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Donati Family Vineyard

Central Coast AVA

An Italian-American family following generations of tradition

In the modern California wine industry, the term pioneer is not used loosely. Rather, it is usually awarded to a person or business that has demonstrated excessive determination and grit to achieve a goal. It is also a word that could aptly describe this month’s Gold Wine Club Selection, Donati Family Vineyard.

Begun in 1997 as a project for the father/son team of Ron and Matt Donati, Donati Family Vineyard is a 1,000-acre estate in San Benito County, not many miles east of the magical city of Monterey.

“I had just sold my electronic business that produced printed circuit boards,” informed Ron Donati, a youthful 68-year-old. “My son Matt had a degree in sports marketing and was serving as a coach, but wanted a change in his lifestyle. At the time we owned a large hunting ranch near Salinas that we thought might work as a vineyard but found there wasn’t enough water to support the plants. At that point we began looking around, a period that lasted for quite some time. Some friends in Hollister learned about a former vineyard property that became available and we went to take a look. When I saw the area and learned of its history, I became attracted to this particular part of San Benito County.”

Donati took note of the fact that iconic wineries Calera Wine Company and Chalone Vineyard were located on the opposite side of the Cienega Valley and ultimately purchased some 1,000 acres on which to plant their new vineyards. Ultimately, more than 800 acres were planted in vine and a home was built for Matt and his family in which to live. A number of vines (mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc) had remained from the days of Almaden’s ownership and the Donatis decided to make some ‘shiners’ (wines with no labels) from the 40-year-old vines to see what could be produced.

When the shiners were given to friends and acquaintances, the result was an enthusiastic thumb up from everyone concerned. It was also the impetus that propelled Ron and Matt Donati to produce their first commercial wines.

Donati Family Vineyard’s first release came in 2004, a total of 800 cases. Encouraged by favorable market acceptance and excellent press, the winery has expanded its production to around 12,000 cases for 2010. “We will let the public market dictate to us our growth in the future,” added Donati. “We have the capability of producing a good deal more estate wine since we now sell a good portion of the fruit we grow on our estate.” A new 12,000 square foot winery was also constructed that will be expanded in the near future. The complex features a barrel facility, tasting room and an administrative section where the winery’s business is directed.

“We have a 5-year plan that calls for us to be around the 25,000 case level,” commented Ron Donati, “but that’s still way in the future. What we are committed to is continuing to make wines that really taste good and that people like to drink and that are consistent from year to year. I think consistency is the most important aspect of the wine business and my young winemakers are completely dedicated to that sort of philosophy.” Donati also is keen about keeping his wines priced at reasonable levels so as to afford everyone the opportunity to buy Donati Family Vineyard’s estate wines. Thus far, he has developed a sizeable legion of followers that often visit the winery for themselves.

“We have an almost perfect location,” he said. “We are right off HWY 46 West and only an hour from San Jose to the north and only three hours from the populous Los Angeles area. That makes us a great destination for any weekend.” Currently, Donati Family Vineyard is the only winery utilizing the Paicines AVA, even though winery giant Blossom Hill Winery is located just across the road from Donati. In true pioneer spirit, Ron Donati declared his intention to continue his family’s effort to persuade Blossom Hill into using the distinctive Paicines appellation on some of their wines.

From the Donati Family’s current record of undertakings, we think it won’t take them all that long to accomplish.

The Art of Fine Wine

Picture of The Art of Fine Wine

Yountville Vineyard

Painted by Sandy Delehanty, who works as a full time artist in northern California. She leads painting trips around the world and also instructs watercolor and oil painting classes.

About the Vineyard

Picture of About the Vineyard

If the word Paicines (pronounced pie-see-ness) isn’t exactly familiar to you, you shouldn’t feel bad. The growing area is located just east and off landmark US Highway 101, the north/south route of coastal California. It is almost due east of the city of Monterey and therefore shares some of the excellent nautical effects that cover the entire area.

Paicines was first planted during early mission times, but those vineyards have long since disappeared. Industry giant Almaden replanted the area during the 1960s but gave up on the vines after unsuccessfully attempting overcoming the violent labor problems of that era.

Paicines AVA became official in 1982 and is actually part of the Cienega Valley and occupies the northern tip of the Gavilan Mountains chain that runs north/south and is part of the much larger Central Coast AVA. The Paicines area is in a wind tunnel of cool ocean air flowing to the San Joaquin Valley. In the afternoon, Paicines takes advantage of the cooling breeze that comes in off Monterey Valley. At night, the area is more protected from the evening fog due to its openness and lack of trees. During periods of heavy fog, the Paicines area holds the fog longer than much of the nearby area.

Various soils constitute the land, are generally well drained with deep root zones. Most of the planted areas of the Paicines AVA hold an array of Bordeaux varietals that seems perfectly suited to the myriad conditions to be found within its parameters.

Denise Valoff & Ian Hudson - Winemakers

Picture of Denise Valoff & Ian Hudson - Winemakers

Winemaking responsibilities are shared by a pair of assistant winemakers, Denise Valoff and Ian Hudson. Both are graduates of nearby Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo and bring varied talents to the Donati family operation.

Denise is a ten-year veteran of the wine industry with prior stints at Meridian Vineyards, Chumeia Vineyards and Courtside Cellars. She joined the Donati Family Vineyard operation in December of 2007 and is considered the senior assistant winemaker.

Ian Hudson hails from nearby Hollister, CA and has been in the wine business for three years.

Ron Donati - Owner & Visionary

Picture of Ron Donati - Owner & Visionary

Even though his son Matt shares the winery’s limelight, it is Ron Donati who has had the insight and determination to push forward with his family’s initial winery venture. He points to the fact that his father emigrated from the medieval walled town of Lucca in Tuscany, famous for its great wine tradition of superb Chiantis and Brunello de Montalcinos to name just a few. He recalls growing up in a typical Italian-American house where watered wines were served to children to accompany many meals.

‘I guess it’s in your blood,” he stated recently. ‘I suppose the idea of growing grapes was always in the back of my mind.” A native of South San Francisco and a CPA by profession, Ron Donati, sold his electronics business and opted for another venture he feels is even harder---the incredibly competitive wine business.

‘I knew it would be difficult but I wanted to do something that everyone could benefit from. I also wanted a business that Matt could control part of, and in this case that was the vineyard aspect. The business side I left for myself, because that’s where my expertise lay,” he said pointedly. Donati chose the sparsely populated (with wineries as well as people) Paicines area for his project and knew it would be a major challenge. ‘I realized it has been almost 40 years since there were producing vines on the property, but I looked at our neighbors and I asked myself, ‘why not’’” If there is one aspect of the winery operation that is purely Ron Donati, it is his drive toward consistency in his family’s wines. He has underscored that aspect of the business to everyone, including his young winemaking staff.

‘Consistency from year to year is what everyone judges you by,” he again related. ‘If you expect a consumer to continue buying your wine, it had better be as good as last year’s and in line with what you intend to produce the following year. When we set out to make our first wines, we didn’t copy anyone else’s style, we made wines that we liked to drink and that we thought afforded a good value. To us, that philosophy is extremely elementary and that’s how it should be.” Donati also embraces future plans that could result in an expansion to the winery and speaks in a language that indicates it is nearly a done deal. ‘We’ll let the public decide,” he stated confidently, ‘that’s the proper way to think.”

In the case of Ron Donati and his Donati Family Vineyard, it already seems like a forlorn conclusion.