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Paul Dolan Remembered

Paul Dolan

At least 500 people gathered Friday at Dark Horse Vineyards in Ukiah to celebrate the life of wine industry leader Paul Dolan, a man who achieved national recognition for his advocacy of biodynamic farming practices.

Dolan was remembered not only for practicing what he preached, but also for helping Mendocino County transition from largely bulk wine production to widely recognized organically grown wines. He started as a young winemaker for the then fledgling Fetzer Vineyards, but Dolan became known throughout California’s premium wine industry for his role in recognizing the value of sustainable agricultural practices, and the growing consumer demand for organic food and wine products.

“Paul never lost sight of his vision,” said Steve Dorfman, a longtime friend and current executive with Ciatti Company in Marin County.

Paul Dolan died June 26 from cancer at age 72 in Healdsburg where he lived with his wife Diana Fetzer.

Dolan, a fourth-generation descendant of the pioneer Rossi winemaking family in Sonoma County, held on to his strong ties to Mendocino County, where he and his two sons Heath and the late Jason Dolan acquired 160-acre Dark Horse Vineyards in 1998 in rolling hills along Old River Road southeast of Ukiah.

Family members said Dark Horse’s transformation since into a showcase of organic grape growing practices remained the focus of Dolan’s passion.

“For us, this is home,” said Dolan granddaughter Emma Dolan.

The site of the Dolan memorial is an open space surrounded by towering fir and redwoods on the western edge of the property with dramatic views of the Ukiah Valley below. Vineyards cover hills rising to the east. Dark Horse has been the scene of numerous charity events including the always sold out Pure Mendocino cancer benefit.

Dorfman was among the speakers at the Dolan memorial who recalled their friend, and mentor. Others included Raymond Willmers of Sonoma County, a lifelong Dolan friend and former head of sales for Mendocino Wine Cooperage.

Willmers recalled that Dolan even in the face of death was talking of writing a new book about regenerative soil practices. “I just looked at him with amazement. He never let go of his passions,” said Willmers.

Fetzer and Dolan family members attended, including John Fetzer, Mary Fetzer Skade, Sheila Fetzer with sons Jake and Ben Fetzer.

Brief presentations also were made by Congressman Jared Huffman, Assemblyman Jim Wood, and Mendocino County Supervisor Glenn McCourty. Other North Coast wine industry leaders present included Martha Barra, John Mattern, Glenn Proctor, and Guinness McFadden.

Dolan family members, however, captured the crowd’s attention by speaking about Paul Dolan with wit and warmth, and a recognition of his tendency to ‘preach’ about his advocacy of sustainable farming practices.

Emma Dolan recalled that “my grandpa was known for getting on a microphone, giving a piece of advice wrapped in a wise, allegorical speech that oftentimes took way too long.”

The crowd chuckled when the college student added, “I will do my best to encapsulate what he did so well without taking too much of your time.”

Emma Dolan said she had to write a term paper for an English course relating texts that all had themes of nurturing loved ones, nature, and family. “It could not have been more obvious to me that I had to write about my grandpa.”

Paul Dolan always said children are like grapevines.

Emma Dolan quoted her grandfather as saying, “As a winemaker and a farmer, you can try to give the vine the most ideal environment made up of the best nutrients, weather, and surroundings but beyond that you can only hope that the grapes transform into a wine that fully expresses the beauty and richness of that place.”

Paul Dolan felt the same about his children and grandchildren, she said. 

Emma Dolan recalled her grandfather saying over and over, “As a father, or grandfather, you can give your kids the best love and support, the most advice and help, and try to pass on strong values and morals but, at the end of the day, you can’t make every decision for them, and you can only hope they grow into the possible versions of themselves.”

 “It is kind of a running joke in our family that every speech he gave seemed to morph its way into that lesson regardless of where it started,” she said.

Granddaughter Megan Dolan acted as emcee of the Dolan memorial. Daughters Nya Dolan Kusakabe and Caia Dolan spoke of his devotions to environmental causes, and his belief in the philosophy of Austrian Rudolph Steiner.

Caia Dolan said her grandfather loved the Steiner quote, “To truly know the world, look deeply within your own being; to truly know yourself, take a real interest in the world.” 

Surviving son Heath Dolan said in a front row with Diana Fetzer, Dolan’s wife of 38 years, sisters Caia Dolan and Nya Dolan Kusakabe, and Superior Court Judge Carly Dolan, who was the wife of Dolan’s late son Jason. Other Dolan grandchildren present were Sadie and Cash Dolan and Colin and Clayton Kusakabe.

Ken Oster, married to Teresa Fetzer, and Dolan nephew Jesse Eisenbiese from Pennsylvania played guitars and sang songs in honor of Dolan including a spirited version of ‘Amazing Grace’ that left many in the crowd teary eyed. 

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