Swirl n' Spit
By Heather Irwin
Lowdown: As the sixth largest producer of wine in the United States, Fetzer is pretty easy to dismiss as just another big winery. It's at supermarkets, 7-11s and most of your friends' refrigerators. You can sneeze and probably hit a bottle of Fetzer somewhere in your vicinity.
But what endears Fetzer to the heart isn't its friendly everywhere-ness, but the fact that, even as a corporate giant, it still has a conscience about the earth, the grapes, the land and its wine. Call it the Mendocino Effect.
Based in Hopland, about 50 miles north of Santa Rosa, Fetzer was, from the mid-1950s until the early 1990s, a family-run winery. Stewards of the eco-friendly consciousness that influences much of the North Coast and Mendocino County, the winery remains at the forefront of organic farming. In 1985, after commissioning a fruit and vegetable garden by a famed horticulturalist Michael Maltas, the Fetzers fell in love with the clean, natural flavors of their produce. Inspired, they began converting all of their grapes to organically grown—and this at a time long before organic and sustainable practices were widespread or even practical.
With some 2,000 acres of grapes, the winery now claims that all of its own grapes are 100 percent certified organic, grown with sustainable practices fostering the well-being of the land. Though the winery also purchases traditionally farmed grapes for some of its wines, all those on its Bonterra label, which includes a Rousanne, Sangiovese, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon (as well as a Lake County dessert Muscat), are made exclusively with organic grapes. The winery aims to be organic with all labels and varietals by 2010.
Mouth value: Chardonnay is what Fetzer does especially well, with at least four on the tasting menu at any one time. For the money, the Bonterra Chardonnay ($14) is a great value, with a buttery, soft flavor and nice fruit qualities coming through. "The Dennis" Chardonnay, made from Mendocino grapes and shepherded by winemaker Dennis Martin ($22), is a more subtle, refined Chardonnay with hints of caramel and vanilla.
Reds can be hit and miss, but the '02 Reserve Pinot Noir, made with Santa Maria grapes, has a lot of pluck and could be a nice wine with a few years of maturing. Those in the know are buying up the Poor Ranch Petite Syrah ($30) by the case. It's got soft tannins and lovely fruit, made from old vines. For dessert, don't overlook the Bonterra Muscat ($16), with its hint of tart dryness and bouquet reminiscent of a field of orange blossoms.
Don't miss: Stroll through the organic gardens. The winery also has a small deli and inn on the property. Cooking classes are held frequently throughout the year.
Five-second snob: Bonterra means "good earth."
Spot: Fetzer Winery, 13601 Old River Road, Hopland. Tasting room open daily, 10am to 5pm. 800.846.8637.
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From the October 5-11, 2005, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.