Located in the Carneros cool-climate wine region north of San Francisco, in the bucolic Sonoma Valley, The Donum Estate produces award-winning Pinot Noir on 200 acres of vine trellises amid a monumental collection of modern sculpture. We speak to owner Allan Warburg, co-owner of Fashion retail giant Bestseller who currently resides in Hong Kong, about his journey in making the estate a true marriage of wine and art.
Having inherited a long-held passion for wine from his father, Warburg bought the Donum Estate in 2011 after being told a year earlier by his brother, who had been exporting its wines to Denmark, that the property was up for sale. Established in 2001, the 80-hectare vineyard sits amid a pastoral landscape interspersed with 150-year-old olive trees, beehives and an organic farm. It was founded as an “ultimate Pinot Noir project” based on the Burgundian Grand-Cru model, aiming to make top flight Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It also creates Pinot Noir from its vineyards in Northern California’s Russian River and Anderson Valley. Donum (Latin for ‘gift of the land’) is celebrating its 20th vintage this year, crafting single-vineyard, single-appellation Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from small lots that distinctly express the characteristics of each terroir.
What’s special about Donum, however, is its impressive art collection exhibited beautifully throughout the estate. Since 2014, Donum has presented monumental artworks as part of its terrain, with a large steel rock sculpture by Chinese contemporary artist Zhang Wang being the first.
When asked why he decided to incorporate art into the estate, Warburg says that it “felt like a natural merging of passions: it started with getting to know the artists, which naturally led to owning their works and building a collection.” Warburg’s love of art began when he met his wife Mei in Beijing and lived in a burgeoning artist community for nearly three decades. This, he says, it when they “started to build relationships and [their] collecting really started to take shape”. While it may seem unusual to place the bulk of their collection on a wine estate, Warburg insists that it makes complete sense:
A wine estate is special, a place not only a place to produce wine, but a landscape with its own personality and terroir. The works are placed in the landscape to complement and enrich the experience and the estate. We don’t want to be seen as just a sculpture park within a wine estate, it’s more about putting great things together and watching them grow and interweave with one another. – Allan Warburg
Currently, the estate has 40 major artworks by artists from around the world including contemporary heavyweights such as Ai Weiwei, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring, Yue Minjun and Tracy Emin. Launched officially in 2018, the sculptures are placed strategically throughout the estate, allowing visitors to encounter them in open air as they explore the vineyards while enjoying views of the Sonoma mountains and San Francisco Bay. When it comes to the wine, Warburg says “we leave the wine production to our fantastic team on site, our CEO, Angelica de Vere Mabray, and winemaker, Dan Fishman.” When asked what he feels is the most important quality in wine and wine production, Warburg says “like many products, it is important to take time to consider the details and focus on refinement and have appreciation and respect of the medium – in our case, the grapes.”
For many works, the Warburgs have worked directly with the artist. “This collaboration between the artist and us, the collector, is important,” Warburg said. “Before commissioning anything, we spend time together at Donum, drinking the wine and walking the land and then we arrive at an idea with a specific location in mind for an artwork. When you bring each of these elements together something special happens – not always does one plus one equals two.” Given that they have travelled all over the world and experienced global art of diverse origins and practices, the estate currently exhibits artists from 18 different nations, from Colombia to Cameroon to Japan. From a majestic Kusama pumpkin to a large heart shaped sculpture made of stainless steel by Richard Hudson to a rustic aeroplane bursting with flowers by Anselm Kiefer, the estate’s sculpture collection is nothing short of breath taking. Most recently, Donum unveiled a new artwork by Doug Aitken titled Sonic Mountain (Sonoma). Mimicking a wind chime, the installation responds to changes in the surrounding environment and creates patterns of sound as wind moves through it. An interactive artwork, Sonic Mountain (Sonoma) explores the fluidity of time by creating a continuously evolving experience that is activated by the surrounding landscape. One particularly outstanding piece, and also one of Warburg’s favourites, is Subodh Gupta’s gigantic sculpture of a wine bottle, made purely of stainless steel containers of various shapes and sizes.
Currently, Donum is a private estate open for wine tastings by appointment only due to the small staff and an ethos of providing a personal experience for each visitor. The wines, however, can be ordered from Donum and shipped globally. Since last autumn, Donum has hosted a programme of quarterly public art events involving the artists represented in the collection.