Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 7, 2015
On a cool and overcast morning, I met with Fetzer winemaker Charlie Gilmore, at 8 a.m., for a tour and tasting at the Fetzer winery on Old River Road in Hopland. Joining us were Kelly Conrad, the public relations magician who managed to find a day and time when Charlie and I were both free, and Adam Reiter, Fetzer’s global brand manager.
Fetzer is the largest winery in Mendocino County, producing 1.5 million cases of Fetzer wine annually, and 3.5 million cases for all associated brands, which include Bonterra, Jekel, and Little Black Dress.
The winery was started in 1968 by the Fetzer family; acquired by Brown-Forman of Louisville, Kentucky – better known for Jack Daniels whiskey than wine – in 1992 for $82 million; and more recently was bought by Chile’s Concha y Toro in March, 2011 for $238 million. Today, Concha y Toro is the fourth largest wine company in the world.
I asked Charlie about the best thing about Concha y Toro as owners, and he shared, “The CEO of Concha y Toro is from a wine family. Concha y Toro allows a recommitment to the quality of our wine, a premium California heritage brand.”
Fetzer is a green winery, considering the environmental impact of every business decision. Through reuse, recycling and composting, Fetzer has decreased waste sent to landfills by 96 percent since 1990; last year Fetzer became the first Zero Waste Certified winery in the world, and next Fetzer is looking to become only the second B Corp winery in the world – guaranteeing social sustainability and environmental performance standards into the future.
Our morning started with a tour of the tank room, with jacketed tanks that allow wines to be super cooled for cold stabilization. The room was insulated, and engineered to make cost-effective wine in the most energy efficient way. We tasted two ice cold tank samples, both from Monterey County fruit, a 2014 Riesling showing peach and fleshy fruit notes, and a 2014 Gewurztraminer showing spice and fruit; and, shortly after, a 2014 Lodi Sauvignon Blanc, with grass and gooseberry nose, and crisp flavors of lemon peel, grapefruit, apple and pear. A little young, a little (okay, a lot) cold, these are wines of the future and this taste just gave a glimpse of that future, tasty but not fully developed.
Within seconds of being in the tank room, I couldn’t express adequately the degree of happiness at having chosen a warm heavy jacket to wear that morning; Kelly did not bring one and Adam was a gentleman and gave up his light jacket to her.
We toured the settling room, where wine sits 24-48 hours after being pressed and before moving to fermentation. As we walked from the settling room to the red wine side of Fetzer, Charlie told me that when Concha y Toro took over, they asked the Fetzer team, “where do you want to go?,” and he said he wanted to make the, “nicer wines that we felt we could do here,” and received more resources to allow that to happen.
We toured giant blending tanks, micro-oxygenation tanks, and tasted another sample, a 2014 Colusa Zinfandel, with briar, deep red fruit, and herb notes.
Stylistically, Charlie is returning Fetzer from European to California style wines, with a greater emphasis on discernible fruit notes.
The barrel room is huge, a cavernous humidity controlled space built with a round Hobbit hole entrance, surrounded by insulating earth, and holds 55,000 wine barrels, most 55 gallons, and a mix of French and American oak.
Multiple presses lined up, most large – and one mega – on an empty pad, but during harvest constantly operating. One small five ton basket press, dwarfed by the larger presses, is used for the ultra-premium grapes used in the Sanctuary wines, and for fruit off McNab and Butler ranches for Bonterra.
Open top fermenters for Pinot Noir, with a track and pulley system to allow punch downs – punching the floating cap of skins and must down into the juice to impart color and flavor – to be more easily accomplished, also stood ready for fall.
Charlie, Kelly, and Adam had prepared a tasting of six current release Fetzer wines, the first full release under Concha y Toro.
2013 Fetzer Echo Ridge Sauvignon Blanc California $9.99 – brilliant white color, round mouthfeel, pear, grapefruit, herb. Charlie said he wanted to, “respect classic Sauvignon Blanc notes, but with more fruit forward expression, mouthfeel, and light acid.” He succeeded.
2013 Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay California $9.99 – white gold color, light oak, 20 percent new split between French and American, 35 percent older neutral oak, 45 percent stainless steel held. 14 percent malolactic fermentation, “takes the edge off acidity,” explained Charlie. Vanilla, coconut, apricot, peach, tropical fruit.
2012 Eagle Peak Fetzer Merlot California $9.99 – plummy red color, smoky, supple, black cherry and blackberry dark fruit, tannin, tobacco, leather, lush. A little Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, and Malbec blended in for color and flavor.
2013 Fetzer Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon California $9.99 – deeper red color, rich Cab perfume on nose, meaty, deep dark berry. Oak (40 percent new – for Merlot too), mix French and American. Fleshy mouthfeel married to tannin. Red volcanic soils.
2013 Fetzer Goosefoot Road Riesling Monterey County $9.99 – Ahhh! I taste a lot of Riesling and love great ones. This is delicious, and very much a California style wine. You’ll never confuse this with a Grand Cru Alsace Riesling, and that is okay. Light gold color, soft, peachy, apricot, drinking drier than the 2.7 residual sugar would suggest, nice balancing acid. Simply lovely.
2013 Fetzer Shaly Loam Gewurztraminer Monterey County $9.99 – 67 percent of the Gewurztraminer sold in the US is made by Fetzer, they are #1 in the nation for Gewurztraminer wine production by many miles. Charlie is working to bring more of the spicy aromas to the variety, and this Gewurztraminer had a wonderful rose petal nose. Light argent color, orange blossom, spice, fruit, fruit, fruit. Apple, peach, nectarine. Mellow, long, delicious. The finish was so long, I could still taste this wine as I was driving away five minutes later.
$9.99 for a solid bottle of wine, often lower in a California store or higher in a New York store, for wines this good, made in this quantity, is a genuine testament to the entire team, from individual growers to cellar workers and winemakers to owners with a passion for quality wine. Everyone reading this has seen Fetzer wines at $6.99 in a local store, with an additional 10 percent or 15 percent taken off six or more bottles. Simply, you will not find a better wine value today. These are good wines, solid, much improved over recent years, and spectacularly priced.
Locally, Fetzer has a monthly Community Wine Sale with, “crazy good discounts,” where buyers choose from wines offered in an email newsletter and pick them up at the Hopland winery the following Saturday, and Fetzer donates 5 percent of all proceeds to the Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities to develop and maintain community gardens in Ukiah, Hopland and throughout Mendocino County. To take advantage of this monthly sale, email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be added to the list.