Winemaker Dan Fishman takes Donum's small-batch pinots and chardonnays to an exciting new level—organically.
Richard Hudson’s sculpture “Love Me” at Donum’s 200-acre estate
Dan Fishman’s vineyard-loving odyssey began, inauspiciously enough, during a wine appreciation class when he was an undergraduate. A few years later, in 2007, he moved to Sonoma to take a harvest internship at a custom crush winery. “As luck would have it, I was paired up with Donum Estate,” says Fishman. “I then worked a harvest in New Zealand and [eventually] wound up back in Sonoma working for Donum’s then-consulting winemaker Kenneth Juhasz.” Fast-forward to 2012, and Fishman had impressed enough people that he was elevated to winemaker for the estate; the just-completed 2021 harvest notches a decade making Donum wines for the Toronto native. We caught up with Fishman during the frenetic harvest season to talk about his wines, going organic and choosing his favorites.
Donum’s winemaker Dan Fishman
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE SMALL-BATCH WINES YOU’RE PRODUCING—PINOTS AND CHARDONNAYS—THAT EXHIBIT A SENSE OF PLACE?
For me, great wine is all about capturing the energy of the place the vineyard is planted. I believe this starts with the soil and the vine root system, which is why we farm organically with no herbicides to encourage a healthy soil biome. In the winery, my philosophy is to try to intervene as little as possible, to allow the vineyard to speak for itself through the wine, so we ferment using indigenous yeast and handle the wine as little as possible. We ferment every vineyard block separately, and many of our smallest production wines are sourced from a single block within the larger estate.
CAN YOU SHARE A LITTLE MORE ABOUT YOUR PHILOSOPHY REGARDING ORGANIC FARMING PRACTICES?
I’m thrilled that we were able to transition to organic farming in 2019 and will be receiving our California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certification in 2022. I truly believe that building soil health is the key to making wines with energy and depth. As our vines develop a deeper, stronger and more interconnected root system, I can already see more complexity developing in the resulting wines. As a bonus, farming this way allows the soil to retain more water and makes it more available to the vines, meaning that we can irrigate less.
Donum wines are perfect for holiday soirees
YOU HAVE 82 ACRES DEDICATED TO PINOT—PLEASE SHARE WHAT OUR READERS MIGHT FIND SPECIAL ABOUT THESE BOTTLES.
As mentioned, the Donum pinot noir is fermented in small lots using native yeast. We have a wide variety of clones that are blended in the Carneros and Three Hills pinot noirs, whereas most of the small bottlings are made up of a single clone or, occasionally, a blend of two. We make a wide range of styles within our pinot noir, as it’s important to me that each bottling is distinct. We have some lighter pinots, like the White Barn and Ten Oaks, which feature significant stem inclusion, as well as some really rich styles like the Russian River Reserve. In between, we have wines like East Slope, West Slope and Russian River Valley Heritage clones, which fall between elegance and richness.
PLEASE TELL ME ABOUT YOUR CHARDONNAY AND THE 9 ACRES DEDICATED TO THE GRAPE AT DONUM.
We aim for a lighter-bodied, elegant chardonnay, although we still want intensity and concentration. We crop our chardonnay at the same low levels as the pinot (about 2 to 2.5 tons per acre). We generally ferment in French oak, with about 40% new, but we have also been experimenting with concrete and stainless-steel fermentation and ageing to add layers of complexity. Generally, we prevent malolactic fermentation to preserve acidity and avoid diacetyl—we’re definitely not looking for any butter flavors on the chardonnay.
Yayoi Kusama, “Pumpkin”
WHICH DONUM WINES ARE YOU PARTICULARLY EXCITED ABOUT RIGHT NOW?
I’m excited that we’re bringing back the 2019 East Slope pinot noir, which has not been produced since 2013. Made from the Calera clone planted on eastern-facing slopes—therefore capturing the gentler morning sun—this is an elegant and complex expression of Carneros pinot noir.
I’m also thrilled with the 2019 Three Hills pinot noir, which is only in its second vintage. This is blended from across our estate vineyard in Carneros, but from lots intentionally picked a little earlier and with lower-impact oak, as compared to the regular Carneros pinot. This results in a different expression, equal to the Carneros pinot in depth but with brighter acidity and more red fruit character.
Keith Haring, “King and Queen”
We also have a new chardonnay (2019) called The Heron, which was fermented in our new concrete amphora. The result is intriguing because the concrete makes the wine rounder but without the sweetness that comes from new oak. In this sense, the wine is somewhat of a contradiction, as it’s both bracing and rich at the same time, which I find fascinating.
ANY OTHER NEWS YOU’RE EXCITED ABOUT?
We’ve developed a vineyard near the town of Bodega, at the far extreme of where grapes can be grown on the Sonoma Coast. We’re hoping for our first fruit in 2023, and I can’t wait to make those wines. 24500 Ramal Road, Sonoma, 707.732.2200
The Donum Estate elevates its look with a new wine-tasting pavilion created by Studio Other Spaces, a design office founded by artist Olafur Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann. The pavilion, situated on top of a small hill, offers visitors a new perspective to overlook the bountiful open-air sculpture collection and a panoramic view of the surrounding 200 acres. The space is designed to bring the outside in, incorporating natural elements into the structure for a holistic experience. Custom-made furniture in a hospitality area creates an exclusive, intimate setting for small groups to enjoy some of California’s finest pinot noir.
The new pavilion at the estate
Visiting a winery has its aesthetic perks, most notably the undulating hills festooned with vines. Mei and Allan Warburg, owners of the Donum Estate, add art to the equation. The Donum Collection—50 major works from renowned international artists like Doug Aitken, Wim Delvoye and Anselm Kiefer—has become yet another lure for visitors to the 200-acre estate. The property’s collection includes paintings and open-air sculptures. The Donum Home, which was reconfigured this year by Danish architect David Thulstrup, now showcases recent acquisitions by Tracey Emin (“Another 30 Years,” 2019) and Jeppe Hein (“Chardonnay Mirror Balloon,” “Rose Mirror Balloon” and “Redwine Mirror Balloon,” 2020).
The Donum Home has been reconfigured by Danish architect David Thulstrup.
Photography by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF DONUM ESTATE; "PUMPKIN" AND. "KING AND QUEEN" PHOTOS BY ROBERT BERG; LAST PHOTO BY ERIC PETSCHEK