For the first time in decades, a Fetzer sign is not hanging outside a tasting room in Mendocino County. The winery closed its visitors' center at Valley Oaks, outside Hopland, Calif., earlier this month and has put the 50-acre property up for sale.
While the closing marks an end of an era in Mendocino, Fetzer's owner, Brown-Forman Corp., retains a strong presence in the county. The company owns about 800 acres of grapevines and operates a massive winery near Hopland that produces about 4 million cases annually.
With its wide lawns, organic gardens, demonstration kitchen, bed-and-breakfast and upscale market, the Valley Oaks facility has been Mendocino's premier locale for wine-and-food events. But it was also a financial drain on the company and no longer fit the Fetzer brand, according to spokesman Jim Caudill. "The company decided that it would be money better spent elsewhere," he said.
In recent years, Brown-Forman has spun off Fetzer's more expensive wines into new brands such as Five Rivers and Sanctuary and has refocused Fetzer exclusively on the $8 to $9 range.
The Fetzer family bought the Valley Oaks property in 1986, using it for industry functions while maintaining a tasting room for the public along Highway 101. After Brown-Forman bought the winery in 1992, it sold the tasting room and developed Valley Oaks as its public face in the county.
Dan Fetzer, who now owns Jeriko Estate vineyard and winery in Hopland, said that few were shocked at the sale. "I'm kind of surprised they didn't do it sooner. Most of the tourism you get in the area is driving through Hopland, and there's not an awful lot of traffic going out to Valley Oaks," Fetzer said. "But still, it's not good for the community."
About 50 full- and part-time employees are being laid off as the company wraps up a series of long-scheduled events at Valley Oaks. The final event will be the annual Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance's Mendocino Wine Affair on June 24.