Winegrower Robert "Bobby" Fetzer, a member of one of California's pioneering wine families, was killed in an April 30 rafting accident on the Eel River, north of Dos Rios, in Mendocino County.
The 50-year-old Fetzer was rafting with his son Ben, his lifelong friend Matthew Frey of Frey Vineyards and another friend, Chris Wilson, when the raft tipped and spilled all four men into the icy waters of the river. The other three men struggled to shore uninjured, but Bobby was swept away and drowned. The Mendocino County sheriff's department search-and-rescue team later recovered his body seven miles downriver.
"He was my best friend from childhood, and he was an inspiration, not only on a business level, but on a personal level as well," said Matthew Frey. "He was a friend through blood, sweat and tears."
Bobby Fetzer, the sixth of Kathleen and Barney Fetzer's 11 children, worked shoulder to shoulder with his siblings--he was responsible for buying grapes and managing the vineyards--to turn a small family venture into one of the country's largest and best-known wineries. The Fetzers were early adopters of organic and biodynamic farming techniques, leading the way for others in the wine industry by demonstrating that profit and sustainability were not mutually exclusive.
In 1992, Fetzer winery had reached annual production of more than 2 million cases, and the family sold their company to Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp.
Bobby and his wife, Sheila, continued to ranch in Mendocino County. Along with their sons, Ben and Jacob, they recently partnered in Masút, a biodynamic cattle ranching, grapegrowing and winemaking venture with operations in Covelo and a winery and vineyards in Redwood Valley. The name Masút loosely translates from the Pomo Indian language as "rich, dark earth." The first Masút Pinot Noir was produced from the 2001 vintage.
The tragedy was the second for the Fetzer family in a year's time. Last April, Kieran "K.C." Burke, who was married to Fetzer's sister Patricia and cofounded Patianna Organic Vineyards in Redwood Valley, was killed in a plane crash in Fresno County while en route to Scottsdale, Ariz.
A memorial service for family and friends will be held in Covelo on Saturday, May 6, at noon. Donations can be made to the Round Valley Volunteer Fire Department at P.O. Box 36, Covelo, CA 95428.
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