One mascot found in a new local tasting room is a seahorse of sorts, but not the kind of creative anyone unfamiliar with Scottish folklore would expect.
A legendary water kelpie—specifically in the form of a half-horse, half-fish creature—is the star of some of Donnachadh Family Wines’ labels, displayed on each bottle of the producer’s 2022 St. Rita Hills Chardonnay. There’s also a framed print of the majestic beast inside the vintner’s new tasting space, which opened in late 2023 in Los Olivos.
The facility showcases wines from organic grapes produced at a family vineyard owned by Donnachadh founders Drew and Laurie Duncan. Like the water kelpie, the name Donnachadh (pronounced don-nuh-kuh) has Scottish roots, General Manager Vilma Mazaite told the Sun.
“That’s how it was spelled and pronounced in the 13th century. It’s Gaelic,” said Mazaite, who explained that Donnachadh is the ancient name for the Duncan family’s ancestral Scottish clan.
While the Donnachadh vineyard is located near the Santa Ynez River in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Mazaite and the Duncans spearhead the operation from afar, as all three of them live in Austin, Texas.
Before working for Donnachadh, Mazaite was a longtime restaurateur and sommelier who became acquainted with the Duncans when often they frequented one of her former workplaces. She remembers how excited the two seemed after they purchased a 285-acre property in California in 2013.
“I got to hear about this mystery project they talked about,” Mazaite said during a recent visit to Los Olivos. “At the time, the story was, ‘Oh we bought this piece of land, and we are just starting to plant and we’ll see what happens.’
“They planted from scratch,” she added. “It was just grass and cows before the vineyard.”
The Duncans released their first vintage in 2016, mainly “for friends and family,” said Mazaite. Over the years, the vineyard has sold most of its fruit to various wine producers and continues to do so.
“We still sell, at the moment, 60 to 70 percent of the fruit. We have some really great partners,” said Mazaite, who the Duncans employed during the pandemic to kick-start their efforts at selling their own wines commercially.
“In 2020, Drew sent me [wine] samples just strictly to get my feedback, and I was kind of blown away,” she recalled. “I was just blown away by the intensity of the fruit, and how well integrated the oak was, and how the acidity was shining through the salinity of the wines.”
The first Donnachadh wine Mazaite tried was the 2019 Estate Chardonnay.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is one of the best California chardonnays I’ve tried,’” said Mazaite, who partly attributed the wine’s exceptional flavor to the vineyard’s steep hillside setting, which can be challenging for vines to grow.
“The vines kind of suffer to get through, which brings out the best, I think,” she said, before pointing to a Latin phrase that appears on some Donnachadh bottles as the company’s motto.
The English translation of Disce pati uva is: Learn to suffer, grape. The motto, which Mazaite said embodies Donnachadh Family Wines’ outlook on perseverance, is featured on bottles of the 2020 Estate Pinot Noir and other wines.
When the Duncans hired her in 2020, Mazaite said their collective first goal was to “get the wines out there in the world.” Over the course of the past four years, Donnachadh bottles became available from retailers in more than a dozen states, and “a little bit internationally,” she added.
With the brand’s first brick-and-mortar tasting room now open, Mazaite and the Duncans hope the venue will serve as both an outlet for locals already familiar with Donnachadh wines and a warm welcome to first-time tasters.
One of Mazaite’s favorite things about getting a spot in downtown Los Olivos is being surrounded by a plethora of talented vintners, including Donnachadh Family Wines’ own winemaker Ernst Storm, whose Storm Wines tasting room is located just a few feet away from the new Donnachadh space.
“The community has been super welcoming. We’re so happy to be part of this area,” Mazaite said. “It’s a great neighborhood, and we’re surrounded by people we admire.”
Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood wants to swim with kelpies. Send shapeshifting comments to [email protected].