October 9, 2018 – “Of the earth” connotes something that belongs to a larger entity beyond the grasp of the mere conveyance of title from one human to another. And so De Tierra Vineyards, founded by the late Tom Russell, and until recently, owned and operated by his daughter Anna, has a new earthly custodian.
Dan McDonnal and Alix Bosch, feel honored to have been granted the chance to shepherd this beloved brand into the next phase of its existence.
“I’ve known Tom since the early 1980s,” says McDonnal, who along with Bosch, has taken ownership of the De Tierra Vineyards brand, inventory and tasting room in Carmel. “I was in the produce business in Salinas for 30 years. Tom was involved in over 50 different businesses. He was a serial entrepreneur. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t try. The vineyard and winemaking was a hobby that just took off.”
Although McDonnal and Bosch had long been fans of De Tierra wines, they had no plans to buy a winery. But then Anna Russell got married to Jack Galante’s son, John, and recently gave birth to a daughter, Eliza Russell-Galante. Life takes you on unexpected paths.
“It wasn’t a planned thing,” says McDonnal. “We had heard that Anna was looking to sell. She decided to close down and sell off pieces of the business. Other wine-related people looked at it, but they didn’t want labeled wines. Alix and I said to each other, ‘Let’s see if we can buy it!’ We told Anna, ‘We’ll take everything!’ It worked out for us. She didn’t want to sell the vineyard: that property is worth many millions. We do have first right of refusal on the estate grapes.”
McDonnal wants everyone to know that it will be business as usual at De Tierra. They’ve retained all the employees, renewed the lease on the tasting room in Carmel, and are not planning to make any significant changes there. “We gave a great wine club base. We are planning to maintain and improve the tasting room to make it as comfortable and inviting as possible.”
For winemaking, they will be contracting with winemaker, Russell Joyce, to make their wine going forward.
Meanwhile, they have plenty of wine in barrel, which they will bottle after the first of the year. Asked about this year’s harvest, McDonnal says, “We have done Pinot Noir from the SLH, and we have Cab Franc coming. It won’t be a big harvest for us this year.”
De Tierra Vineyards began in 1998 as an organic grape-growing operation on a 40-acre southwest-facing site in Corral de Tierra. Tom Russell, an agriculture professional who hailed from Phoenix, had transitioned the majority of his conventional row crop vegetable operation to organic in the early 1990’s, with great success in the California market. Russell was passionate about wine and farming, and wanted to explore the benefits of organic farming with wine grapes.
Talbott Winemaker, David Coventry, made De Tierra wines from 2004 until 2010, growing the brand from 600 cases to over 6k. He was first introduced to Russell by “Radicchio King,” Lucio Gomiero, who helped Tom site and install the estate vineyard in Corral de Tierra.
Recalls Coventry, “Lucio would visit me when I was at Chalone, because he liked our wine. He and Kurt Gollnick were making syrah in Gollnick’s garage. At some point, Tom realized he needed help and asked Lucio who he should talk to. Lucio came to see me at Morgan, and let me know that Tom was looking for help. That’s how I got started there. It was a very tiny, bare bones operation. We literally did everything the hard way.”
Coventry recalls they working with a 1-ton press that Tom would insist on overloading. “He kept putting grapes in and juice was squirting out all over. I had to explain that you did it one batch at a time: you load, press, clean out and start over. Tom kept telling me that I was doing it all wrong!”
They were doing something right, though, because in 2008, De Tierra was named Winery of the Year by the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Says Coventry, “It proved you didn’t need fancy equipment or a chateau to make great wine. For a small operation, we had a great French oak barrel program, though.”
Asked to recall some of his favorite wines from his tenure there, Coventry first points to the 2005 Salachi Pinot Noir, which received 3 stars from Decanter magazine. “They (Decanter) never gave out stars to California Pinot,” says Coventry. “Our wine must have pleased their British palates, because they also called us a winery to watch.”
Another favorite was the 2006 De Tierra Merlot from the Russell Estate Vineyard at the far end of Corral de Tierra. The vineyard is 100% organic, hand-farmed sustainably and run entirely on solar energy.
Says Coventry, “The 2006 Merlot was one of a very few universally liked wines that vintage. That site has uncommon ripeness, which yields a real depth of flavor. De Tierra has some serious terroir.”
Certainly fitting for wines “of the earth.”