Lately it’s been a rut of chardonnay and pinot noir.  That’s a fancy way of saying I am a bit spoiled, since most of what I’ve been sucking on comes from the Sonoma Coast (and it’s newest offshoot, the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA) and from other, high-caliber, cool-climate zones from the nearby Russian River Valley – the neighborhoods, as they now call them.

This week, a change of pace. A higher gear, if you will, and a one-word introduction: syrah.

This word inspires a lot of love. A little bit of the hate-munch, too, as well as a whole lot of confusion. Back in my days of the weekly stocking of 14 house wines, syrah always came in last. Conversations with my wine reps usually went like this: “Two cases please of cabernet, merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay. Sorry, we only went through two bottles of our house Rhône last week.”

And therein lies confusion. Many people don’t really stop to wonder what’s in a Rhône. That’s OK, but honestly, northern Rhône syrah turned me into a wine freak. First wine to give me the shivers. That which you really can’t put into words.

Fast forward, I am only five minutes into my stop at Donelan Family Wines – tucked neatly into a complex on Santa Rosa’s north-side airport warehouse district – when Cushing Donelan and I arrive at that topic: When a wine makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And, to be fair, I should add a quote from the great wine scribbler, Robert Parker, who accuses Donelan’s “exceptionally elegant portfolio” of syrah (among others) of “flirting with perfection.”

I concur.  

Joe Donelan, along with his sons Tripp and Cushing, partook of the flavors of great Burgundies and cabernet while living in Nantucket during their summers. Not always “getting” what he was tasting, Joe yearned to learn more. This expanding concept of taste/understanding/passion led Joe to “re-pot” his life and start a new career: winemaking. Donelan was founded in 2009 to first pursue the beauty of California Rhône, later adding pinot and chardonnay to the offerings.

Echoing my background in serving wine to folks who were as likely to be on their first “bottle date” as they were to have drunk maybe straight from the tap in Burgundy, the Donelans’ main belief is that everyone deserves to experience a great bottle of wine.  

With that in mind, their one goal is quality over all else. The journey begins with exquisite sourcing of small parcels of family-farmed Sonoma grapes, most with a cooler climate focus. Chardonnay comes from the Green Valley’s Kobler and Devoto Vineyards as well as the Lazy W Ranch along the Russian River Valley and the Farina in the Bennett Valley, east of Santa Rosa.  Pinot noir comes from Bennett’s Steiner Ranch and Barbed Oak Vineyard, while syrah comes from Walker Vine Hill in the RRV and two warmer vineyards further northeast, butting up against Napa’s northern hilly expanses in the Knights Valley. Including the Obsidian Vineyard, where the access is 4-wheel-drive, the setting is pure enchantment.  

Donelan has entrusted their winemaking leadership to Joe Nielsen since 2013, a midwesterner with a passion for all things botanical, and they strive for as much of a non-interventionist theme as wine will allow. It is, after all, a living product that needs some attention. They do not jump on the bandwagon as far as the new trend of super-low-alcohol syrah that touts percentages in the 12s and even into the 11 range. On the other hand, my rub of Californian syrah has been the huge alcohol points, added to spicy, tannic elements, making it difficult for the nuances of proper food pairing. Donelan uses partial whole cluster, native ferments and keeps the new oak to around 20 percent. Picking at the right time is crucial.   

I’m going to blast through the tasting here in order to get at the “meat” of this syrah. Everything, from the single vineyards to the blended cuvées, shows a striking similarity of mouthfeel that is plush, easy but not in any way dumbed down. The 2014 Nancie chardonnay is named after “Grandma” (all of their wines follow family nomenclature) and offers the palate and mind a space to pleasure and take it all in, before the flood of sensory euphoria hits. This and all these wines give you just a brief but fleeting moment of stillness, allowing you to process all of this beauty – couldn’t we all use a little more of that in our lives? The 2013 Two Brothers pinot noir follows suit. It is from a stellar vintage and offers the crunchy, juicy combo I seek. The 2013 Cuvée Moriah also follows but breaks ranks at 87 percent grenache/13 percent syrah as we enter the “Rhône Zone.” They’re all creamy, with subtle minerality.  

The 2013 Cuvée Christine syrah is a seamless blend, dark and smoky, getting us to the core of the California Rhône-iverse, bringing us to the 2014 Knights Valley Obsidian Vineyard syrah. I could write a whole column about this syrah. Low yields, high-clearance access. Structure, depth, color, extreme voluptuosness. Violet-tinged, coffee, smoked earth and meats flood the mind, as my palate stretches to its limits and my brain takes it in.

Donelan’s labels state: “Wine Is A Journey Not A Destination.” The journey doesn’t end here. It never does, but these sips of syrah are valid confirmation that everything I have done up to this point has led me here.

Cheers!  Remember: Wine reveals truth.

Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at