Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring Landon Donley, the winemaker at Buccella, a Napa estate. Buccella was founded by two lovers of Gaja’s wines who strive to make bold, flavorful, and layered wines.
Landon has seen many sides of the wine industry. He discovered his love for wine as a bartender at a resort. When he decided to study wine, he studied first for a sommelier degree and a general wine-knowledge certification, and fittingly he worked at a wine retailer and at a distributor. But then after talking to a winemaker over a bottle of wine, Landon decided to become a winemaker himself, and enrolled in the enology program at Fresno State. He arrived at Buccella in 2015, after finishing his degree, and after spending some time at Molly Dooker and at Spottswoode.
Landon was also recently mentioned by a previous interviewee here, Jennifer Williams, as an exciting new winemaker.
Check out the interview below the fold!
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and raised in Meadow Vista, California, a small town in the Sierra Foothills near Auburn.
When and how did you get into wine?
While I was in college in Southern California I was a bartender at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. The Montage had a diverse wine list and I was encouraged to learn about wine and took training to become a sommelier. After two months of learning and tasting continuously with the wine director, I was hooked. Once I graduated I backpacked around Europe, wine tasting in various regions and experiencing the culture. Upon returning to the States I was certain my lifelong career would be in the wine industry.
What has been your career path to where you are?
In a nutshell, I dipped my toe into all the major divisions of the wine industry before finding my home in winemaking. After I left the Montage, I wanted to focus my passion purely on wine, so I took as position selling wine at The Wine Club in Santa Ana. This position allowed me to talk about wines on a daily basis with customers and taste wines that I knew I would never be able to afford. A year later, I was recruited to work for American Wines where I sold wine to restaurants in Santa Monica and Malibu. During my time working as a distributor I found myself gravitating to the technical side of wine. I decided to take the Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine exams to learn more about viticulture and winemaking. As the story goes, after a bottle of wine and a long conversation with winemaker Ed Sbragia, I decided to go back to school and learn about winemaking and change my career path completely. Two months later, I quit my job and enrolled in the Enology program at Fresno State. Along with earning a degree in Enology, I also gained experience by working countless hours at the Fresno State Winery. Post graduation, I traveled to Australia and worked harvest at Molly Dooker in McLaren Vale. Upon returning to states, I was hired as the harvest intern at Spottswoode Estate Winery. Shortly after the 2010 harvest wrapped up, I was hired full time as the Assistant Winemaker and for the next four years worked very closely with winemaker and Vineyard Manager Aron Weinkauf. In 2015 I decided to take the position as Winemaker at Buccella.
In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
Buccella focuses on sourcing fruit from vineyards located in cooler climates. Majority of our fruit is coming from Coombville and Carneros, which tend to be the cooler appellations in the Napa Valley. We feel this allows for a long growing season where we can capture phenolic maturity while retaining expressive aromatics.
What is your general winemaking philosophy?
It all starts in the vineyard. Constant observation in the vineyard allows for great farming and precise picking decisions. Great wines with a true personality are made with a thoughtful balance of one’s intuition and the fundamentals of fermentation science.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Balancing normal life and a winemaking lifestyle.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Tony Soter – His early philosophy for viticulture and winemaking set the stage for some of the most respected wines in Napa and I really enjoy the wines of the 1980s he made at Spottswoode. Francoise Peschon – She makes great wines that have energy and expression and she is truly the most down to earth winemaker I have met. Ann Kraemer – She is incredibly knowledgeable and a truly passionate farmer. I feel lucky that I get to make wines from her Shake Ridge Vineyard.
What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
My wife, she is part of a new winery and doing some great things. I am excited to taste the wines she makes.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
Piedmont. I love Nebbiolo.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
The best wine that I have had is hands down 1962 Leroy, La Romanee, and the most interesting wine I had lately is the 2015 Brash Higgins ‘NDV’ Nero d’Avola-Amphora
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
The oldest wine is 1971 Vietti Barolo and the most expensive wine would be a 1.5L of 2008 Colgin Cariad.
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
A bottle of 2014 Nebbiolo from the Suma Kaw Vineyard. I made this wine as a side project while I was at Spottswoode.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
The white would be Raveneau, Les Clos. The red would be Jamet, Cote Rotie
Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes, it can be especially after 5pm during harvest…
How do you spend your days off?
My days off are spent having fun with my wife and 2 daughters and occasionally on my tractor fixing up our property in Angwin.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
This is a hard one to admit on record, but as a kid I was an extra in the movie “A Walk in the Clouds.”
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Making beer or spirits.
How do you define success?
Being happy and content.