From their unique life experiences — Mark as an attorney and Donnis as an artist and chef — they forged a bond that led them to pursue a dream. From that, Topel Mountain Estate Winery was born.
Mark and Donnis Topel had known each other only a brief time prior to planting grapes on the Mendocino mountainside purchased several years earlier. The old sheep ranch was originally just a weekend escape, allowing Mark to get away from his day job as a lawyer and the cacophony and banter typical of courtrooms.
Mark and Donnis loved the property and were enamored with the rugged beauty of the sacred land that had become their haven. They both appreciated wine and they both believed in hard work, thus clearing thick brush and planting the vineyards became a labor of love. From their unique life experiences — his as an attorney and hers as an artist and chef — they forged a bond that led them to pursue a dream. From that, Topel Mountain Estate Winery was born.
For several years , Mark Topel has led a dual life. As a prolific and successful criminal defense attorney, he is a senior partner in the Law Offices of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman in San Francisco, one of the nation’s foremost firms in handling complex criminal and civil litigation. When not in the courtroom, however, he is the hands-on owner and winemaker of Topel Mountain Estate Winery, a “second career” that, to his delight, is consuming more of his time as years pass.
Adventurous and driven, Mark knew he was going to be a trial lawyer from the moment he read “Inherit the Wind.” Captivated by the story of the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” — which debated the legality of teaching evolution in Tennessee’s state-funded schools — Mark, at the age of 12, set his sights on law school. Following graduation from the University of Cincinnati in 1967, he did a stint in the infantry, prior to moving to California to earn his J.D. at the University of California-Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law.
While Mark was a connoisseur of wine for many years, it was a Napa Valley murder case that launched his career as a winemaker. During the long and successful trial, Mark spent a significant amount of time with some of California’s most prominent winemakers and growers, who became friends, mentors and supporters. Absorbing what he could from their extensive knowledge — and by auditing winemaking classes at the University of California-Davis — Mark became highly skilled in crafting wine.
A traditionalist by nature, Mark’s love of history led him to approach grape growing and winemaking from an intellectual perspective. He and Donnis planted the vineyards using tried and true techniques established by the Romans and the French — both of whom cherished hillside fruit. The Topels adapted many traditional methods that have produced some of the world’s greatest wines for centuries.
Today, Mark continues to meld his contrasting careers, balancing the rewards of law and agriculture in cultivating a rich, full-bodied life.
While Mark is the trial lawyer with an artist’s heart, it is Donnis who is the consummate artist. Mark embraces the broad perspective, while Donnis pays exquisite attention to every detail. Together, they perfectly portray the Taoist philosophy of Yin and Yang.
Donnis is Topel Mountain Estate Winery’s enologist, lab technician and brand ambassador. A former pastry chef, who has also benefited from viticulture and enology classes taken at the University of California-Davis, Donnis plays an intrinsic role in crafting the wines — contributing aesthetic sense and culinary acumen that have been indispensable in the evolution of the brand. As brand ambassador, she travels far and wide promoting and marketing Topel’s artisan wines, while also managing the winery’s popular tasting room in Healdsburg. In short, each Topel wine distinctly bears Donnis’ fingerprints, as well as her footprints.
Art has always been her calling, whether in the wine cellar, the kitchen or the dance studio. As a child, Donnis loved ballet, which eventually led to a college dance scholarship, where she learned discipline and earned a B.A. degree in Liberal Arts. Following college, Donnis found her way to Berkeley and became immersed in the Bay Area’s white-hot restaurant scene.
A talented, self-taught pastry chef, she found a home working at Berkeley’s then-famous Fourth Street Grill, while frequently contributing her gastronomic skills to create desserts for special events with her ex-husband, who was the chef at world renowned Chez Panisse Restaurant. In time, she traveled to Italy, cooking in the Chianti Region. It was there she began what would become a lifetime love affair with fine wine.
Despite her devotion to all things culinary, dance was never far from her mind. After returning to California, Donnis started The Works, a dance and exercise studio in Berkeley. Aerobics classes paid the bills, but the artist in Donnis continued to branch out into more innovative elements of dance. To enhance understanding of her work with movement, she studied exercise physiology at the University of California-Berkeley and later was the founding Fitness Director of Berkeley’s famous Claremont Spa and Resort.
In addition to wine, Donnis has an unlimited passion for people and animals. The personification of a humanitarian, she’s worked tirelessly to help the less fortunate, especially those with four legs. Topel Mountain Estate Winery adopted the Healdsburg Animal Shelter as a “pet” project when it opened its Tasting Room in 2008. Each year, Donnis devotes countless hours to producing the Topel Wine Tails Calendar, which features photographs of dogs and cats from Topel customers and fans all over the nation, with all proceeds benefiting the shelter and its programs.
Both Donnis and Mark are animal lovers and Topel Tasting Room has been singled out by animal advocates as one of the most pet-friendly establishments in Wine Country.
The poet Kathleen Norris once observed that “anything, everything, little or big, becomes an adventure when the right person shares it.” No better words could describe the joyful partnership of Mark and Donnis Topel, each with their own unique attributes, working together, balanced and disciplined, toward a common goal – to make the best wine that can be made and to do it honestly and with passion