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Harry Herman Wetzel Jr., 1920-2008

Aerospace exec started acclaimed Sonoma winery

August 20, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Harry Herman Wetzel Jr., a Los Angeles aerospace executive and self-described accidental vintner who bought vacation property in Sonoma County that he and his family transformed into Alexander Valley Vineyards, has died. He was 88.

Wetzel died Thursday of complications related to old age at his restored Victorian home on the vineyard property in Healdsburg, Calif., said Sarah Fallon, a granddaughter.

Along with his wife, Margaret, and friends, Wetzel bought the land in 1962 as a weekend retreat. They wanted their four children to discover the outdoors, "to experience swimming in a river," his wife once said.

They raised prunes and pears before settling on grapes, even though "we had no plans to start a winery," Wetzel told The Times in 1981.

Their son Hank developed a plan for a small winery as his senior project while earning a degree in fermentation science at UC Davis in the early 1970s.

It became the blueprint for Alexander Valley Vineyard winery, named for Cyrus Alexander, a 19th century settler who had owned their property and is the valley's namesake.

Their first wine, a Riesling, was released in 1975 to "glowing acclaim," wine critic Robert Lawrence Balzer wrote in The Times in 1986. He called the vineyard "one of the West's most picturesque estates."

Today, the winery produces about 100,000 cases a year of 17 varietal wines and proprietary blends.

Three of Wetzel's children work for the winery: Hank runs it, and daughter Katie Wetzel Murphy directs marketing and sales. Another son, John, is in sales.

Away from the vineyard, Wetzel was chairman and chief executive of Garrett Corp., the aerospace manufacturing firm that he joined in 1946. He ran the company for 19 years before retiring in 1985.

Garrett was a leading manufacturer of small jet engines. During the 1970s, its turbofan engine was successful because it was quieter and used less fuel than the older jet engines it replaced.

Wetzel the engineer was often referred to as "a man with a plan for a fan."

Born Jan. 27, 1920, in Howard, Pa., Wetzel was the only child of Harry and Maude Wetzel. His engineer father moved the family to Santa Monica in 1922 to become a vice president of Douglas Aircraft, where he played a "stellar role" in the development of the DC-4 airliner, according to his father's 1938 obituary in The Times.

In 1941, Wetzel graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor's degree in engineering, then joined the Army Air Forces and became a test pilot.

At an officers club dance in Middletown, Pa., Wetzel met his future wife, Margaret Kirkpatrick. They married in 1945.

After World War II, the couple moved to Los Angeles and Wetzel joined Garrett Corp. as a laboratory technician. During his first decade with the company, the family moved to Ohio and Arizona but returned to Los Angeles in 1956.

When Dorothy Chandler resigned in 1981 as chairman of the board of governors of the Los Angeles Music Center, Wetzel succeeded her. He also was a trustee of the Donald Douglas Museum and Library in Santa Monica and had served on the board of Caltech.

In the mid-1980s, the Wetzels moved to San Francisco. More recently, they settled in Healdsburg, where they sponsored several civic organizations. They donated $2 million to the Healdsburg District Hospital two years ago.

His keen memory was on display when he played gin rummy and other card games because "he could totally count cards," his granddaughter said.

When forced to wear a tux for a night at the symphony, Wetzel could display his impish sense of humor. Walking into the hallway, he often told his children, "Well, I feel so silly, I just have to stand on my head." And then he would.

His wife died in June at 83.

In addition to his three children in the wine business, Wetzel is survived by another child, Sally Fallon Morell; 13 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Alexander Valley Vineyards, 8640 Highway 128, Healdsburg.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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