Paul Dolan is a legend in the world of organic winegrowing, and today his influence can be felt throughout California’s Mendocino County.
The trend toward more Earth-friendly farming extends beyond Mendocino, of course, including Sonoma County.
If you want to sample wine over which Dolan has direct influence, options exist in both of the aforementioned counties—at Truett Hurst in Healdsburg (Sonoma), and Paul Dolan Vineyards in Ukiah (Mendocino).
While the formation of the Truett Hurst partnership began in November of 2007, the founding partners worked together at Fetzer Winery years before. At that time, Dolan was Director of Winemaking, where he’d hired Phil Hurst, a graduate of the acclaimed viticulture program at the University of California Davis, to work as one of the winemakers.
Years later, Phil would hire Paul’s son, Heath, right out of college to work for him. And 30 years after that first meeting, Paul, Heath, Phil and Sylvia Hurst formed a partnership in the Dry Creek Valley. Their vision: create world-class wines using biodynamic farming principles. To complete that vision, Mark De Meulanaere and Virginia Lambrix were brought in.
Nestled in the heart of the Dry Creek Valley, there are 26 very special acres that have been named Truett Hurst. Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vineyards, the Dry Creek waterway, five acres of gardens and a vibrant tasting room made of eco-friendly materials are just some of the things that make the place unique.
As the principals like to pose, where else can you take in Coho salmon, Steelhead trout, otters, ducks, sheep, herbs, olives, beneficial insect habitat, and heirloom fruits and vegetables, all while savoring a glass of delicious wine?
In the 1800s, Italian immigrants arrived in the Dry Creek Valley, and among their personal belongings were cuttings of Zinfandel. They knew that great winemaking begins in the vineyard, and mixed in Petite Sirah for color and structure, and some musque selections for floral notes.
“We took cuttings from two old-vine Zinfandel vineyards, St. Peter’s Church and Du Pratt, to plant two of our blocks,” Dolan says. “In the spirit of our Italian predecessors, we selected a Primitivo clone for bright, vibrant fruit characters, and two selections of Petite Sirah to add color and structure to our wines.”
The Truett Hurst story really begins in the vineyard, where fruit is sourced from the best hillside, old-vine vineyards in Dry Creek. The style of wine, be it spicy and bold, or fruit driven and elegant, is dictated by the vineyard. Understanding this, and allowing for the authentic translation of its terroir, is paramount for making unforgettable wines.
Dolan adds, “Small, open-top fermentations, mixing the cap gently with punch-downs, and selection of only the best French and American oak are only part of the care that goes into handcrafting our wines.”
Among Truett Hurst’s bottlings are various (red) Zindandels, a Zinfandel Rosé, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and some amazing blends.
During June and July, the Truett Hurst tasting room comes alive with music on the weekends, adding to an already sublime experience for guests.
At Paul Dolan Vineyards, the selections include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, a red blend and even a sparkling Brut.
Of course, both organic farming and Biodynamic agriculture are embraced.
Organic farming emphasizes the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water, while organic winegrowing recognizes that healthy soils grow balanced grapes that produce the best wines. Organic vineyards are often small, family-owned and operated properties.
Organic winemaking uses natural processes and rejects the use of synthetic chemicals. Winemakers use organic grapes and yeasts to create wines of great character and purity.
Biodynamic agriculture, a sustainable system of farming, recognizes that all life is interconnected. Based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (circa 1924), biodynamics includes the ideas of organic farming.
The foundation of Steiner’s approach to farming is the blending of prescriptive, holistic practices with the farmer’s experiences and observations. Steiner recognized the rhythms of the sun and moon, the benefit of applying biodynamic preparations such as horn manure, and the wisdom of organizing the farm as an independent unit.
Biodynamic winegrowers create self-sustaining farms by using natural amendments, ideally from the farm itself, to encourage growth and health in the vineyard.
Natural systems such as wildlife corridors and cover crops—along with bees, birds, owls and free-range chickens—keep populations of harmful insects and weeds in control and provide a thriving environment for the vines. Winegrowers also use nature’s own processes to restore nutrients to the soil, regulate water usage and create biodiversity to keep balance in the vineyard.
By observing the unique needs of the farm, winegrowers find creative, natural approaches that enable the vines to attain their full flavor potential. The ultimate goal for a Biodynamic farm is balance and complete self-sufficiency, producing everything it needs on site, from fertilizer to pest control and water management.
Most importantly for wine quality, Biodynamic farming aims to produce a unique expression from each site and, therefore, in the grapes and wines produced from each vineyard. This expression, known as terroir, is a result of the combination of soil, sunlight hours, slope, alignment to the sun, temperature, and the essential ego of place that can be tasted in the personality of the grapes and, done correctly, the wine.
Many say that Biodynamic wines are the most authentic expressions of terroir, and Paul Dolan has been at the forefront of that movement for years.