Log In / Join Now

james laube's wine flights

Donn Reisen of Ridge Vineyards Found Dead

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 27, 2009 5:47pm ET

Donn Reisen embodied the spirit of Ridge Vineyards. So when news came today that he had been found dead of an apparent suicide yesterday in Portola Valley, Calif., not far from the winery and his home, it hit hard.

I’d known Donn most of my career, and he and Paul Draper, Ridge’s esteemed winemaker, were the frontmen and spokesmen for this iconic Santa Cruz Mountains winery.

Donn, 60, had been the winery’s president since 2001, but he was much more than that. He was Ridge through and through.

While Draper was the winemaker and intellectual who steered the wines, Donn brought a lighter side to the business. He always seemed to be in good spirits. He was extremely well-liked and respected in the wine community and a trusted source and analyst for those of us in the media.

About five years ago, Donn was in a horrible biking accident that nearly killed him. He was hit, I believe, by a truck while riding his road bike. He spent a long time in the hospital and then a long time rehabilitating. He underwent many reconstructive surgeries and once he was back in circulation it was a huge relief for those of us who knew him.

He had a wonderful sense of humor. He knew wine inside out. He gave wine and Ridge his best and that’s the way I’ll remember him, standing next to Paul, pouring Ridge wines and telling their story.

His death is a tragic loss.

Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  January 27, 2009 6:31pm ET
James, I also knew Donn well from his early days at Ridge. He was, as you noted, well liked, affable and very supportive to media folks, educators and fans of wine. He was either a 100% participant in charity events I was associated with, or close to it. Not just providing Ridge Wines, but also traveling and personally pouring. Certainly a very sad ending for a wonderful person.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 27, 2009 7:05pm ET
Jim, from what I now understand, Donn never fully recovered from the biking accident and the toll it took on him. He was in constant, chronic pain, although no one knew the full extent to which he suffered.
Pete Seghesio
Healdsburg —  January 27, 2009 8:11pm ET
I was shocked to hear this. We all loved Donn at Seghesio. He was one of the great men of the industry. His enthusiasm for this business, his care for the common good of all of us, his optimistic outlook, no matter how tough the times, were the benchmark for how one was to be. He was the ultimate ambassador for not just Zinfandel but the wines of California. I will always remember the way he would push me to do more to help the industry. Donn was very helpful to my family. He was a great man and it is a great loss.
Joseph B Glunz
Chicago, IL —  January 27, 2009 11:24pm ET
It has been a very difficult day in Chicago, as it has been in much of the wine industry that knew and loved Donn. I grew up in the wine business with Donn as a great friend and mentor. We hold an annual wine tasting and each year Donn, and many other winery reps., would join our family at our house for a dinner the night before the event. Donn would always be one of the voices that everyone stopped to listen to. With his quick wit, immense confidence and knowledge that surpassed most in the house, Donn would make us all laugh and learn. We were so happy to see Donn back after his accident and, as only Donn could, he hid the immense challenges and pain that would have crippled any one of us, and made you smile.I will miss my friend and the wine industry is indebted to him.Our thoughts and prayers are with his lovely wife and co-workers that all miss him.
Robert S Walsh
Belle Mead, NJ —  January 27, 2009 11:49pm ET
To a certain generation of winery ¿newbies¿ in the early 1990s, Donn was a friend, mentor, source of knowledge & support that we all dearly needed in our early days; and he was quick to remind us of that. For all of the late nights spent soaking in the knowledge and insight that he had to offer (ok and a bunch of bourbon too¿) there is a group of us who owe him an eternal debt of gratitude.He always took the time to listen and offer council when appropriate. He didn¿t have to take the time to hang out with us, but he did. He was a kid a heart and provided us with the energy and inspiration to overcome whatever was thrown our way. He would remind us how he began in the industry and that if he could do it, ¿a bunch of flunkies with fancy college degrees like you¿ could as well. While he could be a curmudgeon and general pain in the tail (like leaving nasty messages on the back of our business cards, like ¿you food really sucked¿ to restaurateurs who he got to play along and would then leave us horrible and scathing voice mails as a joke), he was a lovable one at that and one we all respected. He loved (or tolerated) us and we admired and respected him. He pushed us to never compromise and reach for new heights. He made us, and the entire California wine industry better. His knowledge and support can never be duplicated for a certain generation of us who were proud to call him a friend. Peter Seghesio said it best; he was a GREAT man and will be deeply missed by this community.Tight lines my friend may there always be a hatch rising and the fish biting. We¿re all sorry we didn¿t get to say good-bye.
Pacific Rim Winemakers
January 28, 2009 12:11am ET
Very sad to hear this news. Donn was a great person a will be missed by all of us in the industry. I send all my thoughts to his family and the great team at Ridge.
Cheryl Quist
Albion & Palo Alto, CA —  January 28, 2009 12:22am ET
I only knew Donn over email. About 6 months ago I had the opportunity to connect with him in Palo Alto at his favorite wine bar. Due to a schedule conflict we were ultimately unable to get together. If only I had known, I would have moved heaven and earth to share some wine with this visionary in the world of wine.
Morgan Winery Inc
santa lucia highlands,ca,usa —  January 28, 2009 12:29am ET
Donn was great mentor to many of us. I always learned a great deal from him while having many good chuckles at the same time. He will be sorely missed. Dan Lee
Cerise B Duran
San Jose, CA —  January 28, 2009 12:56am ET
I'm sorry to hear of this loss, and I know he will be sorely missed. His legacy lives on in the vines.
Randy Mathews
San Antonio, Texas —  January 28, 2009 11:17am ET
Zap won't be the same without him.
Erle Martin
St. Helena, CA —  January 28, 2009 12:11pm ET
I am shocked by this news as well. My recollections of Donn are all consistent: huge smile, quick wit, a lust for life. Stunning to learn of this terrible loss. He left me with some many great industry sound-bites. One of my favorites he shared at the Wine Experience one year. As I remarked on how barren the Ridge table was - not a picture of piece of point of sale to be found - he responded: '... you know what I say, the crappier the wine, the more stuff on the table...'. He was a classic
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 28, 2009 12:29pm ET
Yes, and Donn created (I think) the one liner about Zinfandel: "It's the prince that will never be king."
Julie Ann Kodmur
St. Helena CA —  January 28, 2009 1:19pm ET
Donn Reisen was one of the founders of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers and continued to be a driving force. He was an insightful, creative and gregarious influence. We mourn his loss and are dedicating this year¿s Festival to his memory.Bruce Walker, Starry Night Winery and Zinfandel Advocates & Producers Board President
Michael Collier
Ashland, VA —  January 28, 2009 3:23pm ET
I made my first "pilgrimage" up the mountain to Ridge just a couple of months ago to meet with Donn and Paul. I was struck by their modesty, warmth, and willingness to share. Donn was very gracious and kind and I regret not getting to know him sooner.
Chambers And Chambers
San Francisco, CA —  January 28, 2009 3:25pm ET
"Uncle Don" as many called him in the islands was a mentor, a legend, and a wonderful man. He will never be forgotten, and the voice of Reisen will live in all our hearts!
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  January 28, 2009 4:11pm ET
Donn was the first person I ever interviewed for my first ever assignment for Wine Spectator. It was 11 years ago, and I was covering ZAP. I was both overwhelmed and nervous, but Donn was so approachable and friendly, he pulled me behind the table where they were pouring and answered all my questions and recommended other vintners for me to talk to. He remained a helpful, cheerful and enthusiastic contact for me over the years. He will be missed.
Dawn Wofford
Sonoma, Ca —  January 29, 2009 12:03pm ET
Donn was a bright spot in a crowded room. He always reminded me of why I love wine and the business of wine so much. My heart aches.
Sussanah Nolan
Brooklyn, NY —  January 29, 2009 12:34pm ET
I am stunned. Donn was one of the best...the sweetest. We shared many a wink and a nod over the years. Even though the official word was that he had "recovered" from his injuries, when I saw him @ the Wine Experience this year, it did seem that some of the wind had been taken out of his sails. Though he never presented anything less than his usual charming and upbeat persona externally, I guess he was braver (and a better actor) than anyone imagined. A real and true loss.
Monterey Bay Wine Co
January 29, 2009 2:18pm ET
Donn, I hope you can hear me waaaaaaaaay up there in heaven. Thank you for all the support you gave so many of us in the California Wine Industry and the dignity and respect you imparted to all. I was fortunate to know you for almost 30 years and the sunshine that arrived each time you entered a room will always be my foremost thought of you. Our dear friend Michael Martella said he was able to spend a few hours with Marilyn yesterday, My thoughts and prayers are with her now. Please keep a good watch over Michael, Bev, myself and everyone else who adored and admired your loving spirit. I wish you nothing but peace Donn. For it is that, you were seeking.Susan BurkeMonterey Bay Wine Company
Mike Mulderig
Potomac, MD —  January 29, 2009 3:11pm ET
Profoundly sad day; Donn would most assuredly want all who knew him to cherish the memorable encounters and recollections as many have already done here. A real tribute to a true gentleman.
Larry Stone
Rutherford, CA —  January 29, 2009 4:37pm ET
Donn will be missed by all who knew him. But his spirit and enthusiasm will live on in all the hundreds if not thousands of people his life touched. I remember driving down from Seattle just before Thanksgiving over 20 years ago and going to Ridge and meeting Donn on top of that mountain on a glorious day, clear,sunny and cold. I had made the appointment in the last minute and I didn't expect anyone to be there the day before the holiday, and in fact only one or two employees were at work. But Donn came to the winery, made the effort to greet me personally and walk all over the vineyard and winery together. We wound up talking and tasting for at least two hours. He was obviously in love with his work, with the place and the people he worked with. And he wanted me, a young sommelier from a little restaurant in Seattle, to love it too. That to me has remained the single best example of humility and hospitality in any business.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 29, 2009 8:44pm ET
Thanks to all of you for your warm thoughts about Donn. I know Paul and the folks at Ridge appreciate your expressions of grief and admiration for Donn. Susan's comment about Donn and the dignity and respect he imparted on so many people perhaps tells it best. What attracts so many people to wine is passion -- for growing grapes, making wine, for appreciation of differences in style and taste and so many other facets that make wines such a complex fabric. Donn encouraged us to seek and explore and cherish and enjoy life. Wine was just the vehicle to a much bigger and wider world.
Francesca Planeta
Italia —  January 30, 2009 8:30am ET
I met Donn one year ago in Miami and we spent a great evening together. I remember telling him that Ridge has always been my reference in producing and marketing wines. I'm so glad I had a chance to meet him once, such a charming person and I will remember for ever the time spent together.
Sean Calder
February 2, 2009 6:56pm ET
I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Donn last year at the Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival and was truck by his friendliness, enthusiasm and generous manner. He was a classy guy who I'm sure will be missed by many.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.
Most Recent Posts
Jun 15, 2017
Do Vintages Matter?

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.