Leading by Letting Go: Dolan Family Vineyard Legacy

“Sometimes we think, as the dad or grandfather, we need to come up with all the answers,” says Paul Dolan, patriarch and fourth generation of a family vineyard and winemaking legacy. “But the reality is having the conversation with your children or siblings and coming up with choices together.” The successful transfer of the Dolan legacy is the result of Paul’s unique leadership, a balanced business partnership with his son Heath, and a shared-responsibility to the land.

While Paul’s family has been in the California wine business going back to 1880, the family business was sold before he showed interest. He began to make wine in the mid-70s in Mendocino county because he “wanted to do something that was fun, engaging, and a challenge. I loved being connected to the vineyard, creating something of my own as a way to fully express myself.”

Paul soon found himself on the business side of winemaking as well—working for Fetzer for over 27 years and starting several other wine businesses. Whether stewarding his family land in Ukiah or serving as president for Fetzer, Paul has been leading the industry to adopt growing practices that take the environment as a whole in mind, moving from a dedication to organic, then biodynamic agricultural practices.

Today, Paul has gone beyond organic and is focused on improving the land through regenerative organic agricultural practices. On the family vineyard, he has incorporated livestock and cover crops into his hillside vineyards—and has found that by working with the vines to deepen the roots, he cut back on irrigation, now dry farming instead.

Paul now works in close partnership with his son Heath:“I consult with my son on all of my projects, we create them together. This took a shift in my consciousness; it was a process we had to go through together I had to let go and that’s hard.”

Key to this partnership is the fact that Heath carved out a diversified path in the wine industry on his own. “I created two successful businesses, a custom crush winery and a wine storage facility,” he says. “I proved my abilities.”

Growing up in Ukiah and now raising his own family there, Heath has a lot of friends who grew up in agriculture and sees how many have struggled to find a place in the family business.

“The younger generation needs to feel like they have ownership and some decision-making ability,” he says. “Without that, there’s no growth, you become stagnant as a business. There’s no creativity or open exchange. The world has changed a lot and hopefully your child has something new to bring to the business.”

Heath says, “Part of works so well for my Dad and I is that we are very different. Dad is a visionary. A big thinker. While I am more pragmatic and practical. I ask: is this decision going to make sense financially? Whereas Dad doesn’t ask the same questions.”

Paul says, “Just this morning I was driving to a meeting and I called my son and said, ‘I need to bounce some ideas off of you.’ He gave me insights into what he saw and shifted it completely for me. At this stage of the game, I can look to my kids as my advisors and coaches.”

The same goes for their succession planning. Paul says, “All my planning for retirement and passing, I do it with them. We include a tax accountant and our attorney and our investment advisor – every two years we update things and we talk about things.”

The Dolans’ dedication to stewarding the land through agriculture is now codified through conservation easements held by the Mendocino Land Trust. “We recognized that we don’t know our own future with agriculture (beyond the 5thgeneration),” Paul says. “It felt like it was the right thing to do. The vineyard property is our legacy.”