Summer resident Joe Donelan’s winery emerges from the deadliest fire in California history.
Joe Donelan has always talked about his career in wine as a journey, but this fall it became more like a nightmare. On the evening of October 8th, a series of fires broke out in California’s wine country that engulfed hundreds of thousands of acres in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The blazes destroyed over eight thousand homes and claimed forty-four lives, making it the deadliest fire in California history. Winds gusted up to seventy miles per hour, spreading the flames across highways, up mountainsides and into residential communities. Amidst the 210,000 acres of scorched earth, Joe Donelan’s prized Obsidian vineyard was burned beyond recognition.
“It was a war zone,” says Donelan, who has owned a home on Nantucket with his wife Chris since 1986. “Four hundred yards away from our winery looked like Germany after the Allied Forces bombed it in World War II.” The streets were strewn with burned cars. Homes were reduced to piles of ash and charred chimney stacks. The flames had fortuitously spared Donelan’s winery, which held the lion’s share of his inventory, but the vineyard where his grapes were sourced for his award-winning, flagship Syrah was destroyed.
“Honestly, it was probably one of the most difficult experiences I’ve encountered in my life,” says Donelan. Throughout Sonoma and Napa, tourists stopped visiting, and tasting room sales plummeted. “It’s been a huge kick in the teeth,” he says. Making matters worse, Donelan’s insurance company challenged their claim for the destruction of his six-acre Obsidian Vineyard. The insurance company argued that it covers buildings and equipment, but not plants. “All that I have is my vines—that’s my factory,” Donelan pleaded. But the insurance company held firm, reducing his 5,900 vines, what Donelan says are some of the oldest Syrah plantings in Northern California, to a total loss.
But Joe Donelan has never been one to roll over. A bulldog who made his career in the paper industry, Donelan doubled down on his pursuits in wine, beginning by helping rebuild the surrounding community in Sonoma. Almost immediately after the flames were extinguished, he pledged to donate 30 percent of his sales that month to the recovery effort. In November, he and his sons handed over a check for $32,000 to the Sonoma County Resilience Fund and United Way of Wine Country—this at a time when his tasting room sales were down 60 percent.
“There’s a esprit de corps out there, a camaraderie,” Donelan says. “The people of Sonoma have bonded together. We all believe that we will come back stronger in more ways than one. There’s power in regeneration.”
Critical to that recovery is for tourism to return. Wineries are back up and running and depend on visitors. “Come now,” Donelan says. “Don’t wait for the summer.” As for his burned vineyard, Donelan Family Wine started over—literally from the ground up. With his lawyers still grappling with the insurance company, he refused to wait any longer to begin preparing the vineyard for new vines. After filing for a permit, his team began removing charred trees, ripping up the melted irrigation system and clearing other debris from the property.
“It’s an extraordinary site,” he says. “I put it in the top ten vineyard sites of all the places I’ve seen in the world.” Once the new vines are planted—they’re planting twice as many vines as were in the old vineyard—Donelan speculates that it will take between five to seven years before they can harvest grapes that will produce the quality wine in which he takes pride. “We won’t know that until we actually go through the process,” he says. It’s a heartbreaking amount of time to wait, but as Joe Donelan always says, “Wine is a journey, not a destination.”
A longtime participant in the Nantucket Wine Festival, Donelan Family Wines will be pouring their wines at the Harbor Gala and the Grand Tastings, as well as at sold-out Great Wines in Grand Homes event. Outside of the Wine Festival, the Donelans will be doing a tasting at Épernay on Friday, May 18th from 5-6.