Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Visiting Anne Moller-Racke and her Donum Estate in California: Old World, Terroir-driven Winemaking in the New World

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Anne Moller-Racke at the Donum Ranch

Anne Moller-Racke is President and Winegrower at the Donum Estate in Sonoma, California. Now ten years old, the Donum Estate is a small producer of ultra-premium Pinot Noir wines.

I heard about Anne Moller-Racke for the first time, when I did some research for a posting on Robert Stemmler in the context of my series “American winemakers with German Roots.” When Robert Stemmler retired, the Racke family took over the Robert Stemmler line of wines. Today, it is Anne Moller-Racke’s second label.

The first time, I heard the name “Racke” was many years earlier, when I went to school in Germany and started to explore the world of alcoholic beverages. During these days, “Racke Rauchzart” was the by far most popular whiskey in Germany. The Racke Group was a major producer and wholesaler of alcoholic beverages in Germany, including the famous Racke Rachzart whiskey.

I met Anne Moller Racke personally for the first time at the 2011 Pinot Days in San Francisco, where she presented her wines. She was so nice to invite me to her Donum Estate in Sonoma, where I went a few days later. I met there not only Anne Moller-Racke, but also her ex-husband Markus Moller-Racke, who had been the CEO of the Racke Group in Germany for many years.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Anne Moller-Racke at the Pinot Days in San Francisco

The Racke Group in Germany

Adam Josef Racke, son of a wine merchant in Mainz, founded Racke in 1855. 100 years later, the Racke Group was one of Germany’s leading producers and distributors of alcoholic beverages. The whisky Racke Rauchzart, the brandy Scharlachberg and the rum Der Gute Pott were among their most successful products. In 1981, the Racke Group bought the Buena Vista Carneros Estate in Sonoma. Other investments in the wine sector followed, including in France, South Africa and Chile. This all came to an end when in 2010, the Racke CEO Markus Moller-Racke filed for bankruptcy. Markus Moller-Racke had for a long time tried to avoid this painfull step.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Markus Moller-Racke at the Donum Ranch

Buena Vista Carneros Estate

The story of the winegrower Anne Moller-Racke is closely linked to the Buena Vista Carneros Estate, one of the oldest wineries in California, originally established by Hungarian count Agoston Haraszthy in 1857. The Racke family bought it in 1981 and Marcus Moller-Racke moved with his wife Anne from Germany to California. Buena Vista Carneros Estate was owned by the Racke family until 2001, when it was sold to Allied Domecq.

Anne Moller-Racke at Buena Vista Carneros Estate

Anne Moller-Racke’s live began in a small village in Germany, Oberwesel. It took a major turn, when she married Markus Racke from the Racke family. It took another turn, when the Racke family purchased the Buena Vista Carneros Estate in 1981 and she settled with Markus in California.

Pictures: Christian G. E. Schiller Tasting with Anne Moller-Racke at the Donum Estate

Anne quickly moved up the ranks at Buena Vista Carneros Estate. She became vineyard manager for Buena Vista Carneros Winery in 1983. She was named director of vineyard operations in 1988 and was promoted to vice president of vineyard operations in 1997. During that time, Anne worked intensively with some of the industry’s foremost authorities, including Andre Tchelistcheff, Dr. Phil Freese and Dr. Paul Skinner.

She helped establish what is now the Carneros Wine Alliance and brought recognition to Carneros as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Anne was instrumental in developing Buena Vista’s Carneros Estate, now the appellation’s largest vineyard, expanding the planted acreage from 540 in 1981, when the Racke family took over, to 935 a decade later, and supplying fruit to premier producers like Acacia, Etude and Sterling. In the 1990s, she also replanted over 500 acres, carefully innovating viticultural practices and selecting rootstocks, clones, trellising and irrigation techniques for each vineyard block.

The Donum Estate

Anne Moller-Racke’s life took another turn in 2001, when the Racke family sold the Buena Vista Carneros Estate. At the same time Markus and Anne divorced, after Markus had moved back to Germany to take over the management of the Racke Group 10 years earlier. Anne was able to split off 200 acres of the Buena Vista Estate to start her personal project, the Donum Estate. The name, Donum, translates from the Latin to “donation” and refers to grapes as a gift of the land.

Pictures: The Donum Estate

Now ten years old, Anne farms 70 acres of vines at the home ranch, 20 acres of the venerable Ferguson Block in Carneros, and the Nugent Vineyard, an 11-acre Russian River Valley estate she planted in the mid-1990s. As caretaker of vineyards she has farmed for decades, Anne brings a vast knowledge of the appellations and sites to her role as wine grower.

