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Q & A: Paul Dolan
By Tina Caputo
Jun 7, 2011
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There are a lot of impressive people involved in the California wine industry, but few are as respected and admired as Paul Dolan of Mendocino Wine Company.  Paul is revered not only for his winemaking, but for his decades-long dedication to sustainable winegrowing and business practices. 

A fourth-generation winemaker, Paul’s grandfather Edmund Rossi ran the Italian Swiss Colony winery in Asti, California, and each summer while he was growing up Paul spent the summer with him.  But despite the family wine connection, Paul didn’t initially set out to become a winemaker. 

Just before graduating from Santa Clara University with a bachelor’s degree in business, Paul wrote a paper on the wine industry that changed the course of his career.  Rather than entering the business world, he enrolled in the enology program at 
California State University, Fresno, and eventually earned a master’s degree. 

In 1977 he joined Fetzer Vineyards, becoming the company’s first winemaker from outside the family.  During his 27 years at Fetzer -- including 12 as president after the Brown-Forman corporation bought the winery in 1992 -- Paul helped establish Fetzer as a leader in organic viticulture and sustainable business practices.

Paul wanted to spread the sustainability message far beyond Fetzer, so in 2003 he shared his experiences in the book “True To Our Roots, Fermenting a Business Revolution.”  That same year, he became a founding partner of Sauvignon Republic Cellars, a brand devoted to producing Sauvignon Blanc wines from the best regions around the world. 

In 2004 he retired from Fetzer, purchased Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino and co-founded Mendocino Wine Company.  In 2007 Parducci became the first U.S. winery to become carbon neutral.  In addition to Parducci, Mendocino Wine Co. now includes Paul Dolan Vineyards, Zig Zag Zin, and a handful of other brands. 

Paul also grows certified Biodynamic grapes on his family’s Dark Horse Ranch near Ukiah, from which he produces Deep Red, a terrific, limited-production blend of Syrah, Grenache, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. 

Overall, Paul’s wines are characterized by bright, pure fruit, great balance and food-friendly acidity. 

Wine Review Online (WRO):  What prompted you to leave Fetzer to form Mendocino Wine Company?

Paul Dolan (PD):  I guess I was experiencing the entrepreneurial itch, and then the opportunity came up to buy Parducci.  It was just a great opportunity for me to create something special from Mendocino -- a chance to bring together my passions for sustainability, organic farming and Biodynamic farming. 

WRO:  You could make wine anywhere in California.  Why Mendocino County?

PD:  I guess it’s just because I like the place so much.  You know we talk about terroir as an expression of place and site and location; we also become an expression of the place in which we live -- we breathe the air, we drink the water, we eat the food that comes from that area.  It becomes part of us and we become part of it. 

WRO:  The word “sustainability” gets thrown around a lot in the wine industry these days.  How would you define it?

PD:  In the wine business I tend to separate it into two aspects:  The growing of the grapes and the business side.  The growing of the grapes directly impacts the nature and quality of the wine, so I feel very strongly about organic farming.  You’re removing the chemicals from the environment where you’re growing the grapes, which improves the health of the vines and the quality of the fruit. 

The other aspect I just call “socially responsible business practices.”  That includes things like water conservation, using alternative methods of power, reducing carbon emissions, contributions to the community -- things that don’t impact the wine necessarily. 

The vineyards we farm are all certified organic and 200 acres are now certified Biodynamic as well.  We also have several growers who are now farming for us organically.

WRO:  How would you explain the concept of “Biodynamics”?

PD:  The way I look at it, all farming is exploitive in the sense that you’re taking nutrients away from the place where you’re growing -- every time you harvest you’re taking them away.  Conventional farmers use petrochemicals to replace the nutrients, so the chemicals created to replace the nitrogen, potassium and phosphate come from petroleum products. 

Organic farmers replace the nutrients using natural materials -- we grow cover crops, which extract nitrogen from the air, and we use compost.  In Biodynamic farming we replace those things naturally because we’re organic farmers as well, but we also recognize that more than nutrients and materials have been removed.  We say there’s a life energy that’s been removed.  In Biodynamics we’re putting that back into the soil by virtue of the preparations Rudolph Steiner (the father of the Biodynamics movement) gave us. 

WRO:  What sort of preparations are you talking about?

PD:  There’s a series of preparations that are made from plant-based materials -- yarro, nettle, dandelion, chamomile -- and each of these has a specific purpose in helping the plant improve its sensitivity to source nitrogen, potassium, and some of the micronutrients, like zinc.  There’s a process we use to help infuse that energy into those plants by burying them in the winter in small clay pots; then we put those pots into the compost pile itself. 

We’ve actually run tests, and we found that the compost has 30% more nutrients available to it than conventional compost as a result of that.  It’s really quite amazing.  A local compost guy in Sonoma made the preparations available commercially last year and he reported that the level of microbial activity increased anywhere from two to 10 times. 

WRO:  What effect do organic and Biodynamic practices have on the quality of your wines?

PD:  Biodynamic wines aren’t better than anybody else’s wines, but I do believe that if winegrowers converted to Biodynamic practices their wines would be better.  Twenty-five years ago I remember being in a vineyard tasting Sauvignon Blanc at harvest time trying to determine if it was ready to harvest.  I tasted a berry off the vine, and it had all the fruit and melon and fig characteristics I’d expected.  Then in the next row 10 feet away I tasted another berry that was flat and insipid, and I didn’t understand why that was.  I had great hopes for the wine, but I ended up being disappointed every year, and the wine would end up going into our everyday table wine.  But three years later after we’d converted it to organic, the same grapes started going into our top-level Sauvignon Blanc. 

So I realized that the inorganic fertilizers and pesticides we were using in the vineyard were killing the microbial life of the soil.  The stronger vines could hold up to that, but the weaker ones weren’t able to fully mature the fruit.  When we brought the health back into the soil the vines were revitalized and were able to produce a more consistent crop.  I went on to convert 2,500 acres to organic after that. 

WRO:  Is your goal to eventually have all the vineyards you own and work with be certified Biodynamic?

PD:  That would absolutely be ideal, and I think that will happen over time.  As we grow the Paul Dolan brand we’ll need all the fruit that we’re growing plus Biodynamic fruit from other farmers.  We have four farmers right now that we’re working with who are converting to Biodynamic.  Currently the Paul Dolan brand is an organically grown certified wine, and we have a couple wines that are Biodynamic. 

WRO:  How would describe the style of wines you’re making at Mendocino Wine Company?

PD:  In today’s winemaking climate there’s a lot of heavy extraction and high alcohols, and we’re avoiding that.  We’re trying to make wines that are very balanced -- wines that aren’t dominated by tannin extraction or alcohol -- and we’re looking for the purest expression of the varietal.  We’re not using a lot of new oak; we’re trying to avoid that heavy sweetness you get from the oak or the alcohol.  We’re sort of out of the norm, but the wines are doing really well so I think we’re doing the right thing. 

WRO:  Which other California producers’ wines do you enjoy?

PD:  Frog’s Leap, Gundach Bundschu, Silver Oak, Trefethen -- these are all friends that I hang with so I know their wines -- and Grgich Hills and Benziger. 

WRO:  Let’s end on a nostalgic note: What was the first wine in your life that really knocked your socks off?

PD:  That was a `68 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard.  I was in a little wine group in college and we would meet weekly and taste wines from all over California.  I was totally knocked out by that wine -- the Heitz wines in those early days -- `68, `69, `70 -- were the most amazing wines.  Another one is the `73 Clos du Val Zin -- to this day it’s tasting incredibly well.