New Russian River Wineries, Part 3: C. Donatiello

Driving past the vineyards and climbing the steps of the herb garden, there was little to signal that the winery we were approaching was anything but Belvedere Vineyards. Stepping into the tasting room, though, it became overwhelmingly apparent that this was not the same winery where I worked in 2004. Gone were the white walls that broke the sunny, countrified space into offices and merchandise areas, and limited the bar to a corner against the window. Here we found a spacious, dark-toned room with a marble countered tasting corral that commanded attention to the wine. This was C. Donatiello and we were instantly drawn in.

As we perused the wine menu, our server suffered my probing questions about the winery’s changes. Yes, the place is brand new, opened the previous March. No, the staff is not the same, only the winemaker remains. Yes, he’d worked in a tasting room before. Now, which flight did we want to taste?

What a difference new ownership makes. Belvedere used to make a vast range of wines that represented every region in Europe, plus zinfandel. Lacking the many vineyards that Belvedere once owned, Chris Donatiello has decided to focus instead on the varietals that made Russian River famous: chardonnay and pinot noir, with a little sauvignon blanc thrown in for fun. Where once 125,000 cases were produced, they’re now making just under seven thousand cases.

Also unlike Belvedere, Donatiello charges for tasting.
$5 for the all whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Chardonnay and the Orsi Chardonnay.
$7 for the overview flight: Russian River Chardonnay, Russian River Pinot Noir, and Maddie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir.
$10 for Pinot Noir only: Russian River, Maddie’s Vineyard and Floodgate Vineyard.

We opted to share the all white and all pinot flights. When I tried the Russian River Chardonnay I felt like I’d stepped back into 2004, with a pour of the Healdsburg Ranches-designated Chardonnay in my hand. It had that same forward fruit – a mix of apple, pineapple and mango – with the slightest hint of oak to give it a nice round mouthfeel. Just then, Chris Donatiello, who had been talking to the other staffers, stepped over and introduced himself. When I asked him why this chard tasted so similar to it’s previous incarnation, even though it was made from different grapes, he reminded me that Troy McEnery is still the winemaker. “It’s all in the style,” he said.

Looking at the baby-faced Donatiello, you think, this guy looks awfully young to have accomplished so much. Back in New York, he had been a sales director at wine distributor, Charmer Industries, but the desire to become a wine producer brought him to California. He told us that Belvedere owner and investment banker Bill Hambrecht has retained a stake in the new operation, but the sweeping changes are all his.

Then, Donatiello did the most extraordinary thing. With no prior knowledge that it was my birthday, he handed me a gift by putting me on the guest list for that Sunday’s music event: Booker T. Jones!
Live music was always an integral part of the Belvedere experience and that program has been revved up under Donatiello. The shady patio provides an intimate atmosphere to listen to bands playing on a stage-like deck as you nibble your picnic lunch and sip Donatiello wines sold by the glass. Titled, “Live from the Middle Reach,” the series includes musical performances every Sunday afternoon from June through September. While most performances are free to visitors, ticketed events like this one are $35 per person. Thanks, Chris.
At the concert, it was not much of a surprise to run into our old friend and local musician, Doug Jayne, operator of The Last Record Store in Santa Rosa, and programmer on the KRCB-FM show, Connections. When Booker T. played his 1962 hit, Green Onions, Doug hit the dance floor with a copy of the album.

While it’s unfortunate that Belvedere is no more – although the name lives on with the vodka maker – it is gratifying to see the winery transformed into a dedicated producer of Burgundian-style wines. I was amazed at how well their cherry bowl of a Russian River Pinot paired with Memphis soul.
Next time, Tasting Room Confidential visits a brand new, freshly built Russian River winery: Arista.

Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Studio.com. Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.

One thought on “New Russian River Wineries, Part 3: C. Donatiello

  • October 4, 2008 at 8:24 pm
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    Hey Mari, excellent winery trip. You’ll have to show me how to do the u-tubes thingy as I have some clips of me on the helicopter ride I’d like to post on my blog

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