, the Internet, blogs, etc). I then supplement book learning with tasting as many wines as I can get my hands on. But those in the biz have a distinct advantage, as they live and breathe wine all day. I, on the other hand, spend my days producing events in the LGBT non-profit world. A far cry from the wine industry!

An underdog in California wine country? Yes, they exist. Not all wineries here are owned by “the big boys”, whether that’s large international firms, Hollywood execs, or retired millionaires. Some earned success in the California wine business by starting from the bottom and working their way up. Chuy Ordaz, an immigrant from Mexico, made 32 unsuccessful attempts to get into the US. Only on his 33rd try was he successful. My family is also a family of immigrants…..aren’t all American families descendants of immigrants? My father and his family came to the US from Argentina when he was a teenager, and on my mother’s side, my grandfather’s family emigrated to the US from Portugal, specifically the Azores.

Fast forward, and after Chuy’s successful 33rd attempt to come to the US, the Ordaz family’s name appears on their Sonoma wine labels. Ordaz Family Wines launched in 2009. All wines are single vineyard. Courage and perseverance have both been pervasive themes with the Ordaz family. Chuy Ordaz’s son, Eppie, is now at the helm of winemaking. He was also the first Ordaz to attend college. Eppie has a Bachelors degree in accounting and went from crunching numbers to crushing grapes! According to Eppie, accounting and winemaking are similar: both require an attention to detail and both require you to put in long hours. To say the least!

Eppie Ordaz was recently named one of several “winemakers to watch” according to Sonoma Magazine. He works alongside his father, Chuy, who is synonymous with some of the more famous vineyards of Sonoma, as he has been managing vineyards for years. Chuy farms 500 acres in Sonoma under Palo Alto Vineyard Management. They are a pioneer in organic farming. Why? To protect the vineyard workers who are on the front lines, as exposure to conventional farming and pesticides could be detrimental to their health. Chuy spent many years in the vineyards himself, and the health of his workers is of utmost importance.

Today Ordaz Family Wines has 50 employees and manages 400 acres. “We’re committed to producing single-vineyard wines that are as prized as the vineyards from which they originate”, Eppie continues “Everything we do has got to be single vineyard, because I want to showcase the vineyard and the people who work for it.”. Their goal is to make solid wines that aren’t going to break the bank.

Back in February I was able to explore Ordaz Family Wines through a program called #WineStudio.

What is #WineStudio?

#WineStudio is an online Twitter-based educational program. Each month a different producer is selected, along with a lineup of wines from their portfolio. Anyone can participate in the weekly Twitter chats, yet only a select few are chosen to receive samples to accompany the conversation. Every Tuesday at 6pm (Pacific time), Tina Morey hosts the group on Twitter at the WineStudio hashtag. Usually accompanying her is someone affiliated with the producer, such as the winemaker, owner, salesperson, etc. Tina describes it as part instruction and part wine tasting. Discussion topics include: the producer history, the grapes, tourism, terroir, regional culture, food, etc. For each new topic Tina has seen dozens of original content pieces created, thousands of interactions via social media and millions of impressions created on our specific topic. Back in February we chatted with Eppie Ordaz and tasted two of their wines.

My tasting notes are below:2014 Placida Vineyard RRV Pinot Noir $38, 13.7% ABV

This wine is elegant (a descriptor I use when a wine is understated), yet it has a presence and an amazing amount of fruit. The wine is pale ruby with red fruit (cherry, plum, cranberry), black pepper, cola, and earthy/forest floor notes. Medium + acid, medium + alcohol, medium body, and medium + flavor intensity. Fun fact: the Sebastopol vineyard (Placida) is named after Eppie’s grandmother.2012 Sandoval Vineyard Malbec $25, 13.5% ABV

This wine is medium ruby with red fruit (plum, raspberry) plus some black fruit (blackberry/bramble), pepper and baking spices (vanilla, cloves, cinnamon). Wow! On the palate, juicy berries plus unending spice and sizzle. Toast and cedar notes showcase the 18 months this wine spent in French oak.

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? They’re usually much more compelling than the story of someone who got what they wanted and got it easily. There is something so distinctly American about the Ordaz Family Wines story. We are a country of immigrants and we (should) welcome immigrants with open arms. We are a country founded on the idea that you can come here with nothing and make something. Whatever that “something” is.  In this case, it’s some damn good wines.

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:

pH? Brix? TA?


2am harvest decisions


Clusters just before harvest


Each large bin is about half a ton

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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