Exploring Donelan Family Wines

How do you like your Syrah? Do you like the bold New World style, or the more sophisticated and understated European style?

Last night, Cushing Donelan, Director of Marketing for his family’s Donelan Family Wines estate, showcased both styles of Syrah, along with an excellent Sonoma Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at a wine dinner held at American Cut in NYC.

Though he tried Hollywood out after college and is the scion of an affluent family, Cushing Donelan is extremely down to earth and during the dinner spoke extensively about his family’s work ethic and the intriguing story of how his family got into the wine business. Though rather involved, it’s a mix of appreciation for European art and culture the family collectively shares (Cushing studied art history at Amherst College) and fortunate circumstances that brought the family ever closer to setting up their winery in Sonoma, California.

The company’s founder, Cushing’s father Joe Donelan, had a vision to create superior quality, terroir driven Syrah and Rhone Varietals. He quickly established relationships with unique Sonoma County vineyards and brought together a production team to found Donelan Family Wines, originally known as Pax Wine Cellars.

During the dinner, I was surprised to hear that Joe Donelan personally phones new members of the wine club in an effort to get to know them and their needs. This seems a good idea, given that 80% of the (incredibly well made, sophisticated, and delicious) wines are sold by the mailing list only. The remaining bottles grace the tables of some of the finest restaurants in the country. At the winery, I am told that a family member is usually present at some part of the tour and tasting, to give visitors a better sense of how passionately the family feels about maintaining the already high quality of the wine.

The entire family (Cushing, his brother Tripp, their sisters, parents, and even grandmother Nancie who is 91) are all keenly involved in the family business. Tripp Donelan is Director of sales, for example).  In fact, the wines are named for each family member. The “Nancie” Chardonnay was one of my favorite wines (though in truth, it was absolutely impossible to say which of the four excellent wines I preferred most). I blind taste a great deal, so without asking about the method of production I correctly deduced there was barrel fermentation in a certain percentage of new French oak.

The Two Brothers Pinot Noir (named for Cushing and Tripp) was a blend from a few select vineyards in Sonoma. Though somewhat New World in style, the fruit was as restrained as it could be, with silky tannins and subtle but vibrant berry fruit.

The last two wines were both Syrah. The 2014 Obsidian Vineyard Syrah was the first Syrah the family was releasing from their 2014 red portfolio. If you go to the family’s website you can see a picture of this vineyard and all its gorgeous succulent fruit and just imagine what the wine tastes like. It was fantastic! The second Syrah was the 2013 Walker Vine Hill Vineyard Syrah, which was intense and powerful.

As a professional wine judge I can’t say enough about the quality of these wines, their concentration of fruit and the finesse showcasing the care in which they were made. Though the wines tasted ranged in price from $48  – $105 these prices almost seem a steal when you compare the price to value.

An excellent evening spent with Cushing Donelan learning about his wines and the family’s approach to their business, which is a family endeavor in the fullest sense of the word.

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