Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Paul Dolan: A Mover and a Shaker in Mendocino County Wines Lived a Life of Deep Roots and Forward-Thinking

Paul Dolan [Photograph provided by his family]

Legendary North Coast vintner Paul Dolan valued his Wine Country heritage. 

It traced back four generations to the historic Italian Swiss Colony vineyards and winery in northern Sonoma County. His great-grandfather Pietro Carlo Rossi and grandfather Edmund A. Rossi were presidents of the famed winery. In the 1950s Italian Swiss Colony, when Dolan as a boy played hide-and-seek among wine barrels, was one of the largest tourist attractions in California, widely promoted on early television as the home of the ‘Little Old Winemaker.’

Dolan decades later would regale his own family with fond memories of having spent summers as a child at the family’s villa southeast of Cloverdale with his mother Yvonne Rossi Dolan and her extended family. The dining table was always laden with food, and hearty wine.

Dolan’s deep ties to tradition combined with an innovative spirit eventually led him to become a leading voice for sustainable, organic, biodynamic, and regenerative farming practices as a means of nourishing the earth and advancing grape growing practices. Dolan spoke with passion and farmed enthusiastically.  At heart, however, Dolan was a devoted father, grandfather, and an advocate of the community.

Dolan’s family was with him when he passed peacefully on June 26 at his home in Healdsburg from cancer. A memorial service is planned for early August at the Dolan family’s Dark Horse Vineyard on Old River Road south of Ukiah.

Heath Dolan recalled Thursday a father who valued family more than any of his accomplishments in the fiercely competitive world of grape growing and winemaking. 

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 “His heart was most at ease when surrounded by his children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, and extended family at Asti Villa,” said Heath Dolan who worked alongside his father in the vineyards and later became his business partner.  “His legacy is mine, and I hope to pass it along as he did with me.”

Heath Dolan said he has received hundreds of calls and notes of condolences as word of his father’s death spread in recent days.

 “What I realized is that most speak of my father’s character, and how he helped so many people he worked with over the years. Sure, he was a fine winemaker and an informed grape grower. But clearly, he was a man who cared about the people around him. That’s the most powerful legacy any of us can leave.”

Family members recall Paul Dolan’s reverence for the mystery of life and death, and how he “found solace in the knowledge that death is not an end but a gateway to renewed life.”

During his lifetime, Paul Dolan would leave a large winemaking footprint in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. He helped lead Mendocino County’s Fetzer Vineyards to new heights during an era of ‘fighting varietals,’ while promoting a groundbreaking food and wine philosophy that Fetzer family members embraced in an era of fierce competition among locally based wineries.

 Dolan’s brother-in-law Jim Fetzer at the time envisioned a food and wine center at Hopland, and hired Michael Malthus, a nationally recognized organic gardener, to help create a showcase garden at the then newly created Valley Oaks center. It has since been transformed into Campovida, but the garden has remained a centerpiece.

Dolan recalled in a 2015 interview with WineBusiness.com that the notion of a food and wine center “was very, very, very new thinking.”

The Valley Oaks venture proved wildly successful. Julia Child and James Beard came to lead cooking classes, pairing foods with the company’s wines. The Fetzer complex predated “Alice Waters, California cuisine and today’s foodie movement by decades,” according to WineBusiness.

Dolan, who married Diana Fetzer in 1986, became president of Fetzer Vineyards six years later after family members sold the iconic Mendocino County winery to Brown-Forman, a Kentucky-based liquor conglomerate. Dolan continued to expand Fetzer’s shift to organic grape growing practices, and he helped pioneer Bonterra Wines as the first national brand made from 100 percent organically grown grapes. He also established Mendocino Cooperage in 1994, a facility that produced oak barrels for Fetzer wines.

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Dolan left Fetzer in 2004. Two years later, Dolan became chairman of the Wine Institute, the wine industry’s most influential voice.

Dolan held the first biodynamic symposium in the U.S. with winegrowers in Australia, California, and France. With son Heath, Dolan purchased the Dark Horse Ranch south of Ukiah and transformed the 156-acre hillside property into a showcase for biodynamic practices. WineBusiness.com said famed biodynamic consultant Alan York created Darkhorse vineyards ‘artfully designed insectary rows. Heath drove tractors running on biofuels, and (Paul) Dolan held biodynamic bootcamps to teach sommeliers about the benefits of biodynamics.”

In 2007, Dolan founded with friend Phil Hurst the Truett-Hurst Wine Company in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley.

Monty Waldin, a leading international organic and biodynamic expert, told WineBusiness.com this week that Dolan preferred to describe himself as a “farmer who happens to make wine in Mendocino County.’

But Waldin said Dolan’s legacy is much more. “He demystified organics and biodynamics, not least via interesting labels that informed rather than confused consumers.’

Dolan is survived by his wife of 38 years, Diana Fetzer; his children Heath Dolan (Robin), Nya Dolan Kusakabe (Galen), Caia Dolan, and his daughter in law Carly Dolan, a Mendocino County Superior Court judge. He is also survived by grandchildren Megan, Emma, Sadie, Cash, Colin, and Clayton. Son Jason Dolan predeceased him.

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