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Nantucket Summer Resident Joe Donelan: Wine is a Journey

Kristen Harnisch interviews Joe Donelan, a Nantucket summer resident and founder of Donelan Family Wines, a boutique winery of the highest quality.

Twelve years ago, Joe Donelan, a Nantucket summer resident, began to pursue his passion for winemaking.  With a sense of adventure, a love of people, and the intention to build a boutique winery of the highest quality, he has navigated Donelan Wines to critical acclaim.

Wine is a Journey
Joe Donelan’s journey began in the late eighties at Toppers Restaurant on Nantucket, where Donelan and his family learned about wines from the restaurant’s sommelier, Michael Fahey.   Donelan recalls, “At that time, I drank Chardonnay, Pinot and Cabernet, but I wasn’t exactly what I’d call well-versed in any one of those.”  During the following years, Donelan cultivated his passion for excellent wine, which took him far and wide in search of new experiences.  “We visited California wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and on the Central Coast.  I basically fell in love with Rhone varietals and Burgundies and subsequently, we went to Europe to explored the Rhone Valley.”

Donelan, who has worked for A.T. Clayton in Connecticut since 1980, began bottling wines in 2000 in California and distributing them under the name Pax Wine Cellars.  “People reach a certain level of success in their lives and they hope they can re-pot themselves and try something else.  You never know when that opportunity is going to pop up, and it never comes at the best time, but when opportunity strikes, you do it and move forward.”

In 2008, Pax Wine cellars became Donelan Family Wines and winemaker Tyler Thomas was hired.  “Any small business can be overwhelming at times because there’s no support system per se.  In our case, I had five employees: a winemaker, an assistant wine maker, myself and my two sons, Tripp and Cushing."

Currently, Donelan’s boutique winery, located in Santa Rosa, California, contracts with fourteen vineyards for their grapes.  Four of these have wines named after them: Obsidian, Richards Family, Kobler Family and Walker Vine Hill.  “We work with the vineyard owners for one to two years, and if we think we’ve established a good relationship, we’ll put together a two- to eight-year contract.  It’s like a long-term lease.  We determine when we’re going to pick, how many times we’re going to pick, and at what sugar levels we’re going to pick, which is extraordinary.”  The Donelan family is extremely selective in its choice of partners.  Each vineyard owner must exhibit the commitment to high quality that is the hallmark of the Donelan Wines’ philosophy.

The Donelan Wines’ Philosophy
Donelan’s primary goal is not only to sell wine, but also to impart knowledge to his customers, whom he considers part of the Donelan family.   “I’m in the entertainment and education business.  My currency, instead of movies, is wine.”

Donelan sells 75-80 percent of his wine direct to his mailing list, which affords him the opportunity to discover what people like or dislike.   He explains, “People are looking for truth.  They want to learn, but they don’t want to be embarrassed.  It’s so important today to understand what people want and to not oversell them.  Whether a customer wants to buy three bottles or three cases, I explain to them that we’d like them to be a part of our family, but on their terms.”  Whether a customer buys one bottle or several cases, he can count on receiving a handwritten thank you note from Joe Donelan after each purchase.

In person, Joe Donelan is insightful and engaging.  During our meeting, we enjoyed a bottle of his 2010 Two Brothers Pinot Noir and he shared his interpretation of its flavors: “framboise, a little kirsch…toast and leather, a little spice and cardamom.  It’s great if you’re having duck or salmon with lentils, or any kind of bird or veal for dinner.”

With regards to quality, Donelan emphasizes, “we have no ‘jv’ wines in the lineup—they’re all varsity wines.”  This obsession with quality has garnered 90-plus point ratings from critic Robert Parker on most vintages, including Donelan’s first 100-point rating on his 2003 Cuvée Christine Syrah, named after his wife, Chris.

Donelan Wines is indeed a family affair.  In addition to the Cuvée Christine, four other wines are named after family members: Nancie Chardonnay for Donelan’s mother, Two Brothers Pinot Noir for his two sons, and the Cuvées Moriah and Keltie for his two daughters.

Achieving Superb Quality
According to Joe Donelan, a great bottle of wine speaks from its ‘terroir’, or its unique flavor and aroma, which are attributed to the growing environment of the grapes. “Eighty-five percent of making a great bottle of wine is having a great terroir.  It’s like real estate: if you have a great location, then you should be in good shape.”

Donelan likes his wines to have balance, great structure, and good acidity.  He believes a fine wine should never overpower the individual or the food with which it’s paired. “Our goal is to have the wine taste like it’s from a place.  If it tastes of blackberries, there were probably blackberries growing in that patch of vineyard at one time.”

Perhaps the best example of Donelan Wines’ quest for superior quality is the story behind the production of their 2008 Obsidian Syrah.  “When I hired Tyler Thomas [Donelan’s winemaker], I told him my goal was to make only A plus plus wine.  It had to meet my test.  As he was harvesting the grapes and putting together the wine, if he felt a barrel didn’t make the cut, I told him to remember that my name is on the door and the buck stops with me.”  True to his word, when Thomas communicated that six of the eighteen barrels of Syrah wouldn’t make the cut, Donelan used only the twelve remaining barrels to make 185 cases.  The wine sold out and then received a 981/2-point rating from Robert Parker.  Donelan recalls, “I didn’t make any money, but it’s who we are.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, or in seven years, and we’re going to build a business based on trust.”

The 2012 Harvest
By all accounts, the 2010 and ’11 harvests were challenging.  Fruit yields were lower than expected, as were profits.  At this writing, the 2012 harvest is underway in Sonoma and Joe Donelan believes it will be “very, very good from a qualitative and quantitative standpoint.”

I couldn’t end our interview without asking this burning question: which Donelan wines should I serve at Thanksgiving?  For my traditional turkey dinner, Joe Donelan recommended his Cuvée Moriah or his Chardonnay, which he insists, “isn’t an oaky chardonnay; it’s like chardonnay was twenty years ago.  It speaks from the terroir, with a touch of melon and citrus—just delicious.”

To learn more about Donelan Family Wines, visit their website at www.donelanwines.com or e-mail Joe Donelan directly at jpd2@donelanwines.com.  To read about their 2012 harvest, click here.  For a list of Boston, Cape and Island locations that sell and serve Donelan Wines, click here.

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