When San Rafael’s Laurence Donald purchased the Kastania Winery along Highway 101 just south of Petaluma in late 2019, he figured there would be some growing pains.
“We took over at the end of 2019,” he says. “We picked that year and 2020 was the first vintage.”
And we all know what happened next. But the COVID-19 shutdown wasn’t the disaster it could have been for Donald’s new winery, Parum Leo.
“That actually really worked out for us, because we were already renovating and continued to renovate pretty much the whole time,” Donald says. “Everybody had to be closed, and we were already in the process of getting permitted, so we didn’t lose anything. We opened the tasting room officially in 2021 and by July, the first round of shots had come out, omicron hadn’t hit yet, and delta was almost gone. So people were just sort of desperate to get outside.”
He chalks it up to “dumb luck” that they had all the outdoor seating separations already. In addition, they had moved the bathrooms outside and removed the old-style tasting bar.
“We wanted more of a restaurant-style tasting experience. So, we cozied it up, added some couches, developed an outside seating area and added a fireplace,” he says.
A winery tasting room right off the freeway might seem like a concern for an outdoor gathering, but due to the unusual topography of the site, the typical noise level is usually just above 30 decibels (as measured on a decibel meter), which is less than the sound of a light rain or a quiet conversation, and considerably quieter than a busy coffee shop.
Donald had been driving by Kastania for 20 years on his way to his work at vineyards in Sonoma County. When he started looking for his own vineyard site, he looked at Kastania, as well as sites in Petaluma, the Russian River and other parts of Sonoma.
“We saw it and it was interesting, but our big concern was the noise. But we walked up there that first day and realized that we could barely even hear it. We could talk in a normal range and it was no problem,” he says.
Parum Leo sits right on an offshoot of the San Antonio Creek, which forms part of the dividing line between Marin and Sonoma counties, as clearly evidenced by where the new freeway construction begins.
“I got in right as they were finishing that piece in front of me,” he says. “That was 2020 when we moved in, which was kind of perfect. They got it all done in 2021 and now there’s a brand-new freeway right in front of us.”
Sheltered by the hills, Parum Leo is situated in the Sonoma Coast and Petaluma Gap appellations, which are both well known for their stellar pinot noirs and chardonnay.
“We are protected by that one last little string of hills,” Donald says. “We’re half a degree warmer than farther out, which doesn’t seem like it would make a difference in the fruit, but it does. The fruit is a little more ripe and less susceptible to rot.”
From that ripe fruit, he produces an estate pinot noir that positively exudes bright red berry fruit and bracing acidity. The Puma, an estate blend of 64% cabernet franc and 36% cabernet sauvignon — percentages you see most often reversed — is sold out, but Donald sources grapes from several other sites to make an Anderson Valley sauvignon blanc, a Santa Clara merlot and a Petaluma Gap chardonnay that while still undergoing malolactic fermentation (as well as sitting on the lees) yield’s a wine with a lively crispness reminiscent of green plum.
Parum Leo’s wines run from $23 for the sauvignon blanc to $52 for a Pinot Hill pinot noir sourced from the Sonoma Coast.
“We got 1,000 cases this year, up from 400 to 500 when we first took over,” says Donald, whose winery is permitted for up to 2,400 cases.
“Right now, we are only selling at the tasting room, but I am going to start talking to retailers this year. We hope to add a few choice restaurants, so the word starts getting out. I can sell some wine through them, but, of course, the margin is a lot less. I don’t want to do too much of that, I want to continue to make great margin on the site. But I do want to see my label out there.”
Parum Leo is open by appointment only. Tastings and private events are Fridays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The winery can accommodate up to 45 guests, with more seating at a picnic area.
“I like to be out there doing stuff, driving the tractor, working with my hands on the vines, that is most of the reason I got into this to begin with,” Donald says. “The tasting room was kind of a secondary notion. I had done tasting rooms when I was younger, but talking to the public about something that I have done myself is a completely different animal. I can tell them about this space, the appellation, the vineyard site where it came from, why it’s turning out like this versus that. And that makes it so much more fun and people really respond to that.”
For more information on Parum Leo, go to parumleowine.com.