Dark Horse Ranch revolutionizing the wine industry one biodynamically farmed grape at a time

Located along the Russian River watershed in Ukiah, CA, where sprawling woodlands, cover crop, and rolling hills of vines meet at equilibrium, is the dark horse of the wine industry. Paul Dolan & his two sons have created a foundation for a new breed of wine grape cultivators by replanting a 65-acre vineyard with drought-resistant rootstocks and cuttings from varietals that compliment the terrain and climate. Dolan practices the use of biodynamic farming to procure environmental, economical, and social sustainability and produce the deepest (undiluted) flavored grapes.

Biodynamics is an approach to agronomy that harmonizes on creating a balanced ecosystem through the vitality of the Earth itself, thus creating a self-reliant farm.
old river road on the way to dark horse ranch

California agriculture accounts for 12 percent of greenhouse gases. Burning fossil fuel and decomposing organic soil matter produce atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O), greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change when they get trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, warming its surface.

Dolan reduces CO2 and N2O emissions by allowing sheep to graze in the vineyard, enriching soil with natural fertilizer, and he limits the number of insects and other vineyard pests without using pesticides.

“Since the 1850s, Americans have relied increasingly on diverse energy sources rather than human power to produce their food and forest products. These relatively cheap and abundant supplies of fossil fuel have been substituted for human and draft animal energy,” says David Pimentel, professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

A thousand feet above the valley floor, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, syrah and petite syrah grapevines crawl up the rolling hills of Dark Horse Ranch.

The property encompasses not only 65-acres of vines, but a 75-acre woodland, a 20-acre pasture for Dolan’s sheep and cows, and a grove of hundreds of olive trees, along with cypress, legumes, herbs and flowers scattered throughout to biologically enhance the space and capacity in which the natural ecosystem on his ranch operates.

Dark Horse Ranch reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 9 kilograms of CO2 for every unused gallon of diesel fuel.
dolan's "bug highway"

Dolan plants cypress trees along the edge of his vine blocks to provide a home and a vantage point for owls to prey on gophers and small rabbits, meanwhile bats from the woodland feed on mosquitos.

He also created what he refers to as a "bug farm" using herbs like lavender, sage and vetch to attract predator insects to feed on other vineyard pests.
There are bird boxes on the property providing homes for bluebirds and fostering a naturally systemic food chain as they feed on leafhoppers.
Part of a varied landscape instead of a monoculture, grapevine, woodland, and olive tree roots reach several feet into ground enriching the soil with sugars creating sustenance for soil dwelling organisms.
Dolan enriches his soil by combining pomace and manure with last year’s compost, then covering the mixture with straw. (Here you can also see the difference in the life of green plants on Dolan's property versus his neighbor who uses petrochemicals and fertilizers sapping vitality from the Earth and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.)
On a fall morning several years ago Dolan’s son reached down, not for a cluster of grapes, but for the compost layered a top the soil, saying, “It’s like gold.”
At just 4 days old when this photo was taken, this is the newest addition to Dolan's sheep herd. The sheep graze the hillsides mowing down overgrown plants, treading where tractors cannot (compounding the soil for next season) and enriching the vineyard through their manure.

The video above explains the process and benefits of using female cow horns for special biodynamic practices.

dolan Fills cow horns with female cow manure or crushed quartz crystals and buries them in his garden. This is just one of the ways Dolan capitalizes on enriching his Vine's soil with microbes, fungi, and the vitality of the Earth to create a balanced ecosystem for his grapes to thrive.
the flow form
Rainwater is collected and funneled through each level of the flow form to create a river-like vortex to combine 100 gallons of water with the materials extracted from the cow horns. the mixture created is sprayed over the soil and the leaves of Dolan's vines replacing the use of harmful petrochemicals.

“We’ve found that there’s 30 percent more nutrient available in biodynamic compost than there is in conventional or organic compost,” Dolan says, and “there’s 100 to 1000 times more microbial activity inside of the biodynamic compost.” The higher activity of soil organisms accelerates the turnover of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

paul dolan with one of his horses, clay.
Dolan's great-grandfather was wine legend Pietro Carlo Rossi, an immigrant from a small village outside Turin, Italy, who founded the Italian Swiss Colony Winery in Asti, California. As a fourth-generation grape grower, Dolan relies on his natural aptitude for farming - not an arsenal of petrochemicals - to control pests and replenish the soil - all while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner is the inspiration for many of Dolan’s farming practices. “Unlike humans who have emancipated themselves from their space, meaning we go inside when it is too hot or too cold, the [vines are] out here always aware of the rhythm and nature of the space in which [they are] exposed,” Dolan says.

once dolan's grapes are harvested they are loaded into large bins and transported to the 15 wineries he sells his grapes to.
a cluster of grapes left behind during the transport.

By planting cover crops such as clover, vetch, bell beans and oats between vineyard rows Dolan extracts nitrogen from the air, and attracts beneficial insects, while limiting the erosion of mountain soils during heavy winter rains.

after the grapes have been harvested in the fall, cover crops flourish between rows of bare vines.

Combining cover crop or low-till farming with practices like enriching the soil with manure sequesters carbon dioxide, and without the use of tractors and other equipment Dolan eliminates his use of fossil fuels.

By enhancing his vines’ ability to find nourishment through communicating with the species around them in a balanced ecosystem, Paul has created self-sufficient crops that don’t rely on the farmer.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating the industry’s deepest flavored grapes is what makes Paul Dolan a true dark horse.
Created By
Miranda Squires
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Miranda Squires

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