January 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

Grapegrower Interview: Patti Fetzer

Organic growing in Mendocino County

by Laurie Daniel
Patti Fetzer grew up in the wine business. Her late father, Barney Fetzer, founded Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County in 1968, and Patti and her 10 siblings worked in all areas of the business. After the family sold the business in 1992, she remained in the industry, eventually founding Patianna Organic Vineyards outside Hopland, Calif., in 2003. Her 126-acre property, in the Fetzer family since 1983, has been certified organic since 1987. About 75 acres are planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Fetzer has been married since 2006 to Gregg Hileman, who worked at Fetzer’s Valley Oaks facility in the 1980s and is general manager of Patianna.

Wines & Vines: The Fetzers have long been proponents of organic viticulture. How did your family get interested in growing organically?

Patti Fetzer: My 10 sisters and brothers and I grew up on our family’s 720-acre Home Ranch in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley. My parents, Barney and Kathleen Fetzer, purchased the property in 1958. We were country kids with lots of freedom to roam after our chores were done, so we developed a deep appreciation for nature. My family was self-sufficient, and we all worked on the property, where we raised sheep, milk cows (for butter, cream, cheese and ice cream), horses, chickens, pigs, ducks and peacocks. Our huge garden supplied fresh fruits and vegetables. My mother ground her own wheat and baked 18 loaves of bread every other day.

When my father decided to get into the wine business, we got rid of our livestock and focused on grapes and winemaking. Our first commercial vintage was 1968: 2,500 cases of red table wine. We were the vineyard and winery crew—completely family-run and self-sufficient.

My father and mother taught us to take care of the land so the land would take care of us. In the early years, when pesticides and herbicides were introduced to farming, we farmed conventionally. But we noticed a change in the landscape: fewer birds, no salamanders in the creeks, few butterflies. So in the 1980s we began to farm organically. My brother Jim spearheaded organic farming in the vineyards. In 1984 we purchased the Valley Oaks Ranch, one mile east of Hopland. Along with new vineyards, we developed a food and wine center for entertaining and educating the wine trade. Jim brought in a famous organic farmer, Michael Maltus, to develop a five-acre organic garden with over 1,000 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Farming organically was a natural progression of how we lived and what we believed.

W&V: After your family sold Fetzer Vineyards to Brown-Forman, why did you decide to stay in the wine industry? Did you always want to continue the organic mission that your family had advocated?

Fetzer: When my father passed away suddenly in 1981, Fetzer was producing just over 250,000 cases of wine. My family gathered around the dinner table and decided to keep going and build on father’s legacy. By the time we sold the brand and one of our properties with a winery in 1992, we were producing more than 2.2 million cases. We sold our name and signed a non-compete agreement, but we kept our vineyards. At first we farmed collectively, and then, in 1997, we divided the family holdings. I chose the old Largo Ranch, a 126-acre piece that borders the Russian River just east of Hopland. My sister Mary took a ranch just north of me, and my sister Diana took one to the south. Brothers Dan, Joe and John own land to the west.

Growing up immersed in the wine business, it became a way of life for my family; I like to say it’s in our blood. While building the Fetzer brand, I did virtually every task from vineyard and cellar work to office bookkeeping to loading semi-trucks in the warehouse, but my specialty became marketing and graphic design. I was VP of marketing services when we sold the brand. When I launched the Patianna brand with the 2003 vintage, I designed all of my packaging. It felt only natural to grow a business from the soil to the label on the table.

It’s our deeply held family value to respect and take care of the land. Patianna estate vineyard has been certified organic since 1987.

Ten Fetzer siblings stayed in wine

Of the 11 Fetzer siblings, 10 continued in some aspect of the wine industry after Fetzer Vineyards was sold in 1992. Four of them—Joe, Mary, Diana and Richard—are grapegrowers in Mendocino County. All except Joe have vineyards that are certified organic.

