A California Vineyard with deep Texas Connections by Kathleen Johnston
One of life’s greatest pleasures has to be the enjoyment to be found in a long-term friendship. Such is the relationship of two firm and fast friends whom I met through my own friendship with the Round Top-based parents of one of them, and love of really good wine, with the other.
Meet Robert (Bobby) Donnell and David Raymond. Donnell is the winemaker of Screen Door Cellars, a growing, award-winning boutique winery in the Russian River Valley. Raymond is his long-time Texas friend and marketing partner. And, despite Donnell’s California grape growing, winemaking roots, part of his heart and soul still resides in Texas where he and David Raymond first met while attending Texas Tech.
“We were each working for extra money and college funds when we were hired to manage different aspects of a new Lubbock restaurant,” says Donnell.
While waiting for that gig to start, Donnell and Raymond wielded hammers and saws and dabbled in human resources. They began building a lifelong friendship, right along with that restaurant’s bar, its offices and staff.
After college, Donnell and Raymond moved to Waco where they “batched” it in a small two-bedroom apartment, on the river, with three dogs. Close quarters and hilarity defined those bachelorhood days.
“All I can remember is laughing for two years straight,” says Donnell.
Screen Door Cellars origins
As it has a tendency to do, life intruded with David following a job and moving to Arkansas where he met his wife Heather. Today’s he’s a full-time dad to two young sons, with a very serious side as a federal bank examiner, and a footloose, grab-your-guitar-and-rock side as an extremely proficient weekend musician. Back in Waco, Donnell decided to move on as well – to Northern California. Once there, his single life came to a halt when he fell for a tall blonde California girl. Bobby, and wife Shannon now live in Sebastopol with their two girls and son.
Living at the heart of Napa/Sonoma wine country, they live, love and breathe every aspect of the grape and what it can bring forth. It’s a well-informed passion. Bobby’s winemaking career began during the 2001 Harvest at Beringer. He interned in their lab, and in the cellar, dragging hoses around.
“An inauspicious beginning, but you gotta start somewhere,” he says. That “somewhere” changed dramatically when Donnell was hired at St. Clement, under the direction of Aaron Pott. “Aaron was the one of those mentors who could really light a fire. He fueled my love of winemaking,” says Donnell. “I was a neophyte, pestering him constantly with questions he would never answer outright. Instead, he would make me work it all out myself, giving me books about every aspect of winemaking. Others I found myself and I read them all. Aaron made me learn all the practicalities of the winemaking business. He taught me the art of tank management; we tasted every tank and he made me tell him not only what I thought about each one, but why. It was the best education a winemaker could ever have.”
After his stint at St. Clement, Donnell worked for some of the most renowned regional winemakers in Napa, including Todd Graff and and Tom Rinaldi. Tom convinced Donnell to return to UC Davis to pursue its new Winemaking Certificate, an intense two-year program. For Donnell, it was even more onerous because of his work schedule and fatherhood. But, he got it done.
Shannon Donnell is equally accomplished in the business of wine. She studied at UC Davis, receiving undergrad and Masters degrees in Enology and Viticulture. She was hired at Duckhorn as a Viticulturist, and now, is Operation/Grower Relations Manager for Sonoma Cutrer. In 2013 she received her WMBA from Sonoma State.
It was in 2012 that the Donnells decided to launch their own label, producing what have now become award-winning Pinots, primarily. When the idea first surfaced, it was natural for the Texas-California friendship to be engaged in the conversation.
“What used to be two in this long-term friendship is four and more, now” says Shannon. “Through the years, we’ve consistently shared time, milestones small and large, and always wine together!”
Between wine-propelled long-distance conversations and visits to the Donnells in Sebastopol, or the Raymonds in Little Rock, or Round Top, the idea of Screen Door Cellars evolved.
“David actually created the screen door image for the label,” says Bobby. “It really evokes what Shannon and I wanted to develop with our wines – a casual, open door attitude and the experience of good wine shared with friends.” “Our winemaking philosophy is simple,” says Shannon. “Source grapes from great regional growers in the Russian River Valley where the soil and coastal location support the production of stellar Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And, produce wines that match the style of the region’s terroir.”
And, true to their winemaking philosophy, it continues to be about relationship. Today, Screen Door sources from only three growers with whom the Donnells have strong connections and great respect.
“I think it will always be about family and friends,” says Donnell as he ticks off the vineyards that supply the grapes for their single vineyard offerings, and blends of Pinot Noir Rosé, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. One is the Leras family vineyard. “Nick Leras has been a grower in the Russian River Valley for decades, producing some of the best Pinot Noir grapes I have ever tasted. It was his grape, produced by another winery, that got me into making Pinot Noir. In every sense, it was life changing,” says Donnell who had known Nick for awhile.
“After I tasted wine from Nick’s vineyard for the first time, I told a friend that if I could make wine from these grapes for the rest of my life, I would die a happy man.” A year later Leras granted the wish, telling Shannon he would sell them two tons of grapes if they wanted them. It was a great start on their journey. Another vineyard in the Screen Door collection is the Roan Family vineyard. “Our daughter Savannah and the Roan’s son Quinn have been together in school even before pre-K,” she says.
In 2014 Mike Roan approached Bobby about making wine from his Pinot Noir grapes. At the time, he was selling to a larger winery and the character of the grapes was lost in a larger blend. Bobby walked to the Roan vineyard that year, tasted the grapes as they matured and got a plan together for his first vintage in 2015. Because the vineyard is located in the Green Valley Appellation of the RRV, grapes mature longer on the vine, allowing for an amazing dark ripe strawberry flavor to develop, and the vines hold their acid so the result is a very well-balanced wine.
At a recent wine tasting at David Raymond’s parents’ ranch in Round Top, it was sampled, and deemed absolutely luscious by all who savored it.
The ASERN Vineyard is owned by Shannon Donnell’s parents. Purchased in 2013, the vineyard’s ten acres of Chardonnay is fondly named after all the grandkids (Alex, Savannah, Emma, Robert and Norah). Donnell produces about three tons of Spring Mountain clone Chardonnay from this site that sits on top of a hill overlooking the coast and the Russian River.
“It is truly a beautiful piece of family land,” says Shannon “with the grape mirroring the beauty with great balance in acidity and fruit.” Here the coastal fog allows for slow ripening, giving the wine awesome notes of green apple and pear, as well as a full floral expression. Bobby doesn’t use a lot of new oak on this Chard to allow the fruit to show. It does. It has all worked exceedingly well. The accolades have been forthcoming, among them, and most recently from PinotFile, which gave strong accolades for the 2016 Rose of Pinot Noir with a 94 point rating, and 96 points for the 2015 Roan Family Single Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Both vintages were tasted by the lucky guests at the recent Round Top event. Wine Enthusiast has consistently rated various vintages and styles in the 90s, as has the TexSom Wine Competition and Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Screen Door Cellar wines are getting on Texas purveyors’ radar. Private tastings are popping up, including the annual Round Top area tasting at Bar None Ranch, home to David Raymond’s parents. Plans are in place to establish a distribution outlet into Texas; Wine Club memberships are available (with the added bonus of free shipping), as are individual shipments of selected vintages. Whichever way one acquires the fine vintages of Screen Door, what is promised is pure enjoyment. Decant and enjoy with friends, just like the Donnells and the Raymonds have done, for years.