The Donum Estate: A Great Vintage
The Donum Estate began as a top-notch Californian wine estate before morphing into one of the pre-eminent sculpture parks in the US.
When Allan Warburg purchased the 170 acres of rolling Sonoma vineyards that comprise the Donum Winery, it was out of a long-held passion for wine, which he inherited, like his passion for art, from his father. But that was before he fell in love with it. Since then, the Danish businessman has planted not just vines and trees in the grounds, but 40 large-scale sculptures by the world’s most renowned artists, from Ai Weiwei to Keith Haring.
The story began in 2010 with a heads-up from Warburg’s brother, who imported Donum wines to Denmark. Warburg had been drinking the wine for years and loved it. When his brother told him that the winery was up for sale, he put the wheels in motion and within the year he and his wife Mei were majority owners.
Over the years, the Warburgs snapped up parcels of land around the estate as they became available, and the estate now sprawls across 340 acres. Located in a former dairy farm in the Carneros region of Sonoma, Donum creates Pinot Noir from its vineyards in the Russian River and Anderson Valley regions of Northern California. Last year, Donum opened its first winemaking facility on the property, on the site of the original dairy barn.
As well as the award-winning vines, the couple enriched the grounds with 150-year-old olive trees, lavender bushes, beehives and an organic farm. Mei, who was born in China, has planted an orchard of over 100 plum trees. She says: “They are beautiful when they blossom in spring, a special significance for Asians.” They’ve got a large organic kitchen garden that supplies produce to the top restaurants in the area. There are chickens, sheep and two donkeys called Bonnie and Clyde. “We are looking to create a feeling of a ‘living farm’,” says Warburg.
Indeed, Donum was never about making a sculpture park, says Warburg. “Donum is a winery, the works are placed in the landscape to complement the experience and estate. It is about putting great things together and watching them grow and interweave with each other,” he explains.
Seeing the sculptures against the backdrop of the regimented vines is truly breath-taking. Stroll through the grounds and you will come across Ai Weiwei’s animal Zodiac Heads; a huge dotted pumpkin cast in bronze by Yayoi Kusama; a nightmarish spider from Louise Bourgeois; as well as work by Keith Haring, Elmgreen & Dragset, Yue Minjun, Jaume Plensa, Subodh Gupta, Danh Vo, Richard Hudson and Tracey Emin, among many others.
The first sculpture they bought for Donum was a piece called Artificial Rock by Zhan Wang. “We had previously been to Zhan Wang’s studio many times and had already bought a sculpture for our home in Denmark,” says Warburg. “Then with our ownership of Donum, it felt like natural merger, and we started commissioning.” It certainly feels like a merger when you look at a bottle of Donum wine, each label emblazoned with an image of the sculptures.
“Donum means ‘gift’ in Latin and working with some of the world’s greatest artists is just that,” says Warburg. “Our mission is to harmoniously weave art throughout the Donum landscape and create new perspectives and experiences in unifying art, wine, and the environment.”
With a commitment to growing the collection, the first commission to be unveiled in 2019 is the People’s Tree by Subodh Gupta, a striking 10m-high stainless-steel banyan tree with utensils as leaves, following its display at La Monnaie de Paris. This year will also see a new sculpture added to the eucalyptus grove by prize-winning Los Angeles-based artist Doug Aitken. Mimicking a wind chime, the large-scale sculpture (45 x 45ft) work will respond to changes in the surrounding environment. “As the wind moves through it, it will come to life for us to hear.”
The sculpture collection at Donum creates an open-air encounter with art of diverse international scope and ambition, yet one that fits organically into the ridged landscape, mountainous backdrop and San Francisco Bay beyond. It is open for visitors who come to taste Donum’s exceptional wines. With all the wonderful art, the quality of the award-winning wines must not be forgotten. Donum Winery was founded in 2001 as the “ultimate Pinot Noir project” based on the Burgundian Grand Cru model, with the goal of producing the finest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
In years to come there may be an option to open some sort of boutique hotel in the grounds, Warburg hints. For now, the goal is to spend a bit more time there. Currently they average around five visits a year, staying in local hotels, away from their homes in Beijing and Hong Kong, where they live in a breath-taking Frank Gehry-designed skyscraper hugging the side of the Peak.
The other goal is to create an art programme. Warburg says that the estate revolves around the rhythm of the wine production cycle, with the harvests usually taking place around August and September. But the aim is to play a greater role in the West Coast’s art buzz in January and February, when fairs such as Frieze LA, Untitled and Art Los Angeles Contemporary bring art lovers to town.
As for a financial investment, Warburg has long written that off. “You’ve heard of the saying, the only way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a big one,” he jokes. “What we are creating at Donum gives us great joy. It is an investment for our pleasure, and those who visit.”