Family-owned and operated Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County not only is one of the savviest wineries in the business, but it's always coming up with something new and exciting.
The latest wrinkle is a major move forward with its line of wines in the Pop-Premium category--wines intended to sell for $5 or less. That move is a strong commitment to the state of Washington.
Pop-Premium wines are cork-finished varietal wines that include Chardonnay and White Zinfandel (or some other "blush" wine), made to sell for between $3-$7 for a 750-milliliter bottle. Most wineries also offer a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sauvignon Blanc in that price range.
Fetzer has all four wines in a line once called Bel Arbres and wine maker Paul Dolan makes them all very well. The changes in the Bel Arbres line are not in wine quality, but they are important to consumers looking for value wines.
The first and most obvious change is that the name of the line has been changed. It is now called Bel Arbors.
"People couldn't pronounce Arbres, " said Dolan, noting that the second word is properly pronounced "arbz."
The Talk of the Town
"We got everything from 'ar-bray' to 'arb' and people were talking more about how to pronounce it than about the wine," he said.
So the name was changed, but the name of the Redwood Valley country lane on which the original Fetzer winery is located, Bel Arbres, will stay the same.
The next change is with the appellation on three of the four wines. A year ago, Fetzer announced it was testing Washington State grapes, partly because of the difficulty of getting top-quality California grapes at prices that would permit the Pop-Premium wines to maintain their prices.
A rule of thumb in the wine industry says that the price of a ton of grapes equates to the price of a bottle of wine from those grapes in a ratio of a dollar to a penny. That is, if a winery pays $1,200 for a ton of Cabernet grapes, the resulting wine should sell for $12 a bottle.
With Chardonnay grapes costing in the neighborhood of $1,500 a ton these days, a bottle of Chardonnay should cost approximately $15, and for Pop-Premium producers to keep their prices at $5 means they have to use a great number of tricks.
One is to blend. A lot of wineries making Pop-Premium Chardonnay blend in the maximum legal limit of 25% other varieties (Riesling is popular because of its floral nature and its relatively low price). This, of course, makes a Chardonnay with an aroma not totally typical of Chardonnay, and a lot of Americans are now becoming convinced that this floral "Riesling-like" characteristic is what Chardonnay is supposed to taste like.
About two years ago, Fetzer and a number of other wineries went to Washington for Chardonnay grapes because of a bumper crop and not enough takers. Fetzer bought Washington State wine in 1987 and released Bel Arbres wine that was from Washington.
A problem existed, however, with the law. The California Department of Health and Welfare ruled that the appellation "California and Washington" could not appear on the label because California's name cannot appear as a designated region unless every grape in the bottle came from California.
An Inappropriate Name
And the federal government ruled that "Washington" was inappropriate as an appellation (even though it would have been entirely truthful) because Washington doesn't adjoin California. Thus the appellation had to be American. And with an American appellation came another confusing law: Fetzer was prohibited from using a vintage date of any sort on the label, even though that wine came entirely from the 1987 vintage.
Still, the first Bel Arbors American-designated, non-vintage wines were excellent. Now the first Bel Arbors wines are out, and they are better.
But there is another change. The appellation now says American-Grown, turning the appellation line on the wine label from a mere geographic designation to a descriptive phrase--the first time the federal government has ever permitted such a term.
The new line is still hamstrung, however. There is no vintage date on three of the four wines, even though all are from single vintages. The White Zinfandel, with a California appellation, has the 1988 vintage listed. The two white wines, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, are from 1988 and the Cabernet is from 1987.
Although the winery is prohibited from telling you the vintage, it is attempting to work out a sophisticated way to tell consumers which vintage they are buying, so next year there may be another change in the packaging, however slight. (It also has hired a person in Washington to assist in getting the law, which dates to before Prohibition, changed.)
Fetzer wasn't the first winery to investigate the use of grapes from Washington. Others who did so include Belvedere Winery in Sonoma County, Round Hill in Napa, and J. Lohr in Monterey.