Paul Dolan: Rooted and Visionary

Paul Dolan: Rooted and Visionary

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

Rooted is the first word that comes to mind when describing Paul Dolan. As a fourth generation winemaker his family “roots” are part of California’s wine history. His business philosophy is laid out in his book “True to Our Roots.” His organic and biodynamic farming practices ensure that the roots of his vines, which ultimately are the base of his wines, are well cared for.

“I’m committed to passing on a legacy to my kids, my family and the community,” says Dolan, whose calm intensity radiates from his lucid eyes and hushed deep voice. He fulfills that commitment through leadership, vision and a belief in interconnected sustainability.

Dolan’s winemaking roots include two generations on his mother’s side in Italy before her grandfather Pietro Carlo Rossi, a pharmacist, immigrated to California. In 1881 Rossi was instrumental in creating the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti south of Cloverdale. Italian Swiss
Colony was originally an agricultural colony organized to provide jobs for northern Italian immigrants. “They decided they wanted to make wine,” says Dolan. The Colony turned to his great-grandfather to take on the duties. “They won the first medal for California wine in 1906 at a Paris competition,” he says. The wine was Zinfandel.

The Rossi family ran the winery for 60 years from the 1880s until the 1940s. In 1904, they built a beautiful Victorian home in Asti, which is still in Dolan’s family today. Dolan, who grew up in Oakland remembers hanging out in the summers at the family home and winery in Asti. “We used to play hide and seek inside the winery,” he laughs.

On his father’s side, his grandmother was from another old California winemaking family. His great-grandfather started Concannon winery in Livermore in 1883.

Dolan studied business at the University of Santa Clara and went into the military for three years. Then the pull to the land and his winemaking heritage led him to get a degree in enology at Fresno State University in the mid 1970s. Mendocino County beckoned and he was hired as the first non-family member winemaker by Barney Fetzer at Fetzer Vineyards.

It wasn’t long before Dolan discovered what a difference organically grown grapes had on the taste of wine. In his book, True to Your Roots, Dolan describes the first time he compared the flavor of organic grapes with the same varietal raised with pesticides. “I didn't know it then," Dolan wrote, "but my entire way of thinking about grape growing was about to change, with huge ramifications for me personally and for Fetzer. Before that moment, I had only read about the impact of pesticides on the environment. I hadn't ever experienced the effect they could have on flavor. Now I was tasting it firsthand."

In 1988 Fetzer released its first red wine grown from organically grown grapes. “It was a hard sell at first and we launched it four years in a row,” he remembers. He met regularly with growers to enroll them in controlling pests with beneficial insects and then putting in riparian borders between blocks of vines to provide habitat for the diversity that is essential in farming without pesticides. He’s proud that the Chardonnay he planted in the organic vineyard at Valley Oaks in Hopland survived the 1990s influx of phylloxera that ruined many vineyards and is “still in production today.”

When Fetzer purchased Ceago, now home to Bonterra winery, in McNab Valley where Jim Fetzer was farming biodynamically, Dolan embraced the philosophy and never looked back. In 1998, Dolan, with sons Heath and Jason, purchased the 160 acre Dark Horse Ranch on Old River Road south of Talmage. It is now certified organic and Demeter Certified Biodynamic. They are growing 70 acres of grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Zinfandel, Grenache and Mourvedre.

In keeping with the biodynamic philosophy there are 20 acres in pasture and the rest in woodlands at Dark Horse. Animals include four quarterhorses, three Dexter cows, Dorper sheep, forty chickens (which live in a movable chicken house in order to make best use of their scratching and bug eating skills), and a hodgepodge of goats.

Today, Jason with his wife Carly and twins Sadie and Cash live on the ranch. Heath, who lives in Ukiah with his wife Robin and daughters Megan and Emma and owns Premium Wine Storage next to the Santa Rosa Airport, works on the ranch two days a week.

Dolan’s third child Nya lives in Seattle with her husband Galen Kusakabe and son Colin. Dolan lives with his wife Diana Fetzer in Healdsburg while they build a new home on family property on Old River Road. His youngest child, twelve year old Sassicaia, is one of his horseback riding partners.

In 2002 Dolan produced the first Biodynamic Symposium that included winegrowers from California, France and Australia. Dolan also introduced the Code of Sustainable Wine Growing to members of the Wine Institute, an influential industry trade association. He was Chair of Wine Institute in 2006. During his years at Fetzer Dolan was named Wine & Spirits magazine Winemaker of the Year seven years in a row. Fetzer won many environmental and sustainable business and production awards under Dolan’s leadership. In 2004 he left Fetzer. That same year he and Tom and Tim Thornhill formed a partnership and purchased Parducci Wine Cellars where Paul Dolan wines are also made.

Partnership is something Dolan enjoys. In addition to Dolan and Sons Organic Vineyards and Mendocino Wine Company, parent of Parducci and Paul Dolan brands, he is in a couple of other wine related partnerships. Dolan and son Heath, along with old friend Phil Hurst, Ukiah resident Mark Demeulenaere, and winemaker Ginny Lambrix, are involved in a vineyard in Sonoma County which produces Truett-Hurst wine. Along with renowned chef John Ash, Mendocino based winemaker and educator John Buechsenstein and restaurateur Tom Meyer, Dolan makes classic Sauvignon Blanc from grapes sourced from various parts of the world for their Sauvignon Republic brand. “I like the dynamics of partnerships,” he says. “It is not about running my own show and allows me to use my creative side.”

Along with writer Thom Elkjer, Dolan authored "True To Our Roots, Fermenting a Business Revolution," a book that outlines Dolan’s business model based on what he coined the three “E’”s. They stand for economic viability, environmental sustainability, and employee relations. In demand as a speaker at seminars around the country, Dolan is also on the Board of Directors of The Climate Group.

At Parducci Dolan and the Thornhills walk the talk. “We are looking at the future when we do anything at Parducci,” says Dolan, who envisions Parducci as a model for sustainability. In 2007 Parducci received the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, California’s highest environmental honor. Last year Parducci, which is run on solar and other renewable energy, became the first carbon neutral winery in the United States.

The wine brand Paul Dolan, which was first released in 2006, is a place to show off the family’s organic and biodyanamic grapes from Dark Horse Ranch. In addition Dolan contracts with other growers in Mendocino County, some of whom have sold grapes to Parducci for three generations. Growers include Norma Gibson, LeRoy Chase, Julie and Joe Golden, McFadden, Pete Barra, Andy Beckstoffer, Luke Miller, and Dolan’s wife Diana, whose vineyard is called Gianda (Italian for acorn). “My goal is to support small family farms in the community and produce a high end wine from their grapes,” he says.

Paul Dolan wines include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. In addition he produces Deep Red made from estate grown biodynamic grapes from Dark Horse vineyard. Dolan’s 2005 Deep Red Mendocino blend combines Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Grenache and Syrah. “Each year the blend will express the best our property has to offer,” he says.

Summing up Dolan’s philosophy is best expressed on his interactive Paul Dolan website: “The vines reach into the soil for their essential needs: water to drink and food to eat. If the soil is full of microbiotic life and natural nutrients, the vine absorbs everything it needs to grow at a normal, healthy rate.”

Looking to the future for Dolan, who builds, grows and shares his passion with respect for the natural rhythm and how we affect it, begins by being true to our roots.

TASTING NOTES: We grilled spicy chicken legs and had a salad of arugula and spicy greens which segued perfectly with the fruit-rich and equally spiced 2006 Paul Dolan Zinfandel.

For more information on Paul Dolan wine, contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission or

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

Next Week: Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival

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