100 PORTRAITS Wine Wine

Portrait | Cushing Donelan of Donelan Family Wines

Umami* of Nantucket
Cushing Donelan, Donelan Family Wines
By Sara Boyce
Cushing “Cush” Donelan has recently joined his family’s business, Donelan Family Wines. While the family has been making wine for 10-12 years, the brand is four years new and the ratings scores continue to rise. Cush jokes, “we’re the best rated brand nobody’s heard of”. That’s not entirely true. Nantucket has heard of the Donelan Family – the family has roots on island for more than 30 years.
Donelan Wines
I have a fond spot in my heart for Donelan Family Wines. When I was launching Grey Lady Wines last year, one of the first vintners I spoke with was the patriarch of the family, Joe Donelan. He was direct, certainly gruff, maybe even a bit tough. Once he realized I offered a profound respect for boutique wines, their wine makers, and commitment to making quality wine, not only did he open up, he proceeded to act as a mentor and explain the journey I had ahead of me as I entered his world.
This could be an analogy for how the Donelan’s do business. They’re united. They’re focused. They don’t waste time. And everything serves to protect their pride and passion: wine.
The motto for Donelan Family Wines, “Wine is a Journey, Not a Destination” explains their entrée into the wine world. What started as an accompaniment to a fine meal became a focused interest, a hobby, then a passion and a family business.
Joe and Chris Donelan first came to Nantucket in the late 70s with some close friends and have been homeowners since 1988.
Donelan Wines
Joe and Chris Donelan, (c. 1980s)
Donelan Wines
The Donelans, Nantucket
Keltie worked in restaurants while going to school. Tripp, currently Director of Sales, was a contractor for Chris Fraker for a number of years. Cush, Director of Marketing, had his first job at Force 5 on Main Street when Francie and Chris Bovers owned it, before working at Galley Beach, The Pearl, and Lola. “I have so many amazing memories on Nantucket and many first time experiences that have shaped who I am and how I interact with the rest of the world.” Moriah worked at the Boat Basin for a number of years and also at American Seasons.
Donelan Wines
The Donelans, Nantucket, c. 1990s
Donelan Wines
Cush credits his father with nudging him into the restaurant world. Good family friends with the Silvas, he and Tripp were hired in the late 90s to work at the burger shack on the beach in front of Cliffside Beach Club. He paints a funny scene: Tripp worked as an umbrella boy while he flipped burgers “that were totally undercooked because I had no idea how to work a grill at 15.”
When the Pearl first opened, the “Willy & Graeden Show” was quite a scene. Cush worked as a bus boy but quickly joined the bar staff with Graeden Ambrose, who taught him how to tend bar as they became close friends.
Donelan Wines
Cush and Graeden in Costa Rica
Cush remembers The scene was “so new and wild for Nantucket. It was the first of its kind.” After several years tending bar, Cush moved to Los Angeles and had a couple of internships, one of them for Director Jason Reitman, known for movies such as Juno,
Up in the Air, and Thank You for Smoking.
It was Graeden who introduced Cush to a former high school friend who was a fraternity brother with actor Matthew McConaughey. Cush was hired as a Producer’s Assistant on the 2007 movie, Surfer, Dude, which “while not a movie blockbuster, was one of the best, most fun experiences I’ve ever had.” For the duration of the movie, Cush lived in a RV park with Willie NelsonWoody Harrelson, and McConaughey while they shot up and down the coast of Malibu.
Donelan Wines
Woody Harrelson, Cush, Chad Mountain (best friend and colleague)
Cush was hired to take care of the talent. McConaughey’s longtime assistant and father figure had to leave the set five days into shooting the first movie so Cush stepped in to the temporary job of taking care of the actor. “I guess I made an impression as I was asked to work at his production company, j.k. livin productions.” For four years, Cush worked closely with McConaughey and was his right-hand man, often times acting as a filter between the him and his agents, lawyers and business associates. Parts of the job were very glamorous and then there were some not so glamorous experiences. “I got to go on some amazing trips and meet some amazing people.”
Donelan Wines
Cush, McConaughey, Michelle Obama and friends
Donelan Wines
Chad Mountain, Bill Gates, McConaughey, Cush
I couldn’t help asking Cush “What was it like to work for McConaughey?” (OK, I kept my cool and didn’t mention I knew People had dubbed him “The Sexiest Man Alive in 2005”.) Cush answered, “He was a great boss. He was always consistent. He is punctual and hard working. It’s a testament to his stamina in the business. He never raised his voice, never put me down. It was a great environment to have as an inside track. Most movie stars play the same characters on screen that they are in real life.”
While Cush was working with McConaughey, j.k. productions became increasingly involved in production, and the company was very successful in selling many scripted and non-scripted television shows.
Donelan Wines
Cush, on site
When McConaughey decided to move back to Texas to be with his family at age 40, Cush took stock of what he wanted to do. Having nursed a desire to start his own business for a long time, he realized that perhaps he didn’t need to start from scratch: there was already a small, family-run business within his own family, Donelan Family Wines. “The timing was perfect to jump in and learn from my dad and brother and work along side them.”
Donelan Wines
Cush, Caroline and Genevieve West Donelan
My goals are to infuse the company with new energy as we launch the ‘Donelan 2.0 stage”. Having just had his first child, Cush is excited to return to the island. He feels, “the future is very bright for the Donelan brand and the wines, and we are excited to reintroduce ourselves at the Nantucket Wine Festival”. In addition to participating in the Grand Tasting on Saturday and Sunday, you can meet Cush and the Donelan Family and learn more about their wines on Friday, May 17th, 3 – 5 pm at American Seasons. “How To Execute Consistent Greatness: 2 Wines, 3 Vintages, Avg. Score 96.” Wines will be paired with passed hors d’oeuvres and charcuterie prepared by American Seasons chef and co-owner Michael LaScola and staff.
Donelan Wines
Cush, Tripp Donelan, Tyler Thomas (Winemaker), Joe Nielsen (Assistant Winemaker), Joe Donelan
Learn what it takes to produce wines of unique character and excellent quality, all wines sourced from the family’s private cellar. Cush explains that winemaker “Tyler Thomas will take our guests on a pretty cool ride” as we taste through three different vintages of the Cuvée Keltie and Obsidian Vineyard Syrah. These are wines you can’t buy. Seats are $150 and can be purchased at American Seasons, 508.228.7111.

*”Umami” is something the Japanese recognize as the 5th flavor, in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. A nuanced word, one could define it as the “je ne sais quoi” that deepens flavor, the experience, and imparts satisfaction and sensory delight. To me, it’s “that which makes Nantucket special”.

One of Nantucket’s residents who came to the island for 3 weeks and stayed a decade, Sara Boyce is always looking for that ‘extra flavor’ in life whenever and wherever she can. After many years running The Brigham Galleries, Sara recently launched www.GreyLadyWines.com, where she works with Nantucket’s wine authority, Denis Toner, to discover and promote exceptional, small-production wines. A supporter of the arts and many of the island’s non-profits, chances are she’s cooking, brainstorming marketing concepts, or on the dance floor if she’s not traveling. To share thoughts on Nantucket’s food, wine, or social scene, email Sara at Sara AT GreyLadyWines DOT com.
This article initially appeared in the May 16, 2013 edition of Mahon About Town.

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