Mendocino County in the 1950s was known mainly for its forests, tiny population and diverse agricultural crops including hops, pears, prunes and marijuana.
The vast open spaces were a delight: amazing views of rushing rivers, lush valleys, a plethora of locally raised produce — and land prices low enough for a large home, which is what Bernard and Kathleen Fetzer needed. They had 11 children.
Barney, as he was always called, was a successful lumber industry executive who desired a lifestyle change. So he decided to leave trees behind and switch to growing grapes.
He saw his passel of children as an in-house work force, so the Fetzers bought a 700-acre ranch in the small community of Hopland, at the southern end of the county just north of Sonoma County, and planted grapes.
It was 1958, before wine exploded on the American scene. But it didn’t take Barney long to realize how hard it was to make a living growing grapes — a topic that also irked a small Lake County grape grower by the name of Jess Jackson, a San Francisco attorney.
The two friends would often sit late into evenings chatting about the difficulties of grape growing.
By 1968, the grape-growing problems they both faced soon led them to the same conclusion: the only way out was to control the entire process and make wine. That year Barney took the leap by founding Fetzer Vineyards.
That year, his company made its first wines, a total of 2,500 cases of a cabernet sauvignon and a zinfandel.
More than a decade later Jackson founded Chateau du Lac (later renamed Kendall-Jackson) in Lakeport, and today that company is one of the industry leaders in both volume and quality.
No flashy ceremonies
Fetzer’s 50th anniversary this year is being “celebrated” in as low-key a fashion as you can imagine. No flashy ceremonies, no Super Bowl ads, no gold sprayed on the wine bottles.
In fact, one would be hard pressed to see much celebratory at all except in subtle ways. But what is evident is that Fetzer wines may be better than they have ever been. The winery is doing one thing as well as anyone ever has in California: make a lot of well-balanced wines that sell for far below what they’re worth.
The winemaking team, which operates out of a portable building here, sees its role as an homage to Barney, Kathleen, the kids, and especially to former winemakers Paul Dolan and the late Denny Martin.
The company makes nearly 3 million cases of wine, most of it reasonably priced, and it is available in every state and overseas.
In the early years, one of the difficulties of making the grape-growing part of the business a success was that Mendocino County was widely known inside the industry as a golden resource for quality fruit, but wine buyers didn’t know how good that fruit, and the resulting wines, could be.
As a result, well over 80 percent of the county’s grape production was sold to wineries in other regions, much of it for inclusion into blends on which the label appellation was “California.”
Paul Dolan joined Fetzer in 1977 as head winemaker, and quality improved markedly, which led to a production rise to more than 150,000, cases a year.