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Wine-Making Fetzer Family's Cup Overflows : Wholesomeness and Hard Work Unite the Clan

May 20, 1985|TIA GINDICK | Times Staff Writer

REDWOOD VALLEY, Calif. — The story has been told so often it's almost legend. How their dad, the late Barney Fetzer, would have his children--say, four or five of the boys--out pruning the vineyards. It would be coming on noon and the truck to take them home for lunch inevitably would be at the other end of the field. Fetzer's ploy never failed. "Instead of just walking back to the truck," he'd tell the kids, "let's prune our way back."

"It might be 3 or 4 before we got lunch," Fetzer's eldest son, John, 38, remembers with a laugh. "Sometimes we'd go all day without eating."

Then there was Christmas, one of the few days of the year that the Fetzers took off. No school, no work, just traditional Christmas festivities. From Barney Fetzer came tools: a new hammer, a special screwdriver.

Brooked No Giggles

Barney Fetzer--his children say nobody really knew him, that he wasn't affectionate, that he brooked no giggling or chatter at the dinner table, so meals were usually downed in silence, that in the last few months before his death of a heart attack in 1981, at age 61, he communicated with them solely by memos.

Of Barney and Kathleen Fetzer's 11 children, 10 work for the family winery here in this green, hilly valley three hours north of San Francisco in Mendocino County. Only Kathy, the eldest daughter, doesn't. But that, she says, is just a matter of time. A certified public accountant, she's studying for a master's degree in tax accounting at San Francisco State University, and once she's gotten her degree, plus some practical experience, she'll take on the Fetzer finances.

Everything Fetzer Vineyards is today--the 18th largest of California's 600 wineries--is not so much the product of one man's dedication to a dream. Rather, it's the reflection of a father's effect upon his family.

About 30 minutes north of Santa Rosa on Highway 101, the Fetzer signs start appearing. Sundial Vineyard, run by Joe Fetzer, 35, comes first. Minutes later, there's Hopland and the Fetzer Tasting Room. Up the road about 15 minutes more is Ukiah and 10 minutes beyond that, off the highway and into the hills, is Redwood Valley and the 780-acre Home Vineyard. Here are the main offices, the winery, 200 acres of grapes (managed by Bobby Fetzer, 29), the family home (where mother, Kathleen, daughter Kathy, 37, and her daughter, Christina, 10, live) plus a few other homes. The Fetzers are big on building homes on their properties, both for themselves and their employees.

A Little Embellishment

The saga of how Barney Fetzer finagled his family into the winery business has been told so many times by John Fetzer, as eldest son and company president, that it might have become a little embellished--at least that's the impression when he gets to the part about the family being so poor that the Fetzer children had to eat sandwiches made of homemade bread--while all the other kids at school got Langendorf.

Anyway, John began, go back to 1950 or so. That's when his father sold his shares in a plywood corporation in Medford, Ore., and moved his family to the Ukiah area where he took a job as office manager of Hollowtree Lumber Co.

The idea of owning a ranch was always there--both Barney and Kathleen Fetzer had been raised on farms in the Midwest--but it became an obsession, according to family lore, on the day Barney Fetzer came home and found all the kids in front of the television set.

"He blew up," John Fetzer said, "and the next thing we knew he'd traded the television for an arc welder and for the next eight years there was no television in the house. Dad saw the ranch as a way to get all of the family outside, doing things, going hunting and fishing."

Finally, in 1957, when his eldest son was in the third grade, Barney Fetzer found the perfect piece of property. Cashing in his life insurance to purchase it and continuing his office job, he brought his family to what was subsequently named Home Ranch. Already there: an old way station that had been a stopover for stagecoaches going through the foothills from Ukiah to Mendocino. It would become the Fetzer home. Also: 40 acres of grapes, 30 acres of pear trees and lots of room for anything else they might want to do.

Up at 5:30 A.M.

Instead of fishing, hiking and hunting, Barney Fetzer's favorite saying became "live on a ranch, work on a ranch." Every morning the family would be up at 5:30 so the boys could milk the cows, tend the sheep and do all the outside chores before they left for school in Ukiah and Fetzer left for the office. The girls did the inside work, making all the beds, packing lunch bags, assembly-line fashion.

After school: no football, no sports. Instead it was back home where there were countless things to be done before bedtime.

A tough life for a little kid?

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