The Donum Estate is leading the cadre of Pinot Noir producers in Carneros that are producing stunning wines to rival any made in California today. Since the first release in 2001, consisting of 150 cases of Donum Carneros Estate Grown Pinot Noir, the reputation of The Donum Estate has increasingly attracted reverence by Pinot Noir lovers. The superb quality of the wines have reflected Anne Moller-Racke’s commitment to the European model of intimate involvement in the estate vineyards. The result are wines from Donum Estate that not only exhibit regional character, they possess a sensuality that is seductive rather than overpowering.

Robert Stemmler Wines – the Second Label

Anne grows grapes for her Donum wines as well as for the rejuvenated Robert Stemmler label, which is her second label. Robert Stemmler, a native from Germany, is a key figure in helping American Pinot Noir become what it is today: A world class wine, well established in the wine market. Robert Stemmler was an early and passionate producer of outstanding California Pinot Noir. He arrived in Napa Valley in 1961 after making wine for nearly a decade in Germany. He worked first at the Charles Krug Winery with the Mondavi brothers, then became winemaker at Simi in Sonoma County. In 1976, Robert Stemmler founded his own winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley. In 1989, Robert retired from full-time winemaking after 35 years. His friends, the German Racke family purchased his label, maintaining it as a wine club and tasting room brand within their Buena Vista winery.

The Vineyards

The Donum Estate comprises three vineyards uniquely suited to Pinot Noir and all farmed by Anne Moller-Racke to the same high standards.

Planted by Anne in 1989, the Donum Ranch includes 70 acres of vines divided into 15 blocks and sub-blocks. A variety of Pinot Noir clones and selections grows here, including “heirlooms” like Calera, Chalone, Hanzell, Martini, Roederer and Swan, and Dijon clones such as 115, 667 and 777.

Pictures: Donum Ranch Vineyards

Ferguson Block is a 20-acre vineyard consisting primarily of an old Martini selection planted in 1974 on St. George rootstock. We farm three sub-blocks on this parcel located less than a mile from our home ranch on the Sonoma side of Carneros.

Nugent Vineyards rests on relatively level ground in the heart of the Russian River Valley. Planted by Anne in 1997, its 11 acres of vines are equally divided between Dijon clones 115 and 667.

“Our vineyards are living, complex, ever-evolving systems – works in progress. Our experience with them ranges from ten to well over twenty years, yet we continue to learn as we coax more quality and fruit expression from each block, row and vine” said Anne.

Anne continued: “Our vineyards are sustainably farmed, our wines speak of site and terroir. A unique quality of our land is that it lies along one of the major migratory passages in this area. Over 180 species of birds have been counted on our property this year. We love being out in the vineyard watching the birds, listening to the sounds of the wildlife, and feeling the wind coming off of the bay. It feels right to connect our wine club to this place.”

Is Wine Made in the Vineyard or in the Cellar?

Anne Moller-Racke’s aspiration is to make the best wine possible and she does produce exceptionally good wines. When Anne talks about what it takes to do this, she talks about her vineyards. The fermentation and aging part in the cellar comes only as an add-on towards the end into play. Similarly, when I visited world famous winemaker Armin Diel at Schlossgut Diel recently, the first thing the Diels did was to drive me to the vineyards and show me the vineyards. We spent an hour in the vineyards and only a few minutes in the cellar. This was different, when I visited A Donkey and Goat winery in Berkeley, also a very ambitious winemaker. They do not own or lease any vineyard and thus do not grow their own grapes, but buy all the grapes from others.

Two very different approaches, the first one very common in the Old World wine countries and the second one not uncommon in the New World wine countries. In any case, the production process of making the wine that we finally have in the glass starts in the vineyard. It takes a whole year to produce the grapes that then go into the wine cellar for fermentation and aging. When I talked to August Kesseler, Wilhelm Weil and Armin Diel in Germany recently, they all agreed that the most important part of this process was the first part, with terroir and vintage being decisive factors. In the US, I talked to Adam Lee from Siduri, Ken Wright in Oregon and The Donkey & Goat Winery's Jared Brandt in Berkeley, they leave it to others when it comes to the first part of the wine producing process. But without any doubt they also make exceptionally good wines.

To conclude, I have never been at a presentation of wines in the US, where the producer was so much focusing on the vineyard . This was very much “old world ”, terroir-driven winemaking in the new world.

