[Photo Credit: Olaf Beckmann]
“The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts,” said Ryan MacDonnell, co-owner and CEO of Round Pond Estate, quoting Aristotle not as some general, ambiguous notion about life but as the specific philosophy driving the creation and experience of Round Pond wines.
Round Pond Estate—a winery, vineyard and olive mill located on Rutherford land in Napa Valley—has been owned by the MacDonnell family since 1983. In 2003, brother/sister duo Miles and Ryan MacDonnell took over the vineyard, which today spans 362 acres and produces everything from Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc to high-quality olive oils, syrups and vinegars. Family comes first in all that goes on at Round Pond and who better to explain why (and exactly how) than Ryan herself …
MELISSA: Before we get into any particulars, if you were talking to a first-time Napa Valley visitor, why would you tell him/her to put Round Pond Estate on the itinerary?
RYAN MACDONNELL: Well, that’s a good question and something we think about every day. What sets us apart? I think it’s a few things … when my brother, Miles, and I set out to define what our guest experiences would be, we wanted more than anything to have guests feel like they were in their own living room, enjoying the company of their friends and experiencing world-class wine, food and hospitality. To that end, we’ve spent a lot of time creating amazing things for people to do – whether it’s our Hands on Harvest experience where guests have the opportunity to peek behind the curtain by participating in the day’s cellar work, an estate food and wine pairing on our terrace with an incredible view overlooking the valley , our Il Pranzo lunch with wines, olive oils and homemade family style food pairings, or our Signature tour that takes guests around the entire property in our 1941 Chevy red truck.
Many people also find us through our Olive Mill, which is one of only two in the Napa Valley region. We make world-class olive oil from our own orchards in our own mill on site and have a unique and fun tasting experience for guests. I love seeing the lightbulb go off in people when they see olives crushed and understand what makes an extra virgin olive oil so special.
I also think our estate approach appeals – meaning it’s a family endeavor to make excellent wine from our own vineyards, olives from our orchards, and nurture a winery garden that inspires all our gourmet products and is the foundation for all our guest experiences in this special place within the Napa Valley. It’s an old-world approach and I think and hope it resonates with people.
For most industries today, tech rules. How do you maintain your commitment to handcrafted, rustic elegance in wine while also keeping up with the trends of modern wine-making technology?
First, there is no substitute for hard work and attention to detail – whether in modern or ancient times. Those are our guiding lights – never cut corners and quality comes first. It’s simple but it works. Also, we try to make everything elegant and beautiful – again another element that can’t steer you astray. At the same time, innovation is critical. We try and bring a modern approach to everything we do, employing technological developments to farming and winemaking, but also rethinking the wine industry’s approach to hospitality, marketing and even packaging.
The Round Pond Estate boasts imported Mediterranean olive trees, which you hand-harvest to produce your signature olive oils in vibrant flavors like Meyer Lemon and Blood Orange. How do you determine which fruits to infuse with olive oil and what makes for an ideal pairing?
It all started with the Blood Oranges and Meyer Lemons we grow on the property. When we first crushed the rinds of the citrus with our olives in the old stone frantoio, we knew we had something special. Every year, we taste the oil from the eight olive varietals and determine which olives best fit the profile of the citrus and then we rush them together in the frantoio. As for a pairing, I love our Blood Orange olive oil with wild salmon in the summer and crab in the winter – both paired with our Sauvignon Blanc. See here for a crab recipe. I also love our Meyer Lemon Olive Oil in these shortbread cookies with our Cab. Now that is a treat!!
Your red wine vinegar is aged for ten months in French oak barrels. That seems like a lot more time than the regular, supermarket fare. Is this standard practice or meticulous design?
We make our red wine vinegar using the Orleans Method. It’s an ancient, traditional way of making the best vinegar, first started in France. Most vinegars are made quickly – aging allows for complexity and depth of flavor to develop. It also allows for tremendous quality with no artificial additives. The difference in taste is immediately discernible and there is no comparison.
A Sunday brunch at Round Pond is hardly just a Sunday brunch. Your “Garden to Table” experience starts off with a sensory tour of the garden (led, naturally, by the winery chef), and then, with fresh, just-picked veggies and herbs in hand, diners are treated to a cooking demo and in-depth wine-pairing discussion. Tell me: Are you guys in some secret competition to create the most ultimate farm-to-table experience ever?
Funny! We absolutely love showing guest the “whole” Round Pond. There is something magical about seeing guests light up; it gives us purpose and tremendous satisfaction. Aristotle was right – the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to Round Pond. I think that’s what makes the brunch so special.
There’s an incredible emphasis on family at Round Pond Winery. From the longstanding, second-general MacDonnell family ownership to the personal touch afforded to every grape grown on your vines. Co-owner Miles MacDonnell even described camping out in the vineyards as a youth and riding four-wheelers up and down the valley, proving his closeness to the land. How do you think that deep-rooted sense of family and warmth is mirrored in the wines you create?
Being family owned and family run ties us to the land and to taking the long-term view. We are raising our kids here, our parents are here. It’s our home and our joy and our purpose and our name is on everything we do. We can’t do less than our best because it’s our reputation. Dad always said the only thing you have in life is your reputation so that keeps us working towards being better every day. It’s that simple.
The Round Pond Estate tasting room was named one of “Napa’s Most Beautiful Wine Tasting Rooms” by Food & Wine Magazine. What makes your tasting space so spectacular?
That is such a nice complement. I think it’s the warmth of the room, being expansive but cozy, with lots of windows and great natural lighting. Using rustic elements like old wood beams and barrel hoops for lights but adding modern touches like the beautiful photos by Rick Chapman is nicely synergistic and pleasing to the eye. The view from the terrace also doesn’t hurt!! Here is what our designer Stephen Jones had to say about it …
When I was working with Ryan and Miles on the design of the interior of the Round Pond tasting room, we knew that we had a great opportunity to create an exciting but intimate and welcoming space for visitors to the winery. The simplicity and solidity of the building with its exposed fir beams and columns could be an urban loft set down on the floor of Napa Valley. Industrial, rustic chic was our focus when selecting the finishes and furnishings for the space. The building materials are simple and honest, textured slate floors, troweled plaster walls, raw sandblasted wood timbers, and iron hardware. Repurposed factory tool tables grouped with simple sturdy modern seating are gathering spots for groups and individuals to sample and enjoy the wines, olive oils and produce from the vineyard. I think the design of the building, interiors, terraces and landscaping is a reflection of the MacDonnell family’s connection to the land and surroundings; it is natural, relaxed, comforting and you just know the wine and food is going to be fantastic.
On your website, you describe your winery as a place where “estate vines are pruned to allow the sun to dapple the grapes, or in our careful selection of new oak from different forests in France.” That’s beautiful! How significant are those small details when producing high-quality wines?
I think I mentioned it above but it’s all about the details. Detail, detail, detail. If you zero in on making each element just right, the end result with everything put together is bound to be spectacular!
If you could give one celebrity or famous person a bottle of Round Pond Estate wine, who would it be and what would you gift him/her? (Bonus question: What would the card say?)
Wow – that’s a tough one. I think the people I admire most are those who have committed themselves, overcome great hardship and succeeded. I also admire those who have given their lives in the service of something greater than themselves, whether to cure disease, fight for peace or serve our country, no matter in what capacity. I know these are super contentious times but setting the politics aside and just focusing on the institution of service and dedication itself, I would be honored to have Round Pond be the go-to wine for our nation’s President. That would be a great honor. When that happens, I know we will have arrived.
PS. The card would say, “Enjoy and come visit anytime!”