Home California The Making of a Food Wine, A Case Study: Donelan Acquerello 2010 Syrah

The Making of a Food Wine, A Case Study: Donelan Acquerello 2010 Syrah


Donelan Acquerello 2010 Syrah w Tyler Thomas & Gianpaolo Paterlini

“Talking to other winemakers helped me understand what it means to be a winemaker.” -Tyler Thomas

“It’s not about knowing the tricks of the trade, it’s about how you’re going to use them.” -Gianpaolo Paterlini

Donelan 201 Acquerello Syrah

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The importance of knowing your context plays behind the history of success for both Tyler Thomas, winemaker of Donelan Family Wines, Sonoma County, and Gianpaolo Paterlini, Wine Director of Acquerello Restaurant, San Francisco.

Winemaking with Tyler Thomas

Tyler Thomas graduated with a Master’s from UC Davis’s Viticulture & Enology program after having already completed an advanced Masters in Botany. His roots in science run deep. After finishing his work at Davis, however, Thomas recognized the importance of grounding his knowledge in experience, and in 2004 started a job at HdV in Napa Valley, with an agreement to also integrate work elsewhere in that first year.

After the 2004 harvest with the winery, then, Thomas traveled for the reciprocal harvest that New Year in New Zealand, returning North to do research on Sylvaner vines in Germany. During his time in Geisenheim Reingau, Thomas was able to take trips throughout Europe, meeting with winemakers in Burgundy, and Alsace as well.

It was through his time in Germany, Thomas explains, that he really learned what it is to be a winemaker. Thomas would sit with others in the region and simply define terms. The winemakers would discuss together their differing cultural views of wine, terroir, technique, and quality. The experience made clear for Thomas how culturally embedded views of wine, and its foundational elements turn out to be. In recognizing the importance of context, the point that you always choose how to make your wine, or what counts as quality came clear. “Talking to other winemakers helped me understand what it means to be a winemaker,” he says.

His background in Botany, and training in viticulture provided ample tools for winemaking, but as Thomas clarifies, his time abroad “was formative in shaping my philosophy. When I returned, then, to HdV, I recognized it was not what you do, but how you think about wine that makes you a winemaker.” HdV winemaker Stephan Vivier further rooted such understanding in Thomas. Vivier originates from Burgundy. In traveling abroad, Thomas was able to recognize a kinship in Vivier with other winemakers in France. Thomas’s early training with grapes, then, came from Vivier’s French sensibilities working with California fruit. The experience established in Thomas an approach defined by both patience, and thoroughness. In his approach to making wine, you sit back and wait, letting the wine takes its time, but you also keep clear track of where it’s at, and make sure what can be done early is tended to up front.

Gianpaolo Paterlini Grows the Acquerello Wine Program

Gianpaolo Paterlini grew up in Acquerello, the restaurant his father, Giancarlo, helped establish. Paterlini’s early memories, then, include his father’s work with the then-smaller Italian restaurant established in a neighborhood of San Francisco that was truly neighborhood then for all its establishment now.

At the age of fourteen, Giancarlo let his son know there would be no more free spending money, but if he wanted a job to earn cash, there was one to be had. So, Gianpaolo began working as a bus boy on weekends. At the time he had no interest in continuing his career in the service industry. Then he went to college in Boston. In summers, Paterlini’s work experience expanded to include food service, leading him to a restaurant job in Boston during the school year.

In Boston, Paterlini began work at Blue Ginger where he came to recognize a huge potential in the industry he hadn’t noticed before. He also saw how much fun it could be. Eventually, his life took him back to the Bay Area where he connected with the famed Sommelier, Raj Parr. Parr showed Paterlini what a top quality wine program looked like–it wasn’t just a great wine list, it was a wine list with an investment in wine education. Additionally, Parr helped Paterlini gain harvest experience with winemaker Sashi Moorman in Santa Barbara County, working in the Lompoc wine ghetto, side by side with many of the best labels from that region. In Lompoc, Paterlini explains, he didn’t only help make wine, but with the mass of winemakers in close proximity, he also drank some of the great wines from throughout the world. Work days would end with bottles for tasting.

In 2007, Paterlini’s experiences came together to illuminate the value of Acquerello for him in a new way. It was a quality restaurant that had never had a dedicated Sommelier. So, with his father’s blessing, Gianpaolo returned to the family restaurant focusing first simply on the restaurant’s established wines. Within short order, wine sales of the establishment increased. As a result, Paterlini was able to legitimate the value of establishing a full fledged wine program, based in what is now a 90-plus page wine list and education program focused primarily, though not exclusively, on Italian wines.

The Birth of a Partnership: Donelan Acquerello Syrah

Donelan Acquerello at the end of lunch

Thomas and Paterlini met through the restaurant. Owner of Donelan wines, Joe Donelan, had been a long time customer of Acquerello, with a friendly connection to the Paterlini family.

In his interests to stay informed and current with wine, Gianpaolo regularly tastes through California wine country (traveling as well to Italy and elsewhere). Through repeat visits to Donelan winery, Paterlini and Thomas recognized a relationship with wine that spurred both their interests. Over time, the connection bred a conversation about developing a unique Syrah together.