Six others, including Patti Fetzer of Patianna Vineyards, have started wineries or wine brands. John Fetzer owns Saracina Vineyards; Teresa Fetzer established Oster Vineyards, and Dan Fetzer has Jeriko Estate. Robert Fetzer, who died in 2006, founded Masut Vineyards, which is now run by his wife and two sons. All of these operations are in Mendocino County, and the vineyards are being farmed organically—and, in some cases, Biodynamically.

Brother Jim Fetzer established Ceago Vine-garden in neighboring Lake County. Ceago is certified Biodynamic.

Sister Kathleen Fetzer, a financial planner, is the only Fetzer sibling who took another path. She manages the Kathleen Kohn Fetzer Family Foundation, which was established by her mother to benefit Mendocino County organizations. L.D.
W&V: What are the challenges—such as pests and diseases—to growing organically at your location, and what solutions have you found?

Fetzer: The fascinating thing about farming organically is that most challenges can be overcome with natural means. For example, at one time we had a problem with cutworms. They live in the soil and come out when the sun is down and feed on the vine leaves. Our vineyard manager, Horacio Ortega, put chickens in the vineyard to scratch and forage under the vines. They took care of the cutworms and fertilized the soil in the process. The eggs are a delicious bonus.

The vineyard borders the Russian River for 1.5 miles. We brought in a small herd of goats and sheep to graze on the willows and riparian habitat that can be a host for the blue-green sharpshooter.

Owl boxes provide nesting homes for raptors that control the gophers and moles populating our well-drained land. Year-round cover crops provide host environments for beneficial insects while adding nutrients to the soil. Soon beehives will join the “good bug” population.

Even this year we did not have a problem with mildew. Our vineyard manager, Horacio, is very hands-on, inspecting and pulling leaves by hand. He has taken care of this vineyard since the 1980s, and he has an instinctive farming program.

W&V: Your vineyard has been certified Biodynamic by Demeter USA for several years, but you’ve decided to focus instead on organic viticulture and your certification by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Why? Will you continue to use Biodynamic practices in your vineyard, even if you’re not certified?

Fetzer: Our organic farming practices are based on a deep respect for nature and a balanced ecosystem; these are the tenets of Biodynamic and organic farming. But today, in order for a label to state a wine is “made from Biodynamic grapes,” the certifying agency dictates some practices in the cellar. We are not prepared to change our winemaking regime or the Patianna style. Our focus has been, and continues to be, on a balanced, healthy vineyard and the flavors in the grapes. With that in mind, the certification agency that makes the most sense is CCOF.

We continue to practice many of the Biodynamic protocols, such as farm-produced organic composts and manure to amend the soil. No petrochemicals are used. But we don’t use the preparations, and we don’t follow the calendar.

W&V: Many California vintners have adopted sustainable practices that go beyond viticulture such as solar power, biodiesel and the like. What sort of sustainable practices are you using?

Fetzer: One of the most important is water conservation. We do not draw from the Russian River except for frost control. We are removing vines to build an irrigation pond to capture rainwater and expect it to be completed by spring 2011. Five horizontal wells in the hillside provide spring water to supply three houses on the property (my husband Gregg’s and my home and those of my vineyard manager and foreman and their families).

Our sustainable practices are evolving. We are planning conversion of our vineyard equipment to biodiesel, and we use all-terrain vehicles where we can, avoiding large vehicles that compact the soil. We are exploring conversion to solar energy. We’ve reduced our carbon footprint in our packaging: We use a lighter glass bottle as well as kraft cartons printed with water-based ink.

W&V: How did you decide what grape varieties to produce at Patianna?

Fetzer: Our estate vineyard is ideal for growing Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The vines grow in sandy loam soils along a 1.5-mile stretch of the Russian River. For our first four vintages (2003-06), we purchased Syrah grapes from neighboring Fairbairn Ranch, a property once owned by my family. But the Syrah market became soft, so beginning with the 2008 vintage I decided to return to my roots and produce Zinfandel, a wine I love. It’s part of my heritage: My father and Paul Dolan produced the first collection of Fetzer vineyard-designated zinfandels in 1980. As we’ve grown the Patianna brand, I decided also to produce a Pinot Noir from grapes grown by my brother Dan.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.
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