When Angelica de Vere Mabray took on the position of CEO at Donum Estate winery in mid 2019, little did she know that the visitor’s center and tasting room would effectively be shut down for nearly a year during the pandemic. But thanks to her 20+ years in the wine industry, a strong background in digital marketing, and a talented staff that was cross-trained to assume a variety of winery positions, Mabray and her team were able to create some of the most innovative wine tourism experiences available. Through capitalizing on Donum’s philosophy of uniting wine with art and the land, the business was able to not only survive the closure, but to thrive. Today, Donum Estate continues to incorporate and expand on these visitor experiences.
“Our team learned so much throughout the pandemic,” explains Mabray. “That first year brought so many unknowns; it really proved our commitment to collaboration and remaining solutions-oriented across all areas of our business. We launched a successful e-commerce offering and prioritized new solutions for our members.”
Donum, which means ‘gift of the land,’ is located in Sonoma County, California, in the Carneros wine region. Founded in 2001, they currently employee 50 people, produce around 10,000 cases of wine per year, and farm around 150 acres across four estate vineyards in Carneros, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Mendocino. Owned by Allan and Mei Warburg, both avid art collectors, the 200 acre Donum Estate is home to 50 monumental works of art crafted by world-class artists. Most are open-air sculptures placed strategically throughout the vineyards, creating a one of a kind outdoor walking tour.
“The evolving Donum Collection of art brings together a global community of artists,” states Mabray, “including works from leading practitioners from 18 nations, across six continents such as Ai Weiwei, Ghada Amer, Doug Aitken, Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring and Subodh Gupta. Each art piece inspires a more memorable wine tasting experience.”
The Unique Trilogy of Wine, Art, and the Landscape at Donum Estate
But it is not only the stunning sculptures dotting the vineyards that make Donum unique – after all, there are other wineries that offer art collections for visitors as well. It is the philosophy of intermingling art with the care of the vines and landscape and hand-crafting artisan, single vineyard, pinot noir and chardonnay wines. Everything appears to be done with art in mind.
For example, the vineyards are all certified organic, with a focus on biodynamics and regenerative farming. There is a deep respect for the land, the way the light plays upon the vineyard slopes throughout the day, and the beauty of the organic gardens, which provide fresh ingredients for wine and food pairings, artistically arranged.
The hospitality center and winery are designed to tastefully blend into the vineyards with gable roofs, floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors, and a board-and-batten siding on the gravity-flow winery that makes it seem to undulate in the breeze with the vines. All of the grapes come from estate vineyards, and the wines – under the leadership of winemaker Dan Fishman – are made with natural yeast and without additives, to let the taste of the land shine through.
Virtual and Walking Wine Tourism Experiences
During the height of the pandemic, many wineries were forced to lay-off staff, but Donum owners, Allan and Mei Warburg, in consultation with Mabray, decided to keep everyone on board. “By keeping us all employed,” explains Hospitality Lead, Brandon Montalvo, “the leadership team exhibited the ultimate trust factor to empower us to create amazing visitor experiences from a blank canvas.”
Montalvo explained that in the beginning, the hospitality team did research on virtual wine tourism to learn what worked best. They also spent a lot of time working in the vineyards, helping out in the winery, calling wine club members, and being cross-trained on nearly every aspect of the business. “It was very interesting,” reports Montalvo, “and it helped us to create innovative virtual experiences.”
With a deeper understanding of wine business operations, the hospitality team created special online wine and food pairings emphasizing the artistic arrangement and flavors of food. “We also created wine bundles with small gifts, that customers would open in our online tastings,” explained Montalvo. “We partnered with Coravin to provide a Model 2 Coravin to use in our virtual tastings. During this process we discovered that people were hungry for these experiences.”
Once state and county officials allowed wineries to re-open, the outdoor art exhibit became a focal point in their tastings. “In the beginning, we had to keep wine tastings outside, and the outdoor art exhibit was naturally a huge draw,” states Montalvo.
Today the tour of the outdoor art display is at the heart of all of Donum’s wine tourism experiences. Visitors can sign up online for the Carneros Experience, the Discover Experience, the Explore Experience or the Transcend Experience. Each one includes wine tasting and a complete or partial outdoor art tour, either walking or in an all-terrain vehicle. Or visitors can stay in the virtual realm, and enjoy the art collection, wine, and vineyards via an online gallery and videos.
Newest Donum Wine Tourism Experience – The Vertical Panorama Pavilion
With new additions being added to the art collection each year, visitors always have a reason to return. For example, this summer Donum Estate unveiled a brand new exhibit by artists, Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann, called the Vertical Panorama Pavilion.
Rising like a beautiful rainbow colored flower in the midst of the vineyard, the pavilion is designed to reflect the colors of the land and wine. “The specific design elements are abstractions of components taken from a vertical slice through the pavilion’s location on the Estate,” explains Mabray. “Specifically the soil, vegetation, wind, sun, atmosphere, and rain – and incorporates these into the colorful canopy, reflecting the wine’s unique signature.”
Already hundreds of art fans from around the world have arrived to experience the Pavilion. For the grand unveiling, the Warburg’s flew in from China to listen to the poetic description of the creative conception and design in a speech by the artists. “This was our first time to travel outside of the country since the pandemic started,” stated Allan Warburg, “and we are so pleased to be here……We believe that when you take beautiful art, ,….a beautiful landscape, and…. great wine.., it’s a much larger experience.”
Indeed, the experience of standing inside the rainbow colored Pavilion, sipping a glass of wine, and viewing the 360 degree view of the vineyards is mesmerizing. The floor is made up of dirt from the vineyards, purposely designed to make you feel as if you could be a grapevine growing from the soil toward the sun, wind, and rain.
“As the Donum Estate evolves,” concludes Mabray, “there’s a continuous effort to enhance the sensorial discovery within our wine tasting experiences. Our integrated guest experiences offer an escape from the everyday with access to a renowned global art collection, opportunity to learn about our portfolio of certified organic Estate vineyards, and overall a memorable wine tasting.”