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There aren't a lot of vintners brave enough to put a trio of cow horns, the ultimate symbol of biodynamic farming, front and center on their labels. But smack in the middle of Paul Dolan's bottles, there they are.

To many, the pioneering Dolan's likeness would symbolize just as much.

"Biodynamic is just good farming," Dolan said. "We lost the art of farming; it became totally technical and any type of mechanization or chemical or new system we were immediately attracted to and thought it was going to improve productivity and if it improved productivity it improved quality.

"What was lost there was the exploration, the discovery."

Dolan, 57, spent almost three decades at Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino, first as winemaker, then president.

It was over that long tenure that he began to sense the importance of sustainability, a capital-S principle he realized had an impact at every level -- 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.

In it, Dolan describes his "Ah-ha!" moment: In 1987, he was sampling sauvignon blanc grapes to determine whether or not they were ready to harvest. One block of vines he tasted was part of an experiment Fetzer had begun the year before to farm some of their vineyards organically.

The second block he sampled was still being farmed the conventional way, with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and synthetic chemical fertilizers.

"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."

The implications of his realization staggered him. His great-grandfather, Pietro Carlo Rossi, had worked at Italian Swiss Colony in Asti. His grandfather Edmund eventually became the winemaker there, too.

Keeping family history in mind, Dolan tried to look forward: Would anything be left for his kids? For his grandchildren?

He concluded that the wine industry wouldn't have a future under standard operating procedures. There had to be a better, more sustainable way.

Chapters in his book included such things as "Your Company's Culture is Determined by the Context You Create for It," which set up a practical framework for how to make sustainability more than social philosophy; and "The Soul of a Business is Found in the Hearts of Its People," a section on maximizing profits in a way "that heals the earth and supports human rights."

Dolan worked with Mendocino-based wine writer Thom Elkjer on the book.

"I had been writing articles about the sustainability sea change in the wine business, with the profound aim of accelerating it," recalled Elkjer. "When Paul invited me to talk about collaborating on a book, it was clear he had the goods: passion, experience and inspired determination."

Around the same time, 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 became a workbook laying out the ecological, economic and social equity criteria for becoming sustainable. Dolan later served as chairman of the Wine Institute -- which now boasts 928 members -- in 2006-07.

Dolan'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.

That's even more true now.

After 27 years, Dolan retired from Fetzer. One of his more personal projects is Dark Horse Ranch, 70 acres of biodynamic grapes in the red-soil hills east of Ukiah managed by his adult sons Heath and Jason.

Dolan bought the place in 1998, an old vineyard full of phylloxera (tiny sap-sucking insects related to aphids). Vines were dying, fences had fallen into disrepair, and the buildings needed reconstruction. The Dolans rebuilt and replanted, focusing on grenache 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 I said biodynamic the first time, (my sons) were like 'No way, we're not doing that voodoo stuff,' " he recalled. "But when I said it's 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.

Among the methods oft mocked and misunderstood is the the filling of cow horns with dung, which are then buried in the vineyard -- a practice growers believe returns energy to the earth.

Dolan also is involved in Mendocino Wine Co., a partnership that, among other things, in 2004 found a way to buy languishing Parducci Winery, the oldest family-owned winery in Mendocino County and the first U.S. winery to achieve carbon neutrality.

Parducci has gotten there by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions through the installation of solar and wind energy equipment and the conversion of farm equipment to biodiesel.

They also use earth-friendly packaging, as well as reduce-reuse programs such as vineyard composting, water conservation and water recycling.

Dolan's partners there include Tom and Tim Thornhill, two Texas-raised brothers who traded separate rat races for new lives in Mendocino devoted to, as they describe it, family, community and sustainability.

"The consumer is becoming much more engaged in green-related issues," said Tom Thornhill.

"And Mendocino already has that as part of its culture, it's an attribute that's an advantage and so much of our philosophy anyway. It's why we came here."

Dolan likens the way he farms to how he parents. In addition to his two grown sons, Dolan has a 10-year-old daughter, Sassicaia, with second wife Diana Fetzer.

"It's about having a relationship as opposed to trying to control, manage and manipulate," he described. "My responsibility as a parent is the environment, to give (my daughter) the space to trust herself and be creative."

To that end, in the vineyard, Dolan tries to create the best possible environment for his grapes to grow in, putting in different cover crops with different blooms to attract different insects and also absorb nitrogen out of the air. Or that can help open up soils to bring more oxygen to the roots. 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 Spottswoode in St. Helena, long organic itself, to Navarro in nearby Anderson Valley.

In 2004, Dolan started making his own wines from some of these 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 was starting to exceed even his own expectations.

"There's a high perception of biodynamic (grapes)," Dolan said. "Not everybody's willing to do it (themselves), but they know it's good, there's something going on there."

You can reach Staff Writer Virginie Boone at 521-5440 or virginie.boone@pressdemocrat.

com.

LIFE AND TIMES OF PAUL DOLAN

1950: Dolan is born. He grows up in Oakland and spends a month each summer in Asti, where his grandfather, Edmund Rossi, runs Italian Swiss Colony.

1977: Becomes first non-family winemaker at Fetzer Vineyards; over two decades he grows the business to 2.2 million cases a year.

1989: Fetzer starts growing grapes organically.

1991: Fetzer introduces Bonterra wines, the first national brand made from 100 percent organically grown grapes.

1992: Fetzer is sold to Brown-Forman; Dolan stays on as president, keeping the winery role at the vanguard of organic viticulture and sustainable business practices.

1998: Founds Dolan and Sons Organic Vineyards.

2002: Introduces Code of Sustainable Wine Growing to Wine Institute members.

2003: Publishes "True To Our Roots, Fermenting a Business Revolution."

2004: Retires from Fetzer and along with sons Heath and Jason, harvests the first grapes (syrah, petite sirah) from Dark Horse Ranch in the foothills north of Hopland.

2004: In partnership with brothers Tim and Tom Thornhill, Dolan purchases Parducci Winery and establishes Mendocino Wine Company, which produces Paul Dolan Vineyards and Parducci Family Farmed wines, whose vineyards are certified both organic and biodynamic. Parducci becomes the first winery to achieve carbon neutrality.

2006: First Paul Dolan Vineyards wines released.