Wayne Donaldson is a year and two vintages into his own wine label Eonian. After about 20 years in the wine business, working in Australia and California, he "decided it was time to do something personal."
I first met Wayne in 2002, when we he was Vice President of Winemaking and Vineyards at Domaine Chandon, the sparkling wine house in Napa Valley, and we were shooting one of the very first episodes for the show I produced, In Wine Country, on NBC. I'll never forget him showing us how to saber open a bottle of sparkling wine. It was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. A few years later we shot a story with Wayne going mountain biking on the grounds around Domaine Chandon, another super fun shoot.
So when I heard he was launching his own wine label, I had to get the lowdown.
"Eonian the name means eternal, everlasting, eon," Wayne says. "It talks about continuos progression, moving forward, life and growth and reflects my family journey, my journey in wine."
Wayne is of Scottish descent; his family left Scotland for Australia in 1850. He grew up in the wine business so to speak; his parents had a light engineering business and made insulated wine storage tanks. Wayne remembers traveling to wineries with the father and how he loved the weather, the beauty of the landscape, the people and the food. He knew in high school that he would go to college to study winemaking. As a teenager he made wine at home. His first effort, a grapefruit wine, "oxidized and horrible," was called Duck wine, after his nickname Duck for Donald Duck.
Eventually Wayne went to work for Chandon in the Yarra Valley, where he spent 11 years before moving to Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley. After five years he left for Gallo, where he was Senior Director of Winemaking for Gallo Premium. Moving on from Gallo, Wayne developed his own consulting business, with clients ranging from Piper Sonoma for Rémy Cointreau US, projects for Terlato Wines International, Josh Cellars for Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits and Old Bridge Cellars, a leading importer of Australian wine brands.
But then it was time to do that personal project and make his own wine, which Wayne has created with wife Sue Furdek, who also works in the wine industry on the marketing and public relations side, currently with Kendall-Jackson. "We get a chance to spend time together as she puts her word smithing talents to work so it's fun." he explains.
"I didn't just want to make another Napa Cab," says Wayne. In homage to his Aussie roots, Eonian is a Syrah blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. The first release, the 2010, is 80% Syrah and 20% Cab and is what Wayne calls "a very Australian inspired blend. The plan is to always have Syrah dominate, but the blend will change due to vintage variation." The 2011 is 70/30 Syrah and Cab.
He says there's plenty of Cabernet with Syrah blended in, so he's just flipping things around. "I want something with richness and concentration of flavor that has elegance," Wayne says. The 2010 has rich blue and black fruit, black pepper and a little smoke. "We used a little charred oak on this but not too much," he says.
Wayne knew exactly where he wanted to source his fruit. The Syrah comes from the Tip Top Vineyard, owned by Jay Hemingway of Greed & Red Vineyard. The site sits at 1,800 ft. elevation, and Wayne just loves the fruit which is a Phelps selection, old clone Syrah. "Jay is a perfectionist in the vineyard."
The Cabernet comes from two places. In Rutherford there's a plot on Skellenger Lane in Rutherford with gravely soils. Then there's an area on the western side of Oak Knoll district that's just off the valley floor, what Wayne calls "the hinterlands of the slopes. It's not valley floor, it's not hillside."
Wayne makes Eonian at the custom crush facility at The Ranch. The wine spends 18 months in 40% new French Oak and another six months in bottle. "Syrah can be a little rambunctious in its youth and I like it to calm down a bit," he says.
He makes just 250 cases of Eonian, taking it slowly out of the gate. "I love the words 'out of stock' in the wine industry," Wayne says. He's close to meeting that goal.
The bottle of Eonian also tells a story. The artwork, designed by Kristen Beckstoffer, is a take on the Celtic symbol the Triskele, meaning the spiral of life. "If you look up the history and the meaning of the symbol it's always about continuos movement and continuous progression," Wayne says, a perfect reflection of his journey through wine.
"I became an American citizen in 2011," Wayne says proudly, "along with my two daughters. So this is home now." That's why he also wanted his wine to reflect his Napa Valley roots, thus adding the Cabernet to the blend.
In the year since first releasing Eonian, Wayne's been traveling to promote the label and getting his wines placed in local restaurants. And, the 2011 will be released this summer.
"I want the wine to speak for itself," he says. I'm proud of it, I think it stands up really well. If it succeeds I'll be humbled and gratified."
Photos Courtesy Eonian Wines