Jim Fetzer, who worked along with his family to create their namesake wine and then later started his own Lake County winery noted for its unique biodynamic farming, has announced his retirement.
As part of his announcement, Fetzer said he will close his Nice-based Ceago Vinegarden, but will keep operating its vineyards under the management of his son, Barney Fetzer.
“It has been my lifelong passion to create, promote and share a lifestyle supported by sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming,” Fetzer wrote in a July 8 blog post on his winery’s website. “The fruition of Ceago’s success has now given me the gift of retirement and the opportunity to change my focus.”
Fetzer did not respond to an interview request from The Press Democrat. He earlier told the Lake County News that he “would prefer to keep a low profile.” Ceago’s wines and products will be available at the winery through Sept. 14. Ceago’s estate will continue to hold private events.
The Fetzer family is one of the North Bay’s most recognizable wine families. Barney and Kathleen Fetzer started their vineyard in Mendocino County in 1968. The business grew as the Fetzer winery became one of the first California wineries to offer chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Riesling. It was making about 2,000 cases annually when Barney died in 1981.
The couple’s 11 children, including Jim, expanded the business to make it Mendocino County’s largest winery with 2 million cases per year. With the help of company president Paul Dolan, it launched its Bonterra line made from 100 percent organically grown grapes.
The family sold its operations, the Fetzer name, and property at Valley Oaks to Brown-Forman Corp. in 1992 for a reported $82 million. The Fetzers held on to about 1,000 acres of vineyards, though the sale imposed a no-compete clause for about 10 years.
In January 2001, Jim Fetzer purchased the 163-acre property on the shores of Clear Lake that would become Ceago, turning a former walnut orchard into a picturesque winery and vineyard based on biodynamic farming, which grows crops without chemicals and strives for the farm’s ecosystem to be balanced, self-sustaining and healing.
Fetzer told The Press Democrat in 2008 that he planned on retiring after he bought the property, but changed his mind. “I decided I wanted to build a biodynamic farm that people could come to and walk around and get a sense of what (biodynamic farming) is. It’s so mystical,’’ he said.
“Jim was an early advocate of the importance of sustainability and the Ceago property helped to communicate sustainability to a wide audience of consumers. He will be missed,” said Ray Johnson, director of Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, in an email.
Fetzer also played a role in popularizing the Lake County wine region, where many vineyards are located more than 1,500 feet above sea level, making for a drier growing season with fewer threats from mildew and pests. It is known for its cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc.
Wineries such as E&J Gallo and Foley Family Wines have purchased Lake County properties in recent years as they seek to expand.
“Jim’s contribution was great,” said Peter Molnar, chairman of the Lake County Winegrape Growers and general manager of Obsidian Ridge Vineyard. “It was no question that it was a really great benefit of having Ceago. … It’s a beautiful setting and it really shows off the lake.”