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Wine Pioneer’s Progress

For years, Paul Dolan’s biodynamic, organic wines have been a go-to pairing for eco-conscious gourmet menus on Earth Day, or any other day. But this year, a shadow lay over the green vista of Paul Dolan Vineyards: an ugly split between Dolan and his partners. While the legal situation remains unsettled, Dolan says wine will always be a part of his life, as well as the approach that he refers to as regenerative farming.

The grandson of Edmund Rossi, winemaker at Italian Swiss Colony in Sonoma County, Dolan studied enology at California State University, Fresno, then joined Mendocino County’s Fetzer Vineyards. He spent 27 years there as winemaker and later president, introducing the first nationally distributed wine made from organically grown grapes.

His passion for organic and sustainable practices led him to write “True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution,” part manifesto, part how-to, in 2003 (Bloomberg Press).

In 2004, Dolan joined forces with brothers Tom and Tim Thornhill to form Mendocino Wine Co., which purchased Parducci Wine Cellars. Since 2006, the company also includes Paul Dolan Vineyards, whose wines are made from grapes from Dolan’s Dark Horse Ranch. But in January, Mendocino County sheriff’s deputies were summoned to intervene in a dispute among the company’s principals, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. (The deputies determined it was a civil matter the parties needed to resolve themselves.) No one is talking much, but it’s clear that Dolan is no longer a part of the company. Dolan filed suit against the Thornhills in early March, disputing the value of his share of the company, Wine Spectator reported.

Paul Dolan Vineyards wines are distinctly earthy, with deep fruit flavors. Whether that’s attributable to his dedication to organic and biodynamic farming or it’s an overall attention to detail in the vineyards, not to mention multiple decades of experience, is hard to say, but his wines are, across the board, satisfying and well-priced.

A return to his roots in biodynamic agriculture

Whatever the future may hold, there has been no change in Dolan’s commitment to biodynamic agriculture, a holistic approach to farming that goes beyond eschewing pesticides.

“Biodynamic farmers see that there is a life energy that is removed” from the earth in conventional farming, he explained. “[Biodynamics founder] Rudolf Steiner helped us by first identifying this issue and then recommended materials that help put that life energy back into the soil. I simply call this regenerative farming.”

Dolan is working on expanding his farming activities to use more of these types of regenerative practices and to organize more farmers in Mendocino and nearby Sonoma counties to work together.

He’s also designing a Regenerative Farming Educational Center at his Dark Horse Ranch outside of the town of Hopland, where he grows Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon he hopes will be a catalyst for further educational venues for the wine industry but also for all of agriculture.

“I believe the future of agriculture lies in not looking for the answer, but rather in exploring in places we haven’t looked before,” he says.

Dolan also remains active in Sonoma County, where his great-grandfather got his start as a winemaker. He has partnered with investor Bill Hambrecht and his own son Heath in a few wineries there, including Truett Hurst in the Dry Creek Valley and VML in the Russian River Valley.

In addition, Dolan has three small family properties in Mendocino that are being farmed using biodynamic practices.

“All of our vineyards will go into newly designed wines,” he says, “wines that truly represent the ideals and values of regenerative farming and biodynamic principles.”

He says he’s seen a lot of interest among winemakers in both organic and biodynamic farming over the last several years.

“When winemakers stop to consider the alternative to these practices they start to become conflicted with their own personal values,” he says. “Winemakers are by their nature always looking for ways to achieve the most authentic expression of their vineyard sites. When they begin to realize that the use of chemicals actually runs the risk of interfering in the full expression of their wines, they quickly adjust.”

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.

Photo: Paul Dolan. Credit: Courtesy of Paul Dolan

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.