By Donn’s Early Light …

It was on this day, three years ago — years both long and short — that Ridge Vineyards, and the world at large, lost Donn Reisen.

To this day, I cannot walk into The Old Winery Barn without thinking of him.

To me, he was the wine world’s Walter Matthau, the wise curmudgeon, the salty, melancholic prankster, the grifter with the soul of gold.

I looked forward to seeing him every day, I truly did. There are not a lot of bosses out there one can say that about, but it’s true.

It was like going to your regular pub, knowing that your mate would be there just ahead of you, doing the crossword, or reading the paper, or ready with a report on the weather.

By saying that, though, please know I don’t in any way mean to belittle his power, his knowledge, his work ethic, his dedication, his vision. He was incredible, and without him, Ridge would not be, could not be, what it is today. He was my boss, and with good reason.

But somehow, he didn’t walk that way. There was no pomp and circumstance to him at all. He used to tease me about looking “East Coast,” because I wore a sportcoat to work. He wore flannel shirts and laughably misshapen jeans.

He could turn on you, it’s true, and for all the cranky congeniality, he did not suffer fools gladly, particularly when they worked for him. My goal, for as long as I worked for Donn, was just to try and stay one step ahead of him. If he didn’t have to call me out for something work-related, that meant we could just shoot the breeze. So I did my best to keep my ducks in a row. For as long as Donn and I were both at Ridge, probably my truest goal was to just not screw up in front of Donn. I wanted him to like me. That’s the truth. I just wanted him to like me.

I miss you Donn. Something flew away into the horizon when you left, never to return.

As with all things though, all things must pass, and the Samsara of Ridge is such that every passing, every departure, every loss, begets a new beginning. The teaching of the vineyards, if nothing else, teaches us this.

I often talk to guests about “library” wines, how they’re finite, how not even the richest man or woman in the world can bring a vintage back when it’s finally gone, but Samsara or no Samsara, it’s hard to say goodbye. Loss is the great equalizer. Be you Bill Gates or Bill at the shelter, neither of you will ever taste the 1971 Monte Bello again.

That’s Donn. A vintage we’ll never taste again. 

Bless you Donn, you are remembered.

Categories: History


8 replies

  1. Donn was a remarkable guy. I met him in 1986 in San Francisco, at the restaurant where I was buying wine. I came to look forward to his frequent visits, as his passion for life, wine and a comedic turn mirrored my own. When I heard of his passing, it made me numb. That in itself was quite an accomplishment on the part of Donn because his appetite for life was palpable in creating feeling. He could not help that.

    As a buyer, I was loyal to Ridge, but exceedingly loyal to Donn. He could extrapolate on the finely wrought fabric of the special place that Ridge Vineyards is, and could banter back an forth about your clothing choices with equal humor. His ability to relate to others with passion, melded with an understanding of the land and the changing landscape of the wine industry, are irreplaceable.

    I last saw Donn at the Wine Spectator event in Las Vegas in 2008. My company was also represented there. I will never forget the vibrancy of our chance meeting, so many years after my San Francisco restaurant days. His humor had not dissipated, and the topic of his bike accident was similarly handled. We resolved to meet up in Southern California for lunch but never did.

    I am a world away from those remarkable times in San Francisco. I no longer work in the restaurant industry, but the wine industry and family occupies my time. Even so, every time I see a bottle of Ridge Vineyards wine on a store shelf, I cannot get the image of Donn and his hearty laugh out of my head. The vintage may be gone, but the legacy remains.

  2. I had the very great pleasure to meet Donn on one of his trips to London, some years ago. He very graciously signed my book, ‘Angels visits’ (by David Darlington) that had led me to discover the many delights that Zinfandel could offer.

    In awe of the man, I had brought a bottle of 1973 Geyserville, to show my interest in Ridge. He suggested that I might be better rewarded if I could share it with folk I might meet in the UK who had more in common with me, as he could likely access this on his return to the US.
    He gave the impression of a truly lovely man; a difficult act to follow.

    Chris, thanks for the reminder
    ps, in his memory I wouold be pleased to share a bottle with any UK based Ridge afficionados. Contact me on

  3. Tears are streaming down my face, you hit it on the head. He was my boss for 8 years, and was so instrumental in shaping who I am today. I think of him so often, though I haven’t walked into the old barn since his memorial. Beautifully written. Thank you.

  4. Great post Christopher. Great writing touches the soul and this post surely did. As Peg said…a toast to lost vintages

  5. Thank you Christopher, for putting into words what I have been feeling this time of year, for the last two years. Something is missing. Someone is missing. I too, wanted Donn to like me since I was a child. He was one of the “cool” adults. He asked me questions and was interested in the answer, and then called me on it when he saw me six months later. He was true.

  6. Well said. He was a wonderful, unique and gifted individual AND you always felt great after being in his presence. He had a way with people and we really lost a good friend three years ago. I’ll certainly never forget Donn.

  7. What a wonderful story!

  8. Lovely, Christopher. Reading what you’ve written, I feel like I know Donn, too.
    A toast to all those lost vintages…

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