Donelan Family Wines is considered to be one of Northern California’s premier boutique wine producers and several of the wines produced under the supervision of Winemaker Tyler Thomas have received unbridled praise. Not long ago, in fact, Robert Parker gave Donelan several positive reviews with most vintages scoring a 93 or higher. Today we get to chat with Thomas, who calls himself a husband and father of three who happens to be also be a Winemaker. But he’s just being modest.
JK: Can you provide readers with a little background on who you are and what you’re doing?
TT: I am the winemaker for the Syrah focused producer Donelan Family Wines. As a small winery (less than 5000 cases) my role includes grower relations/vineyard management, winemaking duties, cellar management, and marketing participation. I am responsible for building the team that helps to ensure what we place into the glass is something of uncompromising quality – at least this is the mandate giving to me by our owner Joe Donelan.
JK: What was your first job?
TT: Mowing lawns (smiling). In the wine industry I worked for a small producer in their business office as I was earning a M.S. in Viticulture and Enology through the University of California, Davis. I did all kinds of things typically associated with office work and also had the opportunity to work as a cellar rat during harvest.
JK: You take sustainability very seriously. Can you talk about that?
TT: Personally, I feel that if we say we believe in quality, than we must be willing to think about quality in everything we do – not just in the wine we produce. In fact, I believe that by approaching each aspect of our business with “anything worth doing is worth doing well” then we will make better wine. Included in this is the idea that we should be quality stewards of the resources made available to us. Making wine is a privilege and we care about sustainability because we believe that not using more than is needed and choosing to use things that have less net impact on our surrounding environment is an element of quality life, and therefore quality wine.
One of the things we are trying to do at Donelan is to have a comprehensive approach toward sustainability. That is, we are striving to cultivate a mindset of stewardship amongst our employees, particularly the cellar staff where opportunities for waste are high (running a hose longer than it needs to be, spraying floors instead of sweeping, estimating cleaning/sanitation product amount instead of taking the time to measure the appropriate amount). To do so I feel firstly that people need to be passionate about the quality of the product. With our employees committed to our goal of quality, including the quality of their own lives, they seem to become much more committed to the mindset of sustainable winery practices.
Once the mindset is in place I think the industry needs to be more willing to try different chemical products (whether vineyard applicants or cellar cleaning products, etc.) even if it means changing long standing protocols. Sometimes this may mean more man hours and less efficiency. We’ve been testing a new bio-based cleaning compound that is 100% biodegradable, contains no toxic vapors, uses 35-50% less water depending on the process, and is safe to handle without protective wear. We’ve needed to invest in ensuring that our wine quality has not been compromised by having frequent microbial testing done on equipment to ensure cleaning efficacy and thus far we’ve been pleased with the results. However, we quickly learned that we could not just insert this new product into the old protocols but we had to come up with new ways to clean and sanitize. This is the kind of approach the industry is going to need to take. And frankly, even though we are using less water, water is so cheap that we are not saving any money with the investment we have made. But I can’t tell you enough how nice it is to clean a fermenter and have no concern about the wash water contacting my skin or anyone else’s. We are looking into other bio-based products that can be used in the vineyard such as nutrient applications, hydraulic oil and motor oil for tractors, and bio-based lubricants.
I think there has been good movement in looking for sustainable or organic fruit. However why should we only look at the chemicals applied? And is a conventional farmer always an unsustainable one? I don’t think so but I think people have that impression. Thinking about organic wine is fun and marketable, unfortunately until recently many of those wines also were not very good. While I think avoiding chemicals is important (especially petroleum based applicants), we must also think about water use as it will likely become an even more important issue than it is today. While water use is talked about, the fact is water is still cheap and relatively available. We need to be thinking now about how to reduce our water use in all aspects of production from the vineyard to the bottle. While grapevines do use much less water than other agriculture crops, we can select rootstocks and employ viticulture practices that bring our total use even lower.
Finally, we are already seeing alternative packaging take hold and I would expect this to only increase. With more and more young and old Americans drinking wine, the infrastructure of wine delivery to the customer is likely to change. Do we really need to bottle wine that is destined for a by-the-glass program? At Donelan we’ve begun to seek out re-used glass that has been sorted, cleaned, and sterilized that we can supplement into our normal glass order. The glass bottle is a huge part of the energy footprint in a bottle of wine and finding ways to only use what new glass you need, whether that means finding recycled glass or alternative packaging, should become of greater importance in the future. For example, if you know that 100 case equivalents will be designated for by-the-glass programs, do you really need to package into a wine bottle people will never see at their table?
JK: When you’re not drinking one of your own wines, what are you drinking?
TT: I still love to try just about everything. I drink a lot of my friend’s wines which is dominated by Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. I drink quite a bit of Chateauneuf du Pape and northern Rhone wines. My first loves were Rhone reds and German Riesling.
JK: What’s your favorite place to grab a bite out?
TT: Wow, way too many to name and it depends on the mood. For a quick, solid lunch I’d go to Chloe’s French Cafe in Santa Rosa; for pizza Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Santa Rosa; Gott’s Roadside (formerly Taylor’s Refresher) for a burger; and for a solid white table cloth meal close to my home I’d say Café La Haye in Sonoma. Finally, if I’m headed to San Francisco and I simply want to sit down, not make any decisions, get a terrific wine education, have wonderful food, and be taken care of I’d go to Aquerello. I could go on!
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