Chairman of Pinot Noir
By W. Peter Hoyne
Donald Patz is a winemaker who has already achieved fame and recognition over a three-decade career in the wine industry. He spent nearly thirty years with partner James Hall at Patz & Hall Winery in Sonoma, hand crafting single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from respected growers. After an illustrious career at Patz & Hall, Donald departed from the winery in 2017 after it was sold to Chateau St. Michelle Wine Estates. Instead of settling back into retirement, which he rightfully deserved, Donald decided to reset his compass. He directed his energy into founding three new projects: Maritana Vineyards and Secret Door Winery along with a joint venture with Northern Rhone producer Francois Villard named Terminim. As Donald describes it, “I wasn’t considering making a Patz & Hall 2.0. but instead wanted to wipe the slate clean and rethink things.”
Donald was gracious enough to share some insights on his illustrious career during a recent virtual visit. Raised in Eugene, Oregon, he earned a degree in biology at the University of Oregon while considering a path toward medicine. He met fascinating doctors while in a premed honorary society. The doctors proposed a question to him on the third day asking “what else are you interested in Donald?” He replied “well I find wine really fascinating.” As he describes it, the doctors’ eyes started to glaze over saying, “I would love to have a little vineyard somewhere.” I guess this is a typical response from most. In the end, Donald was happy he didn’t pursue medical school as he believed “maybe there was a more direct route into the wine industry than through medical school.”
By 1983 Donald decided to relocate to Santa Rosa, California, later accepting a position as national marketing manager for Flora Springs Winery in Napa Valley. It was here that he would be introduced to his lifelong friend and partner, winemaker James Hall. During their tenure at Flora Springs, the winery introduced a renowned red blend dubbed “Trilogy.” Donald and James would soon merge their talents and jointly founded Patz & Hall Winery in 1988. They released their first Chardonnay in 1994, followed by a Pinot Noir in 1996. Through the years, they continued to maintain long-term relationships with talented California grape growers as a source for their grapes. These relationships would benefit Donald later with his new venture.
I asked if there was a Donald Patz style. According to Donald, ”when we started Patz & Hall and even before, I was influenced by people in the 70’s and found Chardonnay to be so compelling. When we started Patz & Hall in 1988, that was the kind of style I wanted to create. I wanted to make bigger, richer and more intense wines. We were looking for this really lush style with lots of barrel character. Frankly, at the moment that was kind of what people were digging. I liked it at that moment too. Once you start a project like Patz & Hall and get eight to nine years down the road, you are on a trajectory. Your customers are counting on you to produce the wine they expect. You find yourself carried along by momentum. I was proud of those wines.” Over time Donald found himself evolving as he sought a different style for his wines.
Why take on three projects at this stage in your career? According to Donald, “it is kind of crazy and I am sort of restless. I did not want to sit around. If you can create something that other people really love, it is about as satisfying as anything that you can do. This is about as much fun as I can imagine.”
Donald’s venture includes Maritana Winery focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from the Russian River Valley. The name is derived from the ocean (maritime) and the mountains that border Sonoma. According to Donald, “when I had a chance to start over with Maritana, I rethought this whole process. I am looking for wines that are, because they are from Russian River, less oak influenced, slightly lower in alcohols and have a little higher acidity. I am not going radically out there. I wanted it to be a more refreshing wine and that’s what I found myself drinking today.”
Donald is passionate about the Russian River Valley grape growing area because of its cool climate and Goldridge soils. He wants to balance the California richness in his Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs with wines that have brightness, so he picks the grapes slightly less ripe and presently uses only 30% new oak in aging these wines.
He is currently working with Regina Martinelli of Martinelli Vineyards who is planting a vineyard around her house. Within this 15 acre parcel are eight acres of Wente Clone Chardonnay and seven acres of Pinot Noir with three different clones. “Essentially, I will have an estate vineyard that is all mine.” It will be a key part of his blends and a single vineyard in the future. He admits that he has already stretched the limits. Donald remains quite proud of his California winemaking background and draws from his past winemaking experience. He hesitates from making comparisons of his wines to other wineries or winegrowing regions.
