People still tell Jim Fetzer how much they like his wine. Those Fetzer wines are hard to beat, they'll say, or that Sundial Chardonnay is tasty stuff. He just smiles and says thanks.
"I used to try to convince people that we don't own the winery anymore," Jim said with a laugh. "But no matter what we tell them, they all think we still do."
Though Fetzer Vineyards carries the family name, the Fetzers sold the Mendocino-based winery in 1992 to Brown-Forman Corp. for a reported $82 million. For the past decade, the Fetzers have kept a low profile, but now that their no-competition agreement with Brown-Forman has expired, they are reentering the wine business in a big way.
Jim recently released the first wines under his new Ceago Vinegarden label and is building a multimillion-dollar visitor and farm center on the shores of Clear Lake in Lake County. Brother John is set to launch his Saracina Vineyard label with well-known winemaker David Ramey as his consultant, while Dan Fetzer has a new brand called Jeriko Estate. And a group of investors that includes Joe Fetzer is launching Mendocino Gold, a value-priced Chardonnay.
"It was kind of nice being out of the industry for a while," John, 55, said. "Taking a sabbatical allowed us to take a look at the industry from the outside."
Fetzer, of course, is one of the great success stories of California wine. Lumberman Barney Fetzer began growing grapes in Mendocino County in the 1960s, and the family released its first wine in 1968. With the help of Barney's 10 kids, and taking full advantage of Mendocino's good-value fruit, Fetzer became one of the fastest-growing and most valuable wineries in the state in the 1980s.
After the sale, the Fetzers went back to their roots -- growing grapes. Organic farming, which they first explored while they still owned Fetzer Vineyards, became a particular passion. "We all concentrated on the vineyards," Jim, 51, said. Of the six Fetzer boys, only Richard has decided to stay out of the business.
When they sold the Fetzer brand, the family retained about 1,000 acres of vineyards and a large winemaking facility in Mendocino's Redwood Valley. While the family continues to sell many of its grapes to Brown-Forman, the Fetzers have divvied up the winery for their various projects.
Saracina will focus on three varietals -- Zinfandel, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc -- using grapes from Mendocino and Sonoma counties. The first release is a 2001 Sauvignon Blanc priced at $22. The label will eventually reach annual production of 5,000 cases. At his ranch near Hopland, John has about 160 acres of organic vineyards and is building an 18,000-square-foot barrel-aging cave.
At an adjacent ranch, brother Dan, 39, is focusing on his organic vineyards to produce wines for Jeriko Estate. His first release, a 2000 Chardonnay that retails for $20, has been on the market for a few months. A 2001 Pinot Noir will be released early next year and a Syrah and Merlot are in the works. He plans to produce about 6,000 cases of Jeriko from the 2002 vintage.
Jim Fetzer is the most ambitious of his brothers. His Ceago label is an outgrowth of his Ceago Vineyard, a biodynamic vineyard north of Ukiah. He sold that Mendocino property last year to Brown-Forman for its organic Bonterra wines and moved to Lake County.
Cabernet Sauvignon will be a main focus of his label, but his first releases are a 1999 Merlot ($39) from the original Ceago vineyard and a 2001 Sauvignon Blanc ($19) from Kathleen's Vineyard, the Fetzer family's home ranch in Redwood Valley. Kathleen's Vineyard will supply all of Jim's fruit until his planned 70 acres of vineyards in Lake County come into production.
The showcase for his label will be Ceago del Lago, a wine and farm center in rural Lake County, a region with a budding reputation for wine. The center -- to be completed in early 2004 at a reported cost of $6 million -- will be open to the public and will promote biodynamic farming, which takes a holistic approach to organic agricultural. "We'll raise chickens, for example, to have egg whites to fine the wine," Jim said.
While he doesn't miss the grind of his mass-production Fetzer Vineyard days, Jim is happy to be back making wine. "Once you have wine in your blood," he said, "you have to come back to it."
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