From a successful career in the paper industry to running a family winery, Joe Donelan ’76MBA says it’s the people he has met and the relationships he’s formed on his journey that he loves most about his work. “Life is about solving problems, creating happiness and spreading joy,” he remarked.
As the oldest of eight children, hard work and determination were ingrained in him at an early age. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1972, and while working full time, he went on to earn his MBA from Iona. A self-proclaimed maverick, he capitalized on his ability to solve problems and build relationships to create a successful career as vice president of paper broker, A.T. Clayton. “My early success came because I understood my customers,” he says. “I wasn’t looking for the order or the deal, I was looking for the relationship.”
Sensing that the internet would disrupt the paper business, he retired and started to plan his next steps. “I started thinking about what I loved most — family, people, food and wine — and how I could incorporate those things into my next venture,” he said.
Determined to learn more about wine and always happy to develop a new relationship, Joe befriended the sommelier at a favorite restaurant in Nantucket and hired him to educate him about wine.
In 2009, guided by the belief that “everyone deserves to experience a great bottle of wine,” and by the goal of “quality over all else,” Joe founded Donelan Family Wines in Santa Rosa, Calif. “I made every mistake you can possibly make when starting a business,” he jokes. But his tenacity and love for people prevailed.
Today, Donelan Family Wines produces 7,500 cases of wine each year, including Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Rosé, Chardonnay and Viognier. Family is a big part of his business with many of the wines named after family members, including The Nancie Chardonnay after “Grandma,” Tripp’s Block Pinot Noir for his son, Tripp, who serves as director of sales, and Cushing’s Block Pinot Noir for his son, Cushing, who is director of marketing.
Over the years, Joe’s commitment to quality has paid off, earning several impressive high scores from leading U.S. wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. of The Wine Advocate. Donelan winemaker, Joe Nielsen, continues to produce premium wines that garner 96–99 point ratings (the highest is 100), including the Cuvee Keltie Syrah, which topped the list with 99 points.
Always committed to building relationships, Joe personally calls everyone who signs up for the Donelan Family Wine Club to welcome them and find out what they like. “I then send a handwritten note to thank them when they place an order,” he commented. On his success Joe added, “Don’t lose humbleness; the difference between success and failure is about an inch.”
Learn by using all your senses. Walk in your own shoes.
Patience, practice and persistence
Top states in 2017, for number of wineries:
New York: 385
Source: Wines & Vines
“Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.”
— Thomas Aquinas