Donelan Family Winery

Posted on Oct 22, 2014

Donelan is a boutique family-run winery located in Santa Rosa, CA, at the North end of the Sonoma Valley. Donelan makes small batches of Chardonnay, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Rousanne from grapes purchased from some of Sonoma’s finest vineyards.

We first heard about Donelan Wines when we were down in Sonoma. In a quirky twist of fate we learned about this Sonoma winery not from someone in Sonoma, but in an email we received from Marquis Wine Cellars ( ) back home in Vancouver. Marquis had just started to bring in their wines and sent out an email blast describing them. I was particularly intrigued by their description of the Venus, a blend of 97% Rousanne and 3% Viognier. Wines made from Northern Rhone varietals are right up on our favourites list these days, particularly of the white varietals. You don’t come across white Rhone varietals every day, particularly not wines made in North America. One of our favourite whites is the Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc but at $150 at the BCLDB, it is a might steep. We found some excellent whites made of Rousanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc (or blends thereof) in Washington State (Lauren Ashton, Forgeron, Darby and DeLille). So we were intrigued to taste Donelan’s wines, and in particular, their Roussanne.

Donelan tastes by appointment only and usually requests a week’s notice. We only had two days remaining in Sonoma so that evening I emailed them, apologized for the short notice and asked if they could possibly fit us in. The following morning I got a phone call from a very pleasant sounding Tripp Donelan who was on his way to New York but would have his winemaker Joe Neilson taste with us at their Santa Rosa winery the next day. Pretty darn good customer service.


A little more background is important with this winery. This just isn’t any Sonoma Winery. Donelan refers to Joe Donelan, Tripp’s father, the winery’s founder, and the co-founder of Pax Cellars with Pax Mahle. Pax Cellars became a huge success with their Syrah, receiving high 90 scores from the Wine Advocate, among others. Joe Donelan was a successful East Coast paper executive who developed a passion for wine. In 2000 he came to California with an idea to set up a winery that would source grapes from special Sonoma sites and focus on Rhone varietals. He hired the then unknown, untrained and very young Pax Mahle to be his winemaker. They never looked back. 2007 turned out to be their last vintage together as disagreements over the business arose. Litigation ensued and Joe ended up with the company and Pax went on to start Wind Gap wines.

To replace Mahle, Donelan brought in Tyler Thomas. Like Mahle he was young, but that seems to be where the similarities end. Thomas has multiple degrees in botany and enology and has been mentored by   a number of successful winemakers (he counts Domaine de la Romanee Conte’s Aubert de Villaine among them). Tyler has recently moved on to the Central Coast’s Dierberg Winery but remains as a consultant to Donelan. The winemaking is now in the hands of Joe Nielson.


We arrived at the warehouse in Santa Rosa that houses the Donelan winery and were warmly greeted by Joe Neilson. Carrying on the Donelan tradition of young winemakers Joe looks to be in his early 30s. His gaze is intense but friendly. As he speaks about the wines you quickly pick up that he is thoughtful in a studious kind of way. He informs us he has been analyzing data about the last 7 vintages. His commitment and passion comes through with a quiet confidence. He tells us about the winery’s philosophy: it can probably be summed up as “balance”. He speaks to balance directly and honestly. He does not go into the currently fashionable winemaker speech about looking for lower alcohol or using less oak. Instead he uses words like harmony and invokes analogies to music and to the current craft beer movement. And it explains their view of balance perfectly.

We tasted 4 of their wines and found each one be excellent. If you are in Sonoma County, make sure you book an appointment to taste at Donelan Family Wines. Just give them a bit more notice than we did!

2012 Donelan Chardonnay Nancie

From Clone 4 grapes sourced from four Sonoma vineyards, the Nancie (named for Joe’s mother) sees 23% new French Oak for 10 months and is fermented with native yeasts. Pale gold with a green hue. On the nose there are apples, melon and a hint of almond. Medium body, the palate shows a subtle balance between fruit and minerality. The smooth texture is complemented by just enough acidity to give a juicy finish. The flavours are intense without being overpowering. Tasting somewhat like a Mersault from a warm vintage, if California employed a Grand Cru status, this would certainly enjoy that rating.


CAN $70 at Marquis Wine Cellars (Vancouver, Canada)

2012 Donelan Pinot Noir Two Brothers

A surprisingly light red, translucent and pink at the rim. Lovely fruit driven nose of strawberry, cranberry, cherry and baking spices. The light colour completely fools you: this is a medium body wine with intense flavours of red fruits, pepper and cloves. The texture achieves the silkiness that every pinophile adores. That silkiness seems to accentuate the fruit and spice and keeps those flavours lingering in your mouth long after the wine has left. There is not really enough history with Donelan wines to say how long it will last, but a decade would be a conservative guess.


CAN $85 at Marquis Wine Cellars

2012 Donelan Cuvee Moriah

This blend of Grenache (64%), Mouvedre (34%) and Syrah (12%) uses 50% whole clusters. The colour is almost as light as the Pinot. We have not found many great examples of this blend outside Chateauneuf du Pape, with Aussie examples often pushing the boundaries and coming across with strong cough syrup notes. But there is none of that going on here. Kirsch and black pepper form the moderately aromatic nose. On the palate there is cherry liqueur and spices delivered in a medium body that right now is showing its tannic and acidic side. But again there is their trademark balance. Those structural components are joined by plenty of lush fruit and together they work just as they should. Possibly the best of their wines we tasted today.


CAN $70 at Marquis Wine Cellars

2011 Donelan Syrah Cuvee Christine

This is a blend from four different Sonoma vineyards. 30% whole clusters were used in neutral oak. A robe of medium/dark red makes this wine the darkest in their line up. The blackberry and black cherry nose carries through on to the palate where pepper and olive tapenade join in. There is a soft mouthfeel making the wine approachable now but the dry tannic finish suggests a few years in the cellar may bring additional rewards. This was the only Donelan we tasted from the 2011 vintage. From our three trips to California this year and from wines we have tasted at home, it is apparent that 2011 was an inferior vintage for the reds (though better for the whites). I would love to try the 2012 version of this wine as I suspect the mid-palate may be more filled in and the texture a bit richer. However, tasting this wine shows the strength of Donelan’s winemaking in challenging vintages as this was a very fine wine.

Very good/Excellent

CAN $70 at Marquis Wine Cellars

(Unfortunately they were not pouring their Roussanne that we wanted to try; we’ll head down to Marquis to buy a bottle and report back later!)


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