Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Cutting My Teeth on Barrels at Donelan Winery

During my visit in California, Elaine and I trekked up to Santa Rosa to the Donelan winery, where we were given a tour by the winemaker there, Tyler Thomas.  He was really nice, interesting, and generous, and let us taste about a million Donelan wines.

Tyler Thomas' namesake Fluevog shoes
 - really. He was even wearing them
when we met.
Tyler and I had connected on Twitter over the topic of shoes - he, too, is a shoe-lover.  In fact, he has shoes named after him, which were specifically designed for the winemaker-on-the-go, who needs to troop around a vineyard and then host clients in a pouring room without time for a wardrobe change.  John Fluevog heard this need, and responded with some seriously classy leather boots.

One of the great things about Tyler Thomas is that he has a deep connection with his vineyards.  He is definitely a vine-guy.  Having studied plant biology, and almost getting a PhD in the field, he seems really passionate about the vines and what they're doing.  He spoke about visiting the vineyards frequently and seemed very grounded in the connection between plants and wine.  This was a contrast to many people who I met in Sonoma/Napa, who were winemakers only; there are many people who own land and grow grapes to sell to winemakers, and many winemakers who buy grapes once they're grown.  This winemaker/grower divide is true in a lot of places around the world, and it doesn't mean that the wine is any less excellent.  What I appreciated about Tyler Thomas, though, was the calm competence and down-to-earthness that he has as a person.  I often encounter this trait in farmers or builders of various kinds; there's a distinct lack of showiness or posturing and a genuine passion, drive, and connection to the raw materials that go into the end product. These traits became clear in listening to Tyler Thomas talk about the Donelan wines.

Barrels full of delicious, delicious wine
We started our visit by tasting from barrels.  This was my first barrel tasting experience, and I'm happy to have had the chance to do it for my personal edification, though I'm happy to not do it every day for my dental health.  Because the wines are still in-barrel and aren't ready to come out, you can imagine that tasting them is like biting into unripe fruit, or uncooked bread - it might be pretty yummy, but it's not really ready.  While still in the barrel, there are clear indicators of what the wine will be like when it is ready, and that's what makes it so cool to taste them and see what's different between batches even at that early stage.  That said, it's like electrocuting your teeth.

We first tasted through barrels of Chardonnays, some crisp and clean, some with rounder and smokier notes.  These will eventually be blended into the one Chardonnay that Donelan releases.  Then we tasted all manners of of Syrah, some which will be bottled singly, and some which will be used for blending, as well as a Grenache.  The reds were really outstanding, but really punch-in-the-mouth too.  Lots of everything - tannins, acid, flavours - all energetic and sparky.

I believe that's Obsidian in beaker A, right

After the barrels, we tasted bottled wines, and so many it's hard to keep track.  I really enjoyed many of them, but that's no surprise given that I've expressed my deep, fervent love for Syrah often on this blog.  Two that stand out, for different reasons, are the Cuvee Christine and the Obsidian.  Both of these are 100% Syrah, but very different in character.

Cuvee Christine is a blend of Syrah grapes from four vineyards throughout Sonoma.  Tyler Thomas said to me that he wanted to express the spirit of Sonoma through this wine, replicating the feeling of being there through producing a quintessential Sonoma Syrah.  I thought that he succeeded; the wine was easy to sit and hang out with.  It was like a summer afternoon on a verandah.  There was plenty of Syrah flavour, like black berries, herbs, and spices, along with a smooth, voluptuous body.  A real drinking wine, on its own or with food.

The Obsidian is not a summer afternoon, 'howdy neighbour' kind of wine.  It's deep and brooding instead.  Obsidian reminded me of a huge leather club chair in a book-lined wood-panelled study. Big, burly, dark, the whiff of a recently smoked pipe... Something to really settle down into and chew for a while.  I freakin' loved it.  I was thinking about it the next day. The Obsidian Syrah is a single-vineyard wine, from a vineyard of the same name.  This vineyard is in Knight's Valley, which is the warmest of Sonoma's AVAs, and Syrah loves warm weather.  It was really great to find that the alcohol on this wine was balanced and not too high - sometimes the wine from warm California areas ends up tasting hot, burning with high alcohol.   Obsidian isn't hot or wild; it has manners, it probably went to prep school or something.  It's Gertrude Stein.  It would be great with a massive peppercorn steak and an English bulldog sneaking scraps under the table.

You can read more about Donelan's wines at their website, here.  They've got many others that I didn't try and/or haven't written about, and plenty more detail about places, methods, and wine character.  Thanks so much to Tyler Thomas for spending time with us and letting us taste so many of his excellent wines.  I really hope that I get to drink them again sometime (soon)!

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