Donum: Gift of Land, Art & Wine

By Published On: October 23, 2023

With one of the largest private outdoor sculpture displays in the world accessible through tours and special events, The Donum Estate is a mecca for artists and art lovers from all over the world. Some of the pieces are commissioned, while others are artist-driven, and each one brings a unique facet to this 200-acre property that was once a dairy farm. Today, in addition to the stunning sculptures that dominate the landscape, you are likely to see donkeys and sheep, long with chickens and ducks, all of whom play a role in maintaining the delicate balance of the organically farmed ecosystem. Donum is Latin for “Gift of the Land.” 

Fittingly, the old barn now houses the winery, where Dan Fishman, VP of Winemaking and Vineyards here, works his magic, crafting wines from estate vineyards a stone’s throw away in Carneros, as well as in the Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley, where Donum’s latest acquisition, FEL Vineyards, is located.  While the art is a major draw, the wine is really the star here.

“We gained not only a fabulous vineyard in Anderson Valley, but a much-needed production facility in Healdsburg,” Fishman told us on a recent visit. As part of the acquisition of FEL Vineyards from Cliff Lede, Donum also inherited the FEL winery, warehouse and custom crush operation in Healdsburg, a plum for the brand which is looking to significantly expand production.

Fishman grew up in Toronto, Canada and attended Cornell, where he majored in psychology. A wine appreciation class there kicked off his love for wine, and following graduate school, an internship at Donum in 2007, put him squarely on the path that would become his life’s work. He followed the wine apprenticeship road to New Zealand and back to Sonoma, eventually returning to Donum, where he became winemaker in 2012.  In charge of all of Donum’s vineyards since 2019, he has helped institute regenerative agriculture and organic farming practices in concert with the company’s overriding goal of sustainability.

The deep Donum portfolio includes at least a dozen single vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, each a snapshot of the unique block or aspect of a vineyard, and many named for the sculptures visible from them.

There are so many ways to experience the majesty of the Donum property, as we learned on an ATV tour with CEO Angelica de Vere, who pointed out the gorgeous Richard Hudson heart sculpture, “Love Me,” rendered from mirrored steel, overlooking the Carneros watershed with views to the San Francisco skyline. Worthy of a visit, the massive heart reflects every aspect of the sky and land around it, including yourself. It’s impossible to not be part of it, which is the greater point.

We also stopped to admire Doug Aitken’s “Sonic Mountain (Sonoma),” a 365-piece wind chime sculpture, set against a backdrop of eucalyptus trees, awaiting the evening breeze to begin its concert. In front of an original stone wall, rests “Non-Violence,” a riveting bronze of a Colt .357 Magnum, by Swedish-born artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, who cast the original after the 1980 death of John Lennon.

Behind a grove of olive trees, we walked around a most intriguing circle of artist Ai Weiwei’s bronze renderings of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Each year since 2014, the Donum wine labels bear the animal image representing that year. Fittingly, given, the utmost challenges it brought, 2020 was the year of the rat. The first calamity, in addition to the ongoing drought, was a late spring frost, the first Fishman had experienced at Donum. “We ended up getting mobile fans for air flow.”  Then came the fires and the hellacious heat of August and September, all of which impacted yields. They harvested less than half the usual amount of fruit. “We picked as quickly as we could, and were done by the end of that first week of September.”

Bearing these woes in mind, we enjoyed a sampling of the 2020 wines during the “Discover” food and wine pairing experience. Featuring produce from the onsite garden, the pairings are curated by Executive Chef Fiorella Butron and Chef de Cuisine, Miller McCrae, of the Allikai Group. The flinty, citrus-driven 2020 Carneros Chardonnay (Old Wente, Mt. Eden and Dijon 76) was perfect with the summer vegetables and basil.

Slightly richer, the 2020 Russian River Chardonnay (Old Wente), displayed floral notes, apple strudel and quite a lot of tannin from the skin contact. This worked well with the cucumber gazpacho with toasted almonds and charred onion. 

Most impressive was the 2020 Carneros Pinot Noir, which showed off its complexity, owing to the mix of clones, including Pommard, 667, Mt. Eden, Wadenswil, Martini and the Donum selection, a mutation of original estate plantings. Exhibiting huge earthy spice and dark cherry tea, this well-constructed Pinot Noir showed plenty of freshness and a savory edge that made it a perfect match with the aged sheep’s milk cheese and confit of herbed potatoes and peppers.

The final pairing was a 2020 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, composed of Pommard and Calera, and brooding with dark plummy earthy richness, with a smoky edge. It was definitely a strong partner to the pork rilletes and tomato jam, served with a fennel pollen cracker.

“Our Russian River Valley Pinot is usually the richest,” says Fishman. “Our fans really like this wine.” He’s personally fond of the Calera clone, saying that it can get really ripe and still retain an appealing floral element. They recently planted more of it and expect it to come on line by 2025. “It tends to have lower yields and smaller berries, and frankly, I think it fares better with climate change. It’s not ideal for our Bodega vineyard site, which is why we planted the 828 there.” He’s excited about the Bodega planting, as it gives him more variety and different climates.

For 2021, Fishman says they made 15 different Pinot Noirs and 6 different Chardonnays, all from four different vineyards in Carneros, Russian River and Anderson Valley. Among them is an early pick of the Wadenswil clone, called White Barn. Done whole cluster, it tops out at 12% alcohol. There’s also a Pinot Noir made from the Swan clone called Mikado Tree, named for a sculpture by Pascale Marthine Tayou, inspired by the game of pick-up sticks. It happens to be near the low-yielding block of this heritage clone, of which, alas, there is never much to pick. “I love Swan, but it crops just 5 tons on 4 acres.” He describes the wine as youthful and intense, with red currant and strawberry rhubarb pie.

With all the sculptures and all the clones on the estate alone, it’s easy to see how Fishman can easily make 21 different wines per year. It seems to suit him, this endless quest to express the viewpoints of each beautiful slice of earth he has been given the precious gift of farming.

About the Author: Laura Ness

Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist and wine judge who enjoys telling tales of winemakers, winegrowers and wines. Each bottle of wine has a story to tell, and becomes part of the story of those who consume it. For over 20 years, she has written regularly for a variety of industry and consumer publications. Every purse she owns contains a corkscrew.