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With his roots planted firmly in biodynamic practices, trailblazing vintner practices the art of sustainable farming

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.


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