The Donelan Family owns and operates a boutique winery in Santa Rosa, California that produces wines from grape varietals native to Burgundy and the Rhone Valley.
Formerly known as Pax Wine Cellars, Donelan Family Wines strives to achieve the truest expression of California terroir in each bottle they produce. As a family-driven operation, Joe Donelan and his sons, Tripp and Cushing, combine oenological passion with practical business sense and real life experience.
The governing philosophy behind their wine production from grape harvest to varietal blending and bottling is that “Wine is a journey, not a destination”.
After receiving his MBA from Iona College, Joe Donelan worked for paper broker A.T. Clayton for almost two decades before deciding to open a winery. It was a friendship with sommelier Michael Fahey of Toppers Restaurant in Nantucket that provided an education and the inspiration to jump head first into the world of wine. Joe set out to find the best terroir California could offer in order to produce wines he felt people would want to drink. Joe began distributing wine in 2000, but it was not until 2008 that the bottle bore the Donelan family name.
The winery is uniquely run, with the responsibilities being split between family members and the company’s two winemakers, Joe Nielsen and Tyler Thomas. Tripp Donelan is responsible for spearheading sales efforts whereas Cushing leads the marketing and advertising for the brand.
Head winemaker Joe Nielsen is responsible for the grapes from harvest to bottle. Driven by his curiosity and passion for oenology, Nielsen planted his own vineyard in the backyard of his parent’s home in Michigan at age 18. He later attended Michigan State where he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Horticulture and completed the Michigan State winemaking program at an accelerated rate. Nielsen has worked with the Donelan family since 2009.
The Donelan Family currently holds contracts with fourteen vineyard sites from which they source their grapes throughout Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley and the North Coast. The four most prominent are Walker Vine Hill, Kobler, Obsidian and Richard’s Family Vineyards.
Walker Vine Hill Vineyard, where the “Walker Vine Hill Syrah” hails from, is located just west of the Russian River Valley. This vineyard benefits from the hills that encircle it, which shelter it from the cool air of the Russian River while simultaneously capturing enough heat for the grapes to fully ripen. The plots surrounding this vineyard support both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes; however, it is the deep Gold Ridge Loam soil, variety of vine ages and the natural barriers that specifically contribute to the growth and maintenance of Syrah.
Kobler Vineyard is located in a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley known as Green Valley. Similar to Walker Vine Hill, it is surrounded by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. The vineyard strives to produce organically grown Syrah. It lies on a slightly elevated ridge that runs east-west and experiences cool nightly temperatures, fog and afternoon breezes.
Obsidian Vineyard is located in Knight’s Valley and is more than 30 years old. It is one of the warmest sites for the Donelan wines and has the best free-draining soil as it is composed of pure obsidian rock. The grape yields are extremely low and selective.
Richard’s Family Vineyard lies in the Schultz Valley and is surrounded by the Sonoma Mountains, which creates cool temperatures in a typically warm region. The rocky soils were once home to a lavender farm prior to supporting Syrah grapes.
The winemaking experience, complete from meticulous grape selection to repetitive blending trials, is what the Donelan Family prizes above all. Nielsen’s combined viticultural experiences in Michigan and California testify to his award-winning craft.
While maintaining his belief in minimal intervention during the winemaking process, Nielsen and his team take three key steps to ensure both varietal expression and quality. They choose to ferment whole clusters of grapes, stems included, which serves to enhance the wines’ aromas. With regard to aging, Joe Donelan believes, “Oak belongs on my floor and butter on my bread.” Therefore, very little new oak is used in the aging process (15-30%) so as not to mask any natural flavors expressed by the grapes. Lastly, Nielsen will sacrifice juice in order to perform multiple blending trials just prior to bottling. Certain vintages will see up to eighteen different trials before a final blend is chosen.
The Walker Vine Hill Syrah is sourced directly from the vineyard of the same name and is fermented with 45% whole cluster grapes. This wine ages in 25% new French oak barriques for a period of 18 months before it is bottled. It expresses more of a bold Californian style than its counterpart, the Cuvee Christine.
The Cuvee Christine Syrah is more evocative of the grape’s roots in the Southern Rhone and is blended from four vineyard sites. Primarily hailing from Windsor Oaks, it is also complemented with specific barrels from Walker Vine Hill and Obsidian Vineyard. The wine is 100% Syrah and is fermented with 35% whole cluster grapes. The 2010 vintage was aged for a longer period (18 months) than previous vintages in 30% new oak barrels. After 18 blending trials, the wine was approved for bottling by Nielsen.
The Two Brothers Pinot Noir is a multi-regional cuvee sourced from Steiner Ranch in the Sonoma Mountains (35%), Perli Vineyard in Mendocino (25%), Goldrock Ridge of Western Sonoma Coast (25%) and from Walker Vine Hill (15%). The first two vineyards reach 1000 and 1800 feet respectively, whereas the second two are located on rocky, free-draining coastal sites. The true flavors of Pinot Noir are evoked from the nutrient-poor soil, sloping ridges and windy conditions, which maintain cool temperatures. This wine is 100% Pinot Noir that is fermented with 40% whole cluster and aged for 18 months in 20% new oak barrels prior to bottling.
The Nancie Chardonnay is made from a trio of cool Sonoma vineyards, two of which reach 1000 feet in altitude and face the breezy Petaluma Wind Gap. The 100% Chardonnay is fermented following a short maceration on the skins and is aged in 15% new oak barrels for 12 months prior to bottling.