Kathleen Kohn Fetzer, who together with her husband and 11 children turned a small Mendocino County winery into a multimillion-dollar business, died this past Wednesday morning in a nursing home in Ukiah, Calif.
Fetzer played a key role in the building of a highly successful family-owned wine dynasty. Six of her children own their own wineries today. Her son-in-law, Paul Dolan, and several grandchildren are also involved in the wine business. Her family has made significant contributions to the growth of the California wine industry and, in particular, to the organic and biodynamic movements.
Fetzer was born in 1921 in Luverne, Minn., where she grew up on a cattle ranch. At age 18, she moved in with a sister in Oakland, Calif. There she met Bernard “Barney” Fetzer, a merchant marine from Southern California, at a USO dance. They married in 1945. Thirteen years and six children later, the family moved to the small town of Ukiah in Mendocino County where they purchased a 720-acre piece of land with a vineyard planted with Mission vines in Redwood Valley.
The Fetzers grew and sold wine grapes, and as the family grew, the Fetzer children began working the vineyards with their father. Mendocino County vintner Charlie Barra taught the children the ins and outs of viticulture in the afternoon after school. “The Fetzer kids were the most intelligent, respectful children I had ever met," said Barra. "And that was because of their mother. Every one of them was a jewel.”
In 1968, Barney decided to try his hand at making his own wine and Fetzer Winery was born. Their first release was 2,500 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. When Barney died unexpectedly in 1981, according to Barra, “those boys and Mrs. Fetzer turned that winery into a multimillion-dollar winery." Kathleen took an active role in growing the business into a 2 million case producer, the largest in Mendocino County and one of the largest in the state.
In 1992, the Fetzers sold the winery to Brown-Forman, a major wine and spirits corporation. As part of the deal, the Fetzers were bound by an eight-year non-compete clause, but today many of the children and grandchildren are involved in the wine business again.
In 1984, Kathleen founded the Kathleen Kohn Fetzer Family Foundation in memory of her late husband. Since then, the foundation has funneled more than a million dollars into local charities, causes and scholarships. In 2005, Fetzer published her memoir, Kathleen’s Vineyard, complete with favorite family recipes, the proceeds of which go to the foundation.
Fetzer is survived by 10 of her 11 children, 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
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