Sonoma County region
93 Points, International Wine Cellar, 93 Points Ken's Wine Guide
When he was a little boy of 5, Chris Donatiello (Don-at-tee-l-oh) supposedly raided his parents’ refrigerator for beer that he then sold to construction workers in his New Jersey neighborhood. Years later, after completing his degree in Psychology at Oklahoma University, he put his early sales training to formal use in the wine and spirits business in New York. He eventually worked for a large New York distributor and was sent (in 1997) for a familiarization trip to Sonoma County and its surroundings.
“When I first got there,” Donatiello fondly recalled, “I was taken aback by the area’s rustic beauty and completeness. I loved Healdsburg and the Russian River Valley in particular and realized that it was a place where I would eventually wind up living.” His wholesale duties included representation of Belvedere Winery, a well-established Sonoma entity. In no time, Chris and Belvedere’s owner Bill Hambrecht became close friends. Over time, the two explored the idea of getting into the winery business.
“I am extremely interested in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and many of the properties Bill owned in the Russian River Valley produced the very finest grapes around,” added Donatiello. “In 2006, Bill indicated the timing was right and I decided to make the move west.” The rest of the story is the stuff novels are made from. The pair secured a 15-acre parcel on fabulous Westside Road (the Rodeo Drive of Sonoma County) that contained a rustic winery, a world-class aroma gardens area that features smells that compliment wines, and a tasting room that was among the best in Sonoma County. The new winery’s first release of about 3,800 cases soon followed and were greeted with tremendous praise, high scores and accolades from practically every side. The fact that the winery chose a dramatic flower/grape inspired front label that is guaranteed to attract attention certainly didn’t hurt the new wines’ chances.
“With the great fruit to work with, I knew we could make some really good wines,” Donatiello explained.
“What I wasn’t prepared for was the great critical acclaim the wines received from people and some periodicals I had never heard of. It was a very humbling experience but one that made us try even harder to replicate the initial quality people now expected from our wines.” C. Donatiello Winery has grown to about 5, 500 cases for this year, and expects to continue its pattern of slow growth for the foreseeable future. Chris Donatiello says that it takes several years to develop a house style that can assure year-to-year consistency in the wines. He also points to the great diversity of microclimates that are found in the Russian River Valley that allows him flexibility when making his company’s wines. He believes that the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay coexist in a harmonious environment that is near perfect for both varietals within the confines of the Russian River Valley.
C. Donatiello Winery is also fortunate to have transplanted Virginian Webster Marquez as its winemaker. Marquez is a former assistant winemaker at nearby Williams Selyem Winery, long considered the first Sonoma winery to produce world-class Burgundian varietals in California. Marquez has embraced the C. Donatiello philosophy of developing Pinot Noirs that are high in fruit and texture and big, muscular Chardonnays that are truly age worthy.
“We feel that most California vintners have lost the art of making Chardonnays that can stand the test of time,” added Chris Donatiello. “If you think about all the great white burgundies that aren’t ready for several years, you see what we are aiming for. The great whites rank high on many preferred lists and that’s exactly where we want our Chardonnays to reside. It’s all about the balance of fruit and acidity and I think we have the ability to do it right.” Chris still admits to spending most of his weekend at the winery’s tasting room where he mixes with his friends and customers. He believed in interaction with his consumer base as a means of achieving his winery’s lofty goals. He is also very aware of his newfound status among the area’s top wineries.
“When we came to Sonoma, we chose an area with a number of great wineries in close proximity. Now it’s up to us to make wines worthy of being here,” he finalized. With his feet firmly on the ground, it’s easy to predict even greater things ahead for this emerging new winery.