It has been said (by Italians mostly) that there are only two kinds of people in the world: Italians and people who wish they were Italian.
Whether or not you accept this, the fact is, in terms of cool, Italians have somehow managed to win the immigrant lottery. Of all the babbling minorities who arrived upon our shores seeking better lives, better opportunities and were immediately mocked, attacked, reviled and forced to clot together in poverty-stricken ghettos, it was the Italians alone who managed to upchuck such quintessentially cool characters as Rocky Balboa, Arthur Fonzarelli and Vinnie Barbarino. Vito Corleone, Daniel LaRusso and Tony Soprano. Billy Batts, Lefty Ruggiero and Jake LaMotta (skinny version). Tommy DeVito, Tony Manero and Luca Brasi (who is not sleeping with the fishes—he scared them all away).
Meanwhile, please note that the best icons you somewhat lesser nationalities could come up with were the Schmenge Brothers, Father Flanagan and the Festrunks—each of which represents the antithesis of cool.
Why should this be the case? I submit, most humbly, a single shared experience among Italians which is unknown in Ireland, Czechoslovakia and Leutonia:
Wine in open barrels in the basement.
I know an Italian winemaker in Northern Michigan who I won’t identify other than to say that he has a daughter whose name rhymes with ‘Schmadonna’ and who tells a story of being a kid and checking on the cellar wine only to find a dead cat floating in it. Instructions from his father? ‘Take the damn thing out.’ The wine, of course, was bottled and consumed anyway—to a real Italian, wasting wine for any reason is blasphemy on par with gacking into Holy Water or falling asleep during Rigoletto.
So, in reading the history of the Donati clan, currently composed of patriarch Ron along with his sons Matt, Mark and Brad, discovering that homemade basement wine was mentioned as an impetus for going into the wine biz was almost a waste of ink.
Anyway, winemaker is an expedient avocation for an Italian-American. So is ward politician, Top Chef, NFL quarterback, orchestra conductor or bodyguard to ward politicians—in such roles, there are no surprises to upset the status quo of stereotypes. Not so much: Proctologist, librarian or founder of a major corporation that produces multilayer printed circuit boards for original equipment manufacturers of data communication systems and personal computers.
And yet, it was the latter that ultimately funded Donati Family Vineyards in Paso Robles.
According to his bio, Ron Donati built Zycon Corporation from the ground up over two decades, then sold it to Hadco in 1997 at what we can only assume was a pretty penny. A whole lot of pretty pennies, in fact. Rather than rest on his laurels, Donati—with the innate restlessness of an entrepreneur—launched Career II in one of California’s lesser known appellations, Paicines.
The community of Paicines has an odd history. It was originally located five miles north of Tres Pinos, while today it is located five miles south of Tres Pinos. Granted, both towns sit on the San Andreas Fault, but neither continental drift nor earthquakes had anything to do with the weird switcheroo. In 1873, the Southern Pacific railroad, which had made a commitment to build a line all the way to Tres Pinos, decided they had better things to do, and so, stopped at Paicines. In order to fulfill their contract, they somehow convinced the two towns to switch names. Sounds like somebody made somebody an offer they couldn’t refuse—a trick only an Italian American could pull off.
Anyway, as an AVA, Paicines is a part of San Benito, and in general is warmer than most of San Benito, but cooler than the rest of the Central Coast. Wine people know what this means without reading further: Bordeaux varietals.
And in fact, that has been the Donati direction since the winery launched in 1998. The core of the portfolio is red—chiefly blends based on cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The vineyard also produces the other Bordeaux ‘allowables’, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, and select amounts of chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot grigio and a pair of Rhône rheds, syrah and grenache.
The original plan was merely to grow and sell grapes, but once Ron realized how high the quality of Paicines fruit could be, he decided to put the other oar in the must. From that point forward, it was a matter of mastering the art of turning grapes into Donati’s dream.
According to Ron, “Successful winemaking must be a cooperative effort on behalf of our vineyard and winemaker. Overall, the winemaking team brings hands-on experience, analytic knowledge and a strong dedication to the industry. We are here to make the best wines possible.”
Apparently, in 2008 they did. Winemaker Ian Hudson describes the vintage:
“The growing season started with bud break in mid-March after a cold, dry winter. With the lack of rainfall, vine canopies were below normal vigor which produced small clusters with tiny berries. Temperatures were very calm and consistent making it possible to harvest at the optimum maturity, producing our best vintage yet.”
Among the top wines to emerge from that vintage is a paean to Ron’s late father Ezio—the first of the Donati family to be born in the New World. Blended from the Bordeaux Big Five, the recently released 2008 vintage had been hanging around in oak for three years, and was bottled this past July. It sells for around $50 and offers up sensationally intense aromas of plums, cherries, mocha and Asian spices; the wine is unctuous and full, and a little aeration reveals undercurrents of licorice and leather. Given the additional extraction of the fabulous 2008 vintage, this is a wine that should age with grace for another decade or more.
‘Claret’ 2008 is another recent release from Donati; a Right Bank-styled blend of 44% merlot, 34% cabernet sauvignon and 14% cabernet franc along with mélange of other reds. The wine is baked-fruit sweet with melted licorice, mineral and an easygoing, but generous mouthfeel; an up-front wine with decent concentration; plump and stylish with a spicy, harmonious finish. About $17.
Donati’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (14% merlot, 2% cab franc) is flamboyant and bright; fragrant with chocolate, espresso, barbecue smoke, cedar, cassis and a wealth of spices—sweet pepper, cinnamon, even bit of cardamom. The wine shows great equilibrium and a potential to age and develop into something even more complex. About $20.
True, perhaps, to rustic Italian roots, Donati also makes a 2008 jug wine—the 64 oz. (2 ½ bottles) ‘Naughty’ featuring a big, Lanny McDonald-like red handlebar moustache on the label. Not sure why they call it ‘Naughty’ other than it vaguely rhymes with ‘Donati’, but the press copy reads: ‘Feeling a little Naughty? Bring a pair of sweet jugs to your next party!’
Get it? A pair of jugs? Of course you get it. That’s because for all their slick Latin cool, their intimidating and unrefusable offers, their graceful musicianship, their feverish disco dance floor moves, their ability not only to sit through all four acts of La bohème but to actually enjoy them, in general, Italians—with the possible exception of Guido Sarducci—are not a funny race
Take the catchphrase that appears on the Donati website:
‘Mangiare, bere e godersi la vita.’
‘No Italian can ever refuse a favor on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding or a positive wine review.’
Okay, then. As a native Detroiter, I am well aware of the national rap that our city takes, and I have been lobbying for years to get Chicago to switch names with us. Consider this an official shout-out to the Donati family to use their ‘influence’ to help get this accomplished.