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Bonum Donum Estate

Winds of change at cryptic Carneros winery

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Don't blame yourself if you've never heard of Donum Estate. Ditto Robert Stemmler, Donum's sister brand named for Sonoma County's most influential wine legend whose name is news to you. But if you experience a little déjà vu on the road to the winery, you can blame the Microsoft corporation.

Anyone who switched on a Windows PC since fall 2001 has seen "Bliss," the image of surreally green, rolling hills purchased from local photographer Chuck O'Rear by the software giant to serve as the default wallpaper on its Windows XP system. Since replanted in grapevines, the actual landscape is just up the road from Donum Estate, also launched during the harvest of 2001. This spring, while "Bliss" cropped up in the media again when XP was put to pasture, Donum invited a few wine-media types to the estate to quietly announce a sort of reboot of their own.

German winemaker Robert Stemmler came to California at the invitation of Peter and Michael Mondavi in 1961. He set up his own winery in the late 1970s, and while he did not focus on Pinot Noir at first, he was ahead of his time, sourcing from the Bohan vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. Famed Napa winemaker André Tchelistcheff, fond of glove-related tasting notes, was said to have described Stemmler's Pinot Noir as having the sensual aroma of a woman's leather glove.

Since Stemmler retired in 1989, his friend Anne Moller-Racke has had a hand in the business, first running it as a sideline to Buena Vista, which the Racke family, German spirits barons, then owned. In 2001, Moller-Racke created Donum Estate on a one-time dairy that retains its working ranch character.

The Donum label goes on "highly allocated" Pinot Noir at $70 and up; the Stemmler label, which pictures the 15th-century tapestry Les Vendanges, sells $20–$45 bottles of more fruit-forward wines. New winemaker Dan Fishman, who ditched a doctoral program on a whim to start as a harvest intern at the winery seven years ago, has been given liberty to experiment; the 2012 Skin Contact Chardonnay ($30), for instance, was fermented on the skins like a red wine. It's a different animal of Chardonnay, but not one of those lately controversial "orange wines." With aromas of raw, chopped papaya, Sweet Tarts and salty Vermentino on the tongue, it's rich without being buttery, and has a long, tangy finish. Barrel samples of upcoming Carneros and Anderson Valley Pinots from whole-cluster fermented and single clone selections show lots of smoky potpourri and red plum promise.

Stemmler Wines, 24520 Ramal Road, Sonoma. No tasting room; visits by appointment only (inquire for availability). 707.939.2293.

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