With regard to Cabernet Sauvignon, that is where Secret Door fits in with wines focused exclusively on grapes from Napa Valley. Donald promised his future bride, Jung Min Lee that he would produce a Cabernet Sauvignon if she relocated from Virginia to California. As he describes it, “Napa Valley grapes are expensive from good sites. Stylistically, we have come to an end with the ultra-ripe style. I am a fan of some older Napa Valley Cabernet. I call it a neoclassic style. I am picking the grapes a little less ripe and I am giving it a lot of new oak. The model is to use 100% new barrels and I am not afraid to do that. The idea is to make wines that have a little different balance. I think of it as harmony. I want these Cabernets to be delicious, but at the same time to have a little different structure.”
In Roman mythology, the god who protected boundaries was Terminus, so Donald’s final goal was deemed Terminim. This adventure was a joint collaboration with Northern Rhone superstar Francois Villard. By Donald’s accounts Francois and he formed a bond immediately. He admits, “it seemed like a fun thing to do and I learned some things about Syrah.” Francois traveled to Donald’s Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino several times and thought it was an ideal location, given the elevation and cool climate. Together they produce a white Rhone blend of Marsanne and Rousanne named Cepages d’Or along with a Syrah.
At this point in his career, Donald Patz’s objective is “in 15-20 years, these are the wines that I want people looking back on. This is all my idea. These are the wines that I want to be judged on.”
2018 Maritana "La Riviere" Russian River Valley Chardonnay: This Chardonnay is sourced from multiple sources, Dutton, Lynmar and Martinelli vineyards, in Russian River Valley. The wine is fermented with native yeasts and fermented in 90% one year oak barrels. The pale yellow color opens to aromas of white peach and chamomile. On the mid-palate it displays a creamy rich citron core of lemon curd that is nicely balanced with acidity and infused with stone minerality.
2018 Maritana "La Russe" Pinot Noir: Another one of the staples in Donald Patz's portfolio from several vineyards in Russian River Valley. The vineyards are planted in Goldridge and alluvial soils. This Pinot Noir has a very delicate ruby color with faint hints of rose petals. The wine follows through with wild strawberry, cranberry and pomegranate overtones. There are some underlying stone fruits giving this wine some cherry tartness. It remains elegant throughout.
2018 Maritana Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir: This was one of the early vineyard sources for the Patz & Hall wines by owners Bob Jenkins and Charlie Chenoweth. This light, medium ruby hue wine has a perfumed character of red and purple violets. This wine is all about aromatics. The mixed berry red fruits have some savory notes that all come together in this ultra-elegant Pinot Noir.
2019 Terminim Cepages d'Oro: This is part of Doanald Patz's joint collaboration with Northern Rhone producer Francois Villard. This white blend is Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and a small dose of Picpoul Blanc from Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino. The nose is classic Picpoul with yellow roses and acacia. It gently glides across the palate with viscous notes of honeydew and crushed pineapple, yielding subtle freshness at the end.
2018 Terminim Syrah: This is 100% Syrah from Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino. The vibrant deep ruby color is followed by aromas of bacon, game and grilled meat. It is concentrated with an array of briary black fruits, yet is finesse-driven and elegant at the same time. Wow, this was well worth the extra effort by Donald Patz. The personality of this wine is so immediately appealing and unlike many rigid North Coast Syrahs. It appears that Donald Patz and Francois Villard have mastered a California Northern Rhone Syrah that most consumers would admire and drink frequently.
2018 JML Cuvee´: This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is named after Donald Patz's wife, Jung Min Lee. It is sourced from Napa vineyards in Stag's Leap District and Atlas Peak. There is a bouquet of Bay leaf, Rosemary and Sage that remind you of Mediterranean garrigue. While there is a wealth of ripe black and red fruits, it retains a whisper of herbs within. Donald believes this is the essence of Cabernet Sauvignon. The tannins are very finely grained.This Cabernet Sauvignon remains graceful and soft through the finish and is the hallmark of the Patz style.