The focus of Acquerello’s wine list is deeply Italian, with some Champagne pleasantries, and California highlights as well. The wines by the glass, then, focus on Italian offerings that pair well with the current menu. Together the wine director and chef work for weeks to create a menu that seamlessly couples seasonal flavors with interesting wine. Paterlini had worked with wineries for a few custom bottlings before. From Italy, Sottimano created a 2007 Langhe Nebbiolo for the restaurant that, as Paterlini put it, was chosen because it “blew my mind so I bought a lot for the restaurant.”

In California, Paterlini has been able to garner two different vintages from Dan Petroski of Massican, to create first an Acquerello Chardonnay, and then in 2012 a Sauvignon. Massican is known for creating white wines from California with clear Italian inspiration. In those cases too, Paterlini happened upon barrel lots of Massican wine he enjoyed.

Enjoying Wine with Lunch

In private conversation when Thomas had briefly stepped out, Paterlini took the occasion to tell me what he appreciated about working with Thomas, “I know no one makng better Syrah than Tyler,” he tells me. “But I knew too that in working with him we’d get the experience of talking through what component parts would bring to the blend.”

The Donelan project differs from previous Acquerello wine partnerships in that when the possibility first arose, Thomas emphasized the process of partnership. Where Sottimano and Massican wines were discovered¬†already complete and chosen for how they work well with the restaurant, the Donelan conversation occurred before a wine was made. “I wanted to make sure that the whole thing made perfect sense for Acquerello.” Thomas explained. In his view, making wine for Acquerello was exciting, but it was also a high responsibility. There was no point in doing it unless it was something the restaurant was going to love. But creating a wine they both believed in depended too on making it with the Donelan philosophy. The goal, then, became to make an Acquerello wine in the Donelan style — distinctly Syrah, strongly food focused, developed patiently over time.

Making the Wine

In order to accomplish the Acquerello goal, Thomas set about developing an abbreviated version of the Donelan teams approach–a series of blending trials over the course of a year. The first step would be to identify the barrel that would serve as the core of the wine. Together Thomas and Paterlini located a lot from the Kobler Vineyard, a site that produces friendly Syrah on the ligher side with lots of acidity and smoother tannin, flavored with elegant notes of mountain blueberry carrying frost touched edges.

Once the core of the blend was identified, the goal became then to determine what little bits from other barrels were desired. Together Thomas and Paterlini tasted and talked through the gifts and elements of other lots of Syrah in the winery. Their discussion focused on how each barrel would impact the blend, what it would add, or, detract.

The Donelan team, met repeatedly with the team of Acquerello to hone in on the restaurant’s perfect wine. At its final stage, five possible assemblages were brought to the restaurant in San Francisco where the entire staff of Acquerello blind tasted the five selections side by side. Remarkably, in the end, they all agreed on one. “At the end of the day, it was my call what blend was picked,” Paterlini explains. “But, instead, we included all 10 people [the Acquerello staff]. We all happened to agree, but the point was to act like their opinion matters, because it does.”

After the blend was finalized, Thomas performed a final test. He took a sample bottle with him to the restaurant one afternoon and sat down with Paterlini. Together they blind tasted through the red wine portion of the wines by the glass (BTG) menu checking to see if the Acquerello blend suited the overall architecture of the restaurant’s BTG program. The goal in tasting was to identify a consistency of mouthfeel between the Donelan wine, and the Italians on the restaurant’s list. “Did we get the mouthfeel to a point where it can represent Acquerello well?” Thomas asked.

Paterlini nods, “mouthfeel is the most important thing when selling wine to customers. You need to give them a texture they can relate to.”

The Final Wine

The Donelan Acquerello Syrah has the flavor of Donelan but with a more breezy pleasure. The focus is on open juiciness, the wine giving a portico of freshness to welcome the midpalate. It’s a shape Donelan wines don’t tend to have, yet it drinks like its part of the Donelan portfolio’s extended family.

Thomas addresses the presentation of the final wine, “the wine tells both our stories.”

Paterlini agrees, “we did exactly what we wanted to do. We made the wine we wanted to make.”

As the two continue talking, the relationship expressed within the wine becomes clear. It’s the approach they took to making the wine–working together, incorporating the entirety of both teams to find agreement through discussion–that showcases Thomas’s winemaking style. He values steadiness and patience housed in a path of rigorous attention, coupled with discussion with his people along the way. The Acquerello Syrah is a Donelan wine because it follows the Donelan process–similar oak regime, similar blending trial process. It’s the texture, and architecture of the wine that belongs to Acquerello.


The Donelan Acquerello 2010 Sonoma Syrah is only available at Acquerello Italian Restaurant in San Francisco.

Other Donelan wines are available in the Bay area through Marathon Brokers, or by contacting Donelan Wines directly.

Thank you to Tyler Thomas, and Gianpaolo Paterlini.
Thank you to Emily Kaiden.

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.



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