Uncorking a new career
NOTE: This story was amended to reflect that production for Stoney Wines takes place near Dallas, Oregon.
After 38 years in the social services business — 27 with Multnomah County and 11 more running her family's StoneyBrooke Residential Services in Gresham — no one would begrudge Donna Stoney for trimming daily responsibilities for a more leisurely existence.
Trouble is, Stoney doesn't do idle or resting on her laurels too well. In fact, the Gresham resident never quits one thing without being prepared for the next — usually ambitious — phase.
This time, it's becoming a master winemaker and sommelier.
"This is the second part of my life," she said from her StoneyBrooke office earlier this month. "I wanted this dream, because (what I'm doing here) is easy. I'll probably never retire."
Stoney and her sister Valeria founded StoneyBrooke, a group home for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in 2003. Starting in Sandy, it grew to five facilities now located in Boring, Southeast Portland and 25500 S.E. Stark St., Gresham, serving 15 residents.
While maintaining all this, Stoney has dived head first into the pursuit of wine-based knowledge. To that end, she partnered with Abbey Creek Vineyards in North Plains to purchase grapes and learn winemaking from owner Bertony Faustin, who made Abbey Creek the first Oregon winery owned by a black winemaker.
Duly inspired, Stoney went on to launch the first Oregon winery owned by a black woman.
Night to remember
Stoney Wines, whose production now takes place at Chateau Bianca near Dallas, Ore., launched in September behind the red Bayani Pinot and chardonnay SisterFriends at a debut party in Portland. A portion of all Stoney Wines sales goes to support programs for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Any doubts Stoney harbored about her new endeavor were washed away that night, when guests included local dignitaries like Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw.
"I saw all the people in that room. I was expecting maybe 100, and ended up with 320. I wasn't expecting that," she said. "I was blown away by how many people were so excited about tasting the wine and hearing my story. It just blew me away. I tried to talk to everyone in that room."
Outlaw even gave Stoney a bracelet she'd received from a Japanese ambassador that Stoney wears proudly.
"It was just crazy," Stoney said, still beaming.
Stoney is now a bona fide winemaker, albeit one without her own vineyard.
"I discovered that having a vineyard is not necessary to become a winemaker," she said, "because you can (just) purchase the grapes."
Even that proved a bureaucratic challenge, including a lengthy licensing process with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and myriad state and federal regulations to fulfill.
"And all I did was purchase grapes," she said. "So imagine running a whole vineyard."
Born in Corpus Christie, Texas, where she graduated high school in 1978, Stoney initially stayed put when her father, Alonzo, moved to Oregon to work with Reynolds Aluminum in Troutdale.
After college, Stoney joined her parents in Oregon in 1982. Working for a spell with Eastco Diversified Services in Gresham, she eventually fled Northwest rains for the sun of San Diego. In 1988, she returned north to take a case manager position with Multnomah County's Developmental Disability Office. Stoney was the department's first black woman in such a role.
"I just enjoy people," she says of her comfort with social work. "I think what made me a good social worker was spending time with people brainstorming, like 'What can I do to help?' and doing things to help (clients) feel at ease. I've always been comfortable with children. It's always been in my makeup."
Seeking more autonomy, Stoney and her sister Valeria conceived StoneyBrooke as a haven for patients with Prader-Willi Syndrome, which Donna first became familiar with at a group home she worked at in San Diego. The genetic disorder leads to weak muscles, poor feeding and slow development. Patients feel constantly hungry, leading to health issues like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
"I just couldn't find placements for them," she said of her previous role. "The anxiety related to it is so intense. They become violent, which leads to property destruction. It's a sad syndrome, but I enjoy (working with them) so much. It's been very rewarding and exciting working with them."
With patients ranging in age from 23 to 56, StoneyBrooke operates two residential facilities in Gresham, one in Southeast Portland and three in Boring.
"They're like my family, and I treat 'em like they are," she said. "Some call me mom. They come to our house for Thanksgiving. That's just who we are."
"Red, White and Black"
Now with her loyal, longtime staff of about 45 backing her at StoneyBrooke, Stoney is learning all she can about wine, how it's identified and properly served.
She earned her Level 1 certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in Napa Valley, Calif., where she learned to identify the main styles of wines and key principals of food and wine pairing. She completed the Level 2 exam in Portland, testing her understanding of wines produced from different varieties of grapes, regions where they grow, and labeling terminology.
The Level 3 certification she's working on now prepares her to be a sommelier, or wine steward, with a high-level ability to describe wines accurately and detail wines' style, quality and prices.
Abbey Creek Vineyards owner Bertony Faustin, executive producer of "Red, White and Black," a documentary film about minority winemakers, said Stoney immediately struck him as an original.
"What makes Donna special is her story," he said in September. "After a successful career in adult foster care and being a first in many instances of that industry, she has the courage to reinvent herself at a time when most would choose to be content."
When her wine studies are complete, Stoney envisions visiting Italy and other wine-rich locales and otherwise following her new muse where it leads.
"I'm just gonna keep pursuing my second career, learn how to become a winemaker and just get better at it," she said. "Making wine and going to school is very challenging, but it's something that I love. I have to say I really love both— the social service piece of it, and the wine. They've both always been my passion."
Who: Donna Stoney, owner of StoneyBrooke Residential Services and Stoney Wines
Stoney Wines website: stoneywines.com
StoneyBrooke Residential Services website: sbrsllc.com/home-1
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)