Tyler Thomas of Donelan Wines

Tyler Thomas (Photo via VineCrowd on Flickr)

For the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy the transition of one of California’s truly spectacular wine houses.

Back in 2009, I first came across it through a bottle of 2007 PAX Cuvee Christine while dining at Bedford Village Inn (Bedford,NH). To say it was a revelation would be cliché, so let’s say it was seismic. Since then I’ve pretty much tried ever wine PAX had to offer from that 2007 vintage. They were terrific, everything you’d expect a high-end Cali Syrah to be.

Then came the 2008. There was a noticeable difference that can only be described with one word…pure. The transition came largely due to the switch in winemaker. The ‘08s were the first vintage wholly undertaken by Tyler Thomas, who replaced Pax Mahle after he left the winery baring his name. 2008 marked a year of transition and rediscovery, not only was it the birth of Donelan Wines, but also the emergence of Tyler as one of America’s truly great winemakers.

Tyler Thomas of Donelan Wines

What’s your job? 

My main job is to interact with growers and to understand what we need to do in each vineyard to optimize the quality of wine for any given vintage. Then it’s to direct our winemaking such that we utilize our understanding of the vineyard qualities and pair them with the appropriate cellar practices. Choosing only the best barrels is the final piece to the production process and the winemaker should have the most objective palate in the company. You must be willing to reject lots, even if quite good, if they’re not improving the sum of the parts. The Donelan’s have provided me the freedom to be uncompromising when it comes to quality.

Where’s your winery

The winery is in a light industrial park in Santa Rosa, CA. We work with vineyards in Sonoma County within about a 15 mile radius from the winery. 

What was it about this location that made it the ideal spot for the owners?  

The vineyards are our focus, and Santa Rosa provides a centralized location for accessing all our unique sites. While the winery does not represent any feats of architecture or design (we like to think our wines are more special and refined than the building), we do have plenty of space to have full control of our processing so that we can breakdown all of our vineyard lots into as many small sections as possible to ensure we are doing everything to capture the highest quality from each place.

How many employees are there at the winery?

Just 3 of us!

Why did you choose wine? 

With hindsight I’d have to say I was influenced by my Dad because he’s obsessed with aromas. When I was a kid I remember my dad scouring a room sniffing like a dog trying to find the source of some peculiar aroma. I’ve realized that this taught me early on to pay attention to and consider aromas and tastes at a very young age (and yes I do the same thing now). Of course Grandmere must be credited with infusing our family with French culinary traditions and early exposure to wine as a beverage with a meal. My Dad’s mother was born and raised in Southern France and our family took their culinary customs to heart.  Then I became enraptured with Rhone wines and this generated a desire to investigate wine more and more. 

What I learned was that wine is analogous to life, full of things we know and understand, but even more laden with mystery. And part of the enjoyment is reveling in the mystery of wine (and life!). It always leaves an opportunity for discovery and this appealed to my curious nature; after all, our proprietor says “wine is a journey, not a destination.”

Describe your winemaking philosophy. 

It starts in the vineyard, of course. But who doesn’t say that?!? My goal is to discover (the greatest wines are not made, but discovered) and distill what truly makes an impact to the governing components of great wine, and only do those things. This is minimal winemaking at its best: find the best fruit which is in part defined by needing little attention. I also like to question paradigms under the idea that tradition is birthed from experiment (particularly in the vineyard!). There are many commonly held “truisms” in winemaking, but some of them seem to be no more than unquestioned answers, as opposed to answered questions. I like to challenge those unquestioned answers. To discover what makes great wine we go to great lengths to identify, capture, and understand natural variation that occurs in quality even within small vineyards. We can track every barrel back to a specific part of any vineyard where we may have identified vines “behaving” in a different manner than other parts of the vineyard. This allows us to ensure that only the best sections of any one vineyard are utilized. We’re not interested in making the average of any one vineyard, even if that average is very good, we want to only produce the best.

Describe your wine in one word. 

Can I have two? Uncompromised purity.

What’s your favorite varietal?

Syrah because of its palatable diversity. It can be grown in so many different terroirs and produce such a diversity of styles that are delicious. I love Pinot Noir for its delicacy, and Chardonnay for its beauty birthed from simple winemaking, when from great vineyards that is.

What’s the favorite wine that you produced and what set it apart from your other wines? 

I must refrain, grower relations is a big part of my job ;)  Really though I drink different wines on different occasions and with different cuisine.  We have such a spectrum of what Syrah can be that there is an extraordinary opportunity to learn about Syrah’s unique qualities.  I like Moriah for its Grenache, Christine for its mouthfeel, Richards for its incredibly unique nose…I could go on.

What’s your greatest ever wine experience

There have been several. The standout probably was in the cellars of DRC. After a wonderful barrel tasting of each terroir, we finished with ‘99 La Tache and ‘84 Montrachet. That Montrachet is the best wine I’ve had to this day.

What’s your favorite meal to pair with one of your wines?

I love French food, perhaps because I grew up with a French Grandmere. In all my travels I think I enjoyed Thai and French food the most, with French cuisine barely edging out the Southeast Asian delicacies. Grilled meats are wonderful with most of Donelan Syrahs, however I like to experiment as well. I’ve tried our Grenache-based 2007 Cuvee Moriah with Gazpacho and it was truly delicious. The spice and freshness of the wine was well balanced by the sweetness and fruity nature of the gazpacho. The experience of not only the flavors but the textures of the two were terrific.

What does “terroir” mean to you?

Here’s my definition: A confluence of soil, microclimate, material, and deft touch that produce unique changes to the governing components of a wine’s taste.

Besides your own wines, who produces your favorite wines?

I’ll always be a big fan of HdV Wines, because I helped make them, but also because I think they’re quite good. Peay is another quality winery I enjoy following. Chateau Pibarnon from Bandol is another collectible for me, along with Clos du Caillou CdP. I drink Magnien (either one) Burgundies regularly because they are solid and available. Vieux Telegraph comes to mind as well. Finally I’d say I’m a recent fan of Tenuta Sella in northern Italy.

What do you hope for in the future?

Besides world peace?  A continued opportunity to discover and distill great wine from great properties. I’d like to travel again in some of the European wine regions I hold so dear.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of wine?

Spend time with my family. Aside from that I enjoy cooking, baseball, baking bread (just another fermentation!), theology, rock climbing, and backpacking.

What challenges do you see moving forward regarding regulations or economic restrictions and what are you currently doing to adapt?

I think water availability could be a problem in the future and we are already moving toward dry farming whatever and whenever we can. We’ve recently begun a program to explore a new product that not only will allow us to avoid the use of synthetic chemicals in the winery, but also reduce our water usage in cleaning by half.

If you weren’t into wine, what would you do?

I’d probably be a baker.