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A Family Affair : The Fetzers Make Mendocino Winery a Gold-Medal Haven

May 01, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

WHEN lumberman Bernard Fetzer, his wife Kathleen and their 11 children moved from Oregon to California in 1954, making wine was nowhere in their scheme of things. He had purchased a ranch in Mendocino County because it was lumber country with good stands of redwood, pine and cedar. On the 2-mile-deep valley ranch, a one-time halfway stop for carriages between Willits and Ft. Bragg, the old two-story frame house looked out upon rows of 100-year-old vines "with trunks like trees," the late Bernard Fetzer told me. As a lumberman, he knew it was due for replanting, which he did. The unplanned Fetzer saga was on its way, still with an unsuspected destiny.

As the vines matured, with appropriately select varieties that intensive study had suggested would be correct for this cool northern region, Fetzer sold the grapes, after the commercial crop came on in the early '60s, to amateur wine makers across the land, most of them doctors. Nearly all of them won local prizes for their wines made from Fetzer grapes, and they began singing his praises.

"Wine making," Fetzer said, "is ideally a family affair." The 11 children were already masters of vineyard chores, from winter pruning to spring vine tying and autumn harvesting. It was time to build a winery. In time for the harvest of 1968, a small cluster of buildings housed a microcosm of the latest technology of stainless-steel fermenters; tiers of oak barrels from France, Yugoslavia and the United States were ready to age wines of rare perfection. Young John Fetzer, then in his 20s, moved into the role of wine maker, with James, Richard and Robert assisting. Gold medals for Fetzer wines came with each vintage release.

Today, 20 years after the release of the first wine, Fetzer vineyards--with 10 of the 11 children still composing the nucleus of the operation, Dan having become the architect for the expanding enterprise--the 5-millionth case has been shipped. The goal established this year, with the completion of the exciting and handsome new Fetzer Valley Oaks Food & Wine Center 23 miles down the road at Hopland, is to double present production by 1992 to about 2.5 million cases. According to Dan Fetzer, "Since the first year of production in 1968, our output, with national distribution (and international planned), has expanded to 1.2 million cases."

On my last visit with Jim Fetzer, current general manager, he defined the three steps that led to this present happy situation: growing grapes, with principal direction of viticulture, studying clonal selection, trellising and so on; control of the wine making, adhering to the finest principles, eschewing sulfites as much as possible, and marketing the wine. As their father had told them, "Anybody can make good wine. The trick is in selling it." It's worth a special trip, in Michelin Guide language, to visit the new Fetzer Valley Oaks Food & Wine Center, the vineyard home of their outstanding Valley Oaks Fume Blanc, and not only see these 400 acres of premium grapes, but also observe their raised-bed, organic-biodynamic three-plus acres planted with 1,200 varieties of fruits, herbs, vegetables and flowers. Until then, scan the shelves of your wine merchant or supermarket for your favorite varietal, be it Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet or Zinfandel. The 1986 Mendocino County Barrel Select Chardonnay ($10) is truly elegant and a great value. But don't miss one of my favorites, the Fetzer 1987 California Gewurztraminer ($6.50). Somehow, when I sip and sniff this opulently fragrant wine in the garden on Sunday afternoon, I never forget my first visit to Fetzer, when the house was filled with the happy scents of Kathleen Fetzer's fresh breads baking in the oven. Fetzer is still a happy family affair.

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