The Donum Estate, located in the Carneros between Sonoma and Napa, is one of the Bay Area’s most captivating properties. Not only does it produce award-winning pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay, it offers so much more. Scattered throughout the landscape are 40 large sculpture pieces from world-class artists like Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring, Richard Hudson and Ai Weiwei, who designs Donum’s labels that honor the Chinese animal zodiac.
The Donum Estate is a dynamic place. Since my last visit, its owners have developed new production facilities, enhanced the sculpture collection and added a series of visitor options, including a wine pairing experience with “bites” prepared by chef Aaron LeRoi.
With regard to new wine releases, my recent conversation with winemaker Dan Fishman provided some key insights. Dan has worked every Donum vintage since 2006 and became winemaker in 2012. No one knows more about Donum Estate wines.
Fishman spoke of the 2020 vintage, which he described as a normal year until the heat wave and subsequent fires arrived in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Fortunately, this year’s harvest was the earliest yet and almost all grapes were picked before the fires. The2020 fruit will not be as ripened as normal, which may produce a unique vintage. But Dan was quick to add that a difficult year for farming doesn’t necessarily translate into difficult wine.
In addition to the Carneros estate Donum owns vineyards in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley and the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. I was interested in the contrasts in farming each region as well as in the wines that they produce.
Fishman pointed out, first and foremost, that the soils are different. There is heavy clay in the Carneros, more sandy loam in the Russian River Valley and iron in the Anderson Valley. While the appellations have similar climates, the Carneros has wind, the Russian River Valley fog and the Anderson Valley is influenced by salty sea air.
Although each vintage varies, Dan described typical pinot noir releases from the Carneros as earthy and savory, those from the Russian River Valley as bold and fruit forward. The Anderson Valley combines the qualities of both.
Donum Estate wines are oak-driven, large percentages of it new oak, resulting in rich texture and complex flavors found in all releases.
Each year, Donum harvests one specific block near the small building that houses Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “Spider” for its popular rosé. Not a by-product “ saignée” wine, the 2019 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($45) expressed a vibrant acidity and the complex flavors expected from a wine made with intent.
Chef LeRoi’s tomato and roasted garlic tartlets used the earthy crust and the mild acidity of roasted cherry tomatoes to balance the rosé’s bright finish.
Tasted next to the 2016 Carneros Pinot Noir ($80), the 2016 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($85) expressed dark berry, clove and herbal aromas. The flavors were fruit forward and the tannins elevated.
The 2016 Carneros release comes from estate vineyards close to San Pablo Bay that can experience 30-degree daily temperature shifts during the growing season. It is a beautifully balanced wine with cherry and red fruit flavors throughout.
Visitors choosing “chef’s bites” with their pinot noir could typically enjoy duck confit in a tartlet with onion jam. Chef LeRoi paired the 2016 Carneros with grilled peaches with balsamic mascarpone. In his words: “It provides a luscious mouthfeel not only mellowing the tannins, but also the grill flavor to balance the wine.”
The 2017 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($95), from the Winside Vineyard, displays a deep ruby color with lush dark fruit and spice flavors. Cooling afternoon winds in the vineyard allow the fruit to fully ripen on the vine and help produce the rich, full-bodied mouthfeel.
To complement the fruit and spice notes, the chef prepared Moroccan chicken skewers with cilantro tahini sauce. He also noted that the full-bodied 2017 vintage could stand up to a steak.
In 2015, the Calera clone that performs exceedingly well in the Carneros was grafted to existing vines in a block of the Russian River Valley’s Winside Vineyard. The experiment was a success and the 2017 Heritage Clone Pinot Noir represents the top selected barrels. This special release was bold, balanced and long on the finish.
Donum Estate is definitely high-end, but the aesthetic blending of wine, food and art is available for anyone seeking an unparalleled Bay Area experience.
Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.