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Biodynamic Farming in Mendocino with Paul Dolan

  Paul Dolan’s roots are planted firmly in biodynamic practices, trailblazing in sustainable farming.

After 27 years with Fetzer Vineyards, Winemaker and later President, Paul Dolan, devotes his time to working 70 acres of biodynamic grapes at Dark Horse Ranch near Ukiah. Paul with his son Jason helps manage the vineyards.

“Biodynamic is just good farming” Dolan said. “We lost the art of farming”. It became totally technical. Any type of mechanization or new system or chemical, we were immediately attracted to and thought it was going to improve productivity and improve quality. “What was lost there was the exploration, the discovery”.

It was over the years that he began to sense the importance of sustainablility. From the growing of the grapes to the building of the business and the nurturing of employees. He thought about it enough to lay out a blueprint in book form: “True to Our Roots: Fermenting a Business Revolution” came out in 2003. Dolan wrote, his entire way of thinking about grape growing was about to change, with huge ramifications for him personally. He concluded that the wine industry wouldn’t have a future under standard operating procedures. There had to be a better, more sustainable way.

Dolan also introduced the Code of Sustainable Wine Growing to members of the Wine Institute, a public policy advocacy group for California wineries formed in 1934. His code become a workbook laying out the ecological, economic and social criteria for becoming sustainable. Dolan later served as chairman of the Wine Institute which had 928 members in 2006-07.

Dolans’s message and methods resonated not only because of what he was saying but because of who he was — a winemaker and businessman not only talking the talk but walking the walk.

When Dolan bought the Dark Horse Ranch in 1998, Vines were dying, fences had fallen into disrepair, and the buildings needed reconstruction. Paul Dolan with sons Heath and Jason rebuilt and replanted, focusing on grenach noir, syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel with smaller amounts of cabernet sauvignon and mourvedre.

But in going biodynamic, even Dolan had some convincing to do. When he said biodynamic the first time to his sons, there reaction was no way. But when he said its not really about that, it’s about listening, opening up your awareness and exploring new ways of farming, that’s how I got my boys involved.

Biodynamics is a form of farming that attempts to be self-sustained, self-contained and harmonious with nature. There is an international certifying body called Demeter whose standards are said to exceed those of the National Organic Program.

In the vineyard, Dolan tries to create the best possible environment for his grapes to grow in, putting in different cover crops that have different blooms to attract different insects and also absorb nitrogen out of the air. Ultimately it comes down to the soil Dolan figures, so he feeds the soil with compost, with biodynamic preparations — instead of feeding the plant. His methods are attracting a host of interested grape buyers from St. Helena to Anderson Valley.

In 2004, Dolan started making his own wines from some of the grapes under the label Paul Dolan Vineyards, wines he crafts over at Parducci.

By 2006 he felt the quality of what was coming off Dark Horse Ranch was starting to exceed even his own expectations. The perception of biodynamic grapes is high Dolan says but not everybody’s willing to do it themselves, but they know it’s good, and there is something unique going on.

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