Mendocino Wine Leader Moves On

Former Fetzer and Parducci chief Paul Dolan starts anew at 62

by Jane Firstenfeld
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The Dolan family is "just now acquiring a new benchland piece in northwest Ukiah, devoted to red grapes," Paul Dolan told Wines & Vines.
Healdsburg, Calif.—For the first time since a January incident at the Mendocino Wine Co., Ukiah, Calif., former partner and president Paul Dolan spoke to the press. In an exclusive interview Wednesday with Wines & Vines, Dolan discussed his plans for the future and his ongoing passion for “regenerative agriculture.”

Before looking ahead, though, Dolan attempted to banish the elephant in the room: The shocking and still mysterious break between himself and his partners of eight years, brothers Tim and Tom Thornhill. The news leaked out only after Mendocino County sheriff’s officers were called to a dispute at the MWC headquarters at Parducci Winery.

No charges were filed, and the parties stayed mum, except for a letter from the Thornhills addressed to customers and distributors, which stated in part: “Effective Jan. 20, 2012, Tom Thornhill, chairman and founding CEO since 2004, has assumed the role of president of MWC. Paul Dolan is no longer with the company and is at work on his other business interests.” The letter noted that “The Paul Dolan Vineyards brand and its distributor relationships will remain unchanged moving forward.”

Dissolution of the partnership is now in the hands of attorneys, and Dolan “does not want to stir the pot,” a spokesperson said. Yesterday, though, he shared in draft form a statement he is preparing for release.

No longer with Mendocino Wine Co.
“After eight fun, creative and exciting years with Mendocino Wine Co. and my Paul Dolan wines, I am no longer with the company.” He recalled that, when presented the opportunity to take over the historic Parducci brand, “After knowing the Thornhills for a short time I invited them to join me in a partnership, thinking it would be a good opportunity for all. I am still not quite sure what happened to the partnership.”

In a telephone interview, Dolan explained that, while the Thornhills continue to produce and market his self-named brand, he will no longer provide it with Biodynamic grapes grown on his nearby Dark Horse Vineyards. “We do still sell that fruit to other wineries,” he said. He already is in the process of creating a new brand and is negotiating for distribution.

At 62, Dolan said, “I feel too young for retirement.” Fully recovered from a skiing mishap that resulted in a fractured pelvis last year, he continues his active involvement in commercial endeavors that would represent a full course load to most people.

With his son Heath and friend Phil Hurst, he developed Truett Hurst, a 4,000-case operation in Healdsburg, founded in 2007. Last year, serial entrepreneur Bill Hambrecht (Alysian Wines, among others) joined the partnership, which added the V M L Russian River Winery, named in honor of Ginny Marie Lambrix, winemaker at both Truett Hurst and V M L. The 500-case winery “makes beautiful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Dry Creek AVA, at the old Belvedere Winery,” Dolan said.

In Mendocino County, in addition to Dark Horse, the Dolan family has two other 40-acre farms planted to Chardonnay grapes in “deep rich soils” near the Russian River. Dolan added, “We’re just now acquiring a new benchland piece in northwest Ukiah, devoted to red grapes” including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Petit Verdot. Dolan will convert this property to organic viticulture.

State of sustainability
Throughout California and the larger wine world, Dolan is perhaps best known as a tireless promoter of sustainability. Author of True to Our Roots, Fermenting a Business Revolution and The Green Wine Growing Hand Book, and a major contributor to green initiatives including the California Wine Institute’s Sustainable Winegrowing Program, for several years he has hosted a series of Biodynamic boot camps in Ukiah.

At boot camp, small groups of journalists, bloggers and sommeliers get schooled in Biodynamic practices from below-the-ground (unearthing buried cow horns) and up to the heights of Dark Horse, a 160-acre Biodynamic farm where 70 acres of hillside vines thrive in an environment supported by livestock and compatible vegetation.

Although Dolan acknowledged “huge progress in awareness” among the wine industry and the general public, he also sees major roadblocks to achieving true sustainability.

“For me, for sustainability, you want to work without petrochemicals; that means not emitting carbon, so if you can, do offsetting. Convert to solar: That’s ideal. Another requirement is 100% recycling water, and recycling materials,” he stressed. At both 3 milion-case Fetzer Vineyards and 150,000-case MWC, he was instrumental in putting these principles into practice.

Packaging is another stumbling block for wine, he acknowledged. “We’ve made some small inroads, like reducing bottle weight, that are helpful, but there are no real significant breakthroughs,” he said. He hinted at some creative packaging ideas that may emerge from the Sonoma operations in the near future.

Dolan remains concerned with preserving farmland as world population nears 9 billion. “By nature, farming is exploitive: We take nutrients from the ground. My interest is to shift to putting something in,” he said. This is what he terms “regenerative farming.”

It’s not a well-known approach, he said. “How do you bring vitality into the soil? You need to look and stand in a different place.” Regenerative farming is an old concept that has not been talked about much in the wine industry. As opposed to exploiting the soil by taking nutrients out, they should be replaced “using natural, organic processes,” Dolan advised.

Making Mendocino work
As a long-time big fish in the Mendocino winegrowing community, Dolan commented about recent developments at the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission including installation of Megan Metz as executive director, and the hiring of powerhouse marketers Steve Burns and Mark Chandler. As Wines & Vines reported last week, the MWWC faces an April referendum on the commission’s continued existence.

“I’m so hopeful it passes. We’re a small community; we don’t have the same traffic patterns as Napa, Sonoma, even San Luis Obispo. We need to communicate,” he said. Dolan admitted that the commission had endured organizational turmoil in recent years. “We had three failures (as executive director). We made some bad choices.”

He expressed confidence in Metz, a Mendocino native he described as “sharp, with a lot of energy. We’ve got a good board, and more growers,” whom he believes can work well together to promote the region.

Water supplies and use have long challenged Mendocino County, but, Dolan said, a temporary stay on a program of draconian regulations will allow for “normal farming practices” this spring. Generous March rains have raised the level of Lake Mendocino, the county’s main reservoir, and, he said, “There is good communication between the growers and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Our hope is that because of ponds (installed by growers), there will be an increased flow in the Russian River,” a result devoutly to be wished if water supplies are to be maintained for irrigation, frost protection and winery processing.

With a failed partnership and agonizingly slow progress toward his lofty environmental goals, Dolan remains upbeat and looking forward. In the statement he was drafting yesterday, he wrote: “Today and tomorrow provide incredible opportunity, not only in farming but in my new winemaking ventures with wines that will be made exclusively with organic and Biodynamic grapes.?

“I am also committed to supporting and contributing to the new movement of growers and winemakers that sees the possibility of farming in such a way that we cannot only make great quality wines, but also regenerate the health of our soil and the surrounding environment.”

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