Kenneth Juhasz: Consulting Winemaker

Anne started the Donum project using noted Carneros winemaker Ken Bernards to craft the wines. As production increased, it was necessary to bring on a full-time winemaker. Bernards recommended Kenneth Juhasz who had made Pinot Noir in New Zealand and Oregon. Anne and Kenneth clicked and the partnership began in 2002.

Kenneth Juhasz began his winemaking career dragging hoses in a cold cellar in Oregon. After college, Kenneth eagerly pursued his passion for Pinot Noir west to the Willamette Valley. There he began working with winemaker Ken Bernards, who became Kenneth's mentor over the next few years. When Juhasz came to Carneros in 2002, Bernards helped him to create and launch the ultimate Pinot Noir project at The Donum Estate and to develop a fresh identity for the Robert Stemmler label. Kenneth was appointed winemaker for both Donum and Robert Stemmler in 2005. Kenneth also produces fine Burgundian varietal wines from Sonoma, Mendocino and Oregon's Willamette Valley under his own label, Auteur.

The Wines Anne Poured

2007 Donum Carneros Pinot Noir Estate Grown

Anne said: “Our Carneros Estate Grown Pinot Noir not only comes from the best clones and blocks in our vineyards - grand cru sites - but also is a selection of the most appealing barrels within each lot.”
$65.00 USD

Picture: 2 Wines we Tasted

2007 Donum Russian River Pinot Noir Estate Grown

Anne said: “Our Russian River Valley terroir, Dijon clones and the 2007 vintage have combined to produce our most sophisticated version of this wine to date. 2007 saw heat during bloom producing shatter and shot berries giving us a light crop - half the amount of the previous vintage. Small berries and open clusters provided great fruit intensity.”
$65.00 USD

Pictures: Tasting with Anne Moller-Racke and Matthias Ehrlich (Top Manager in the Internet Industry, Hobby Winemaker, My Cousin)

2008 Donum Carneros Thomas Pinot Noir Estate Grown

Anne said: “Thomas is named for Thomas Ferguson, the owner of Ferguson Block, a 1974 planting of Martini selection Pinot Noir. I have worked with this vineyard for 28 years, and the Thomas block has always stood out. Every year in our blind tastings, it has been the best from this vineyard, and it made me believe in terroir.”
$100.00 USD

2008 Donum Carneros Pinot Noir Estate Grown

Anne said: “Made primarily from our Donum selection, this Pinot Noir is picked from our grand cru sites at the Donum Ranch, located north of San Pablo Bay in the Carneros region. It is also a selection of the most appealing barrels within each lot.
$65.00 USD

2008 Donum Russian River Pinot Noir Estate Grown

Anne said: “I planned and planted our Russian River vineyard in the mid-1990s and has farmed the property ever since. This Pinot Noir is always a best barrel selection from the less vigorous blocks which consistently show something special.”
$65.00 USD

2008 Donum Carneros Chardonnay Estate Grown

Anne said: “Carneros is renowned for stellar Chardonnay, and this vineyard is a gem. The selection of 100% Old Wente Chardonnay came to us as budwood from the Winery Lake and Larry Hyde vineyards. It's a charming field selection, yielding a host of aromas and flavors from classic apple to floral, including the occasional heady perfume of a musque cluster.”
$50.00 USD

2008 Donum Carneros West Slope Pinot Noir Estate Grown

Anne said: “West Slope comes from the middle portion of our west-sloping 4-90 vineyard block, a 5.5-acre site at the Donum Ranch. The Roederer selection there has always been the mainstay of our Donum Carneros Pinot Noir. 2007 was the inaugural release. Again, in 2008, we made a barrel selection from this single block into a superb stand-alone wine - West Slope.

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  1. What a lovely, comprehensive piece on The Donum Estate's history and philosophy.

  2. Late breaking (December 2011)

    The German Racke Group has sold the Donum Estate to the Danish Winside Inc., a group of five friends who met Donum president Anne-Moller Racke when they purchased a Donum Estate lot “at a Hospice of Sonoma auction” four years ago.

    According to North Bay Business Journal, the sale includes the Donum and Stemmler brands, all inventory, 147-wind-swept acres with 45 acres of vineyards and buildings.

    Moller-Racke, consulting winemaker Kenneth Jahasz, Frieda Guericio and Lauro Servin will all stay in place.

    Racke used to own Buena Vista and Haywood wineries and turned Buena Vista’s Tula Vista Ranch into the Donum Estate, where Moller-Racke planted and worked to create the “ultimate pinot noir.”