Mandy Heldt Donovan

Mandy Heldt Donovan

Merisi (Winemaker & Owner)

Mandy Heldt Donovan is an Easterner who found her way to California. After earning a B.A. degree in Psychology and Spanish at the University of Vermont in 2001, she served in Peace Corps Honduras for two years. She then embarked on a series of harvest internships, starting at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma County in 2004, followed by stints at Marlborough Valley Cellars in Blenheim, New Zealand, and Nickel and Nickel Wines and Vineyards in Oakville, CA, in 2005. She then worked in the cellar of Heitz Wine Cellar for a year before enrolling in the Master’s program in Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis, in 2006. While there, Mandy received the UC Davis-Antinori Scholarship, a prestigious award that allows the recipient to spend a harvest in Italy; she did hers in Fall 2007 at the Tignanello Estate of Antinori Winery in Montefiridolfi, Italy. She then completed the M.S. degree in 2008.

Following graduation, Mandy was assistant winemaker at Cain Vineyard and Winery in the Napa Valley for five years, before establishing her own label, Merisi Wines, in Sonoma in mid-2013. The etymology of the winery’s name is interesting, in that it honors the name of the Italian painter, Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. His paintings had a style distinctive from those of his contemporaries. In her husband Nick’s words, “We hope to channel [in Merisi wines] a spirit who challenged the dominant artistic style of his time, and created a new style that was more immediate, earthy, and passionate.”

In 2017, Mandy embarked on a bold experiment by inoculating some of her Carneros Pinot Gris with a “fruity strain” of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast. She had some experience with this “renegade,” having worked in the lab of Linda Bisson, a yeast microbiologist at UC Davis. Although often used by craft beer brewers, winemakers avoid it like the plague because of the off-putting flavors—think manure, horse sweat, etc.—that it imparts. The wine that resulted is called “Manic White.”

Other wines offered by Merisi are Pinot Gris (non-bretted), Grenache, Petit Syrah, and a red blend. The fruit is sourced from boutique vineyards, farmed and cared for by the same families for generations, and harvested so as to reflect the distinctiveness of each site.