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The Donum Estate

“I came from a small town in Middle Rhine [Germany] to Sonoma,” said Anne Moller-Racke, the beatific President and Winegrower of The Donum Estate.  “It’s been 30 years…I didn’t know I would stay after a year, but I love my work.”  And her youthful glow shows it.  “Every year it’s a challenge, understanding the vintage, making something of quality…How could you not love California?  The wine industry is very open; there’s a lot of experimentation.”

Born from the Buena Vista Estate, where Anne worked in vineyard operations for almost 20 years, Donum Estate is comprised of 200 acres in Carneros, including the Donum Ranch, which consists of 70 acres of “heirloom” clones (including Hanzell, Martini, Roederer and Dijon) that are divided into 15 blocks and sub-blocks, planted by Anne in 1989; and the Ferguson Block, which totals 20 acres of an old Martini selection that are divided into three sub-blocks that were planted in 1974.  The Nugent Vineyards are located in the Russian River Valley, consisting of 20 acres of Dijon clones that were planted by Anne in 1997.  And it’s the formation of this trinity that led to Anne’s great experiment, the “ultimate Pinot Noir project.”

“I started the project thinking we’d use different clones like spices from a spice rack,” said Anne, when she came by Studio TEW for a dinner/tasting last month.  “It came that [the wines] didn’t want to be blended, but [rather] an expression of the site.”  The first vintage in 2001 was a blend, and in 2002, Anne realized that a blend wasn’t the best wine to represent the vineyards’ terroir.  Embracing the Burgundian method, Anne sought to identify the best blocks and the best portions of these blocks, so that she could make single site wines.

“The best site needs the least input from a grower,” said Anne.  “That’s the magic.  I thought it could be made, but it’s just there; it’s a discovery.  I’m blessed with a project small enough where we can see that.”  Together with Stemmler (Donum Estate’s sister, premier cru site), the two wineries produce 8,000 cases annually.

“In the 1970’s,” said Anne, her rapid speech both passionate and light, “we learned we could define different appellations–Caneros and Russian River Valley.  In the 80’s we worked with the trellis system and spacing; in the 90’s we worked with root stock; and in the late 90’s, clonal material.  In the 2000’s we’re still working things out…Today we have knowledge of what each site does and we change things…We learned that the Dijon [clone] wasn’t as good as the Martini [on the Donum Ranch].”  In the near future, Anne plans to replant some of her vineyards.

At Donum Estate, they practice “Sustainable Winegrowing,” employing cover crops in the vineyard, and practicing leaf removal and canopy management to control pests and rot.  “We make our wine in a custom crush facility, so there’s always yeast around,” said Anne, in regards to indigenous yeast.  “We have to be careful.”  Sometimes Anne and Kenneth Juhasz, Donum’s consulting winemaker, use indigenous yeasts; other times they inoculate the wines to maintain better control, a process that pleases a lot of palates.  Since 2001, their Pinot Noir wines have received 91-96 points from Wine Spectator magazine, and recently, W.S. named Donum one of the grand cru vineyards of California.

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