Wine-Making Fetzer Family's Cup Overflows : Wholesomeness and Hard Work Unite the Clan

Times Staff Writer

The story has been told so often it's almost legend. How their dad, the late Barney Fetzer, would have his children--say, four or five of the boys--out pruning the vineyards. It would be coming on noon and the truck to take them home for lunch inevitably would be at the other end of the field. Fetzer's ploy never failed. "Instead of just walking back to the truck," he'd tell the kids, "let's prune our way back."

"It might be 3 or 4 before we got lunch," Fetzer's eldest son, John, 38, remembers with a laugh. "Sometimes we'd go all day without eating."

Then there was Christmas, one of the few days of the year that the Fetzers took off. No school, no work, just traditional Christmas festivities. From Barney Fetzer came tools: a new hammer, a special screwdriver.

Brooked No Giggles

Barney Fetzer--his children say nobody really knew him, that he wasn't affectionate, that he brooked no giggling or chatter at the dinner table, so meals were usually downed in silence, that in the last few months before his death of a heart attack in 1981, at age 61, he communicated with them solely by memos.

Of Barney and Kathleen Fetzer's 11 children, 10 work for the family winery here in this green, hilly valley three hours north of San Francisco in Mendocino County. Only Kathy, the eldest daughter, doesn't. But that, she says, is just a matter of time. A certified public accountant, she's studying for a master's degree in tax accounting at San Francisco State University, and once she's gotten her degree, plus some practical experience, she'll take on the Fetzer finances.

Everything Fetzer Vineyards is today--the 18th largest of California's 600 wineries--is not so much the product of one man's dedication to a dream. Rather, it's the reflection of a father's effect upon his family.

About 30 minutes north of Santa Rosa on Highway 101, the Fetzer signs start appearing. Sundial Vineyard, run by Joe Fetzer, 35, comes first. Minutes later, there's Hopland and the Fetzer Tasting Room. Up the road about 15 minutes more is Ukiah and 10 minutes beyond that, off the highway and into the hills, is Redwood Valley and the 780-acre Home Vineyard. Here are the main offices, the winery, 200 acres of grapes (managed by Bobby Fetzer, 29), the family home (where mother, Kathleen, daughter Kathy, 37, and her daughter, Christina, 10, live) plus a few other homes. The Fetzers are big on building homes on their properties, both for themselves and their employees.

A Little Embellishment

The saga of how Barney Fetzer finagled his family into the winery business has been told so many times by John Fetzer, as eldest son and company president, that it might have become a little embellished--at least that's the impression when he gets to the part about the family being so poor that the Fetzer children had to eat sandwiches made of homemade bread--while all the other kids at school got Langendorf.

Anyway, John began, go back to 1950 or so. That's when his father sold his shares in a plywood corporation in Medford, Ore., and moved his family to the Ukiah area where he took a job as office manager of Hollowtree Lumber Co.

The idea of owning a ranch was always there--both Barney and Kathleen Fetzer had been raised on farms in the Midwest--but it became an obsession, according to family lore, on the day Barney Fetzer came home and found all the kids in front of the television set.

"He blew up," John Fetzer said, "and the next thing we knew he'd traded the television for an arc welder and for the next eight years there was no television in the house. Dad saw the ranch as a way to get all of the family outside, doing things, going hunting and fishing."

Finally, in 1957, when his eldest son was in the third grade, Barney Fetzer found the perfect piece of property. Cashing in his life insurance to purchase it and continuing his office job, he brought his family to what was subsequently named Home Ranch. Already there: an old way station that had been a stopover for stagecoaches going through the foothills from Ukiah to Mendocino. It would become the Fetzer home. Also: 40 acres of grapes, 30 acres of pear trees and lots of room for anything else they might want to do.

Up at 5:30 A.M.

Instead of fishing, hiking and hunting, Barney Fetzer's favorite saying became "live on a ranch, work on a ranch." Every morning the family would be up at 5:30 so the boys could milk the cows, tend the sheep and do all the outside chores before they left for school in Ukiah and Fetzer left for the office. The girls did the inside work, making all the beds, packing lunch bags, assembly-line fashion.

After school: no football, no sports. Instead it was back home where there were countless things to be done before bedtime.

A tough life for a little kid?

Whoever the Fetzer, the response is uniformly vociferous. No way. "I loved it out here," John Fetzer said. "Actually, I had a hard time in school. Jimmy was the same way. We could drive tractors, Jeeps. We had tools, guns. No other kids had that."

Back to the ranch. The pear trees came out. The family, with a few veteran Mexican and Italian laborers to instruct them, planted and pruned more grapes--varietals like Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, French Colombard. Barney Fetzer, now working for Masonite Lumber as vice president of its Western division, started marketing the crop to home wine makers. After a few years of compliments on the quality of his grapes, it seemed obvious--why not start their own winery?

Still working for the lumber firm, he drew up the plans and handled the financing. Construction and care of the vineyards was left to John and his brothers and sisters. "We bought a used crusher, some plywood fermenters and basically, we made wine by the numbers."

The first vintage was in 1968. Only in 1975 was a formally trained wine maker hired. That was Steve O'Donnell. Fetzer's current wine maker, Paul Dolan, was hired in 1977.

It has to be asked. Did Barney Fetzer even drink wine? "Oh, yes," John answered. "He'd buy these five-gallon jugs and rebottle them into quart bottles. He'd keep a bottle sitting there on the floor by the dining table. It really infuriated my grandmother."

Well, that's something. But wine making--it's a blend of art and science so subtle that it's been the conundrum of man almost since the beginning of civilization. Without any background, any wine-making education, how did his father manage to establish his own winery?

John Fetzer laughed. "That's just how he was. People called him a maverick. I'll tell you, from the very beginning, he firmly believed that he made the best wine. Actually, though, some of it was atrocious."

They're a handsome, friendly family, the sort who probably could have gone on a Kellogg's Corn Flakes box for sheer wholesomeness; nice, polite, well-brought-up kids who could be easily introduced to somebody's mother. Not that there weren't scrapes. Get them going on these and it's like fast-flipping pages in a photograph album.

But all this nostalgic stuff doesn't happen often. For one thing, family get-togethers are rare. The logistics of getting together all 11 Fetzers, their mother, all spouses and children seem somewhat more complicated than producing a prize-winning zinfandel.

The no-shows on a recent evening: Bobby and his family are skiing in Sun River, Ore., and Richard, 25, who's on the trucking end of the operation, could be anywhere. John's wife, Kathy, a loan officer with the Bank of America, got hung up with a late dentist's appointment, so she was home with their two daughters. And their sister Kathy, her mother reported, had a class in San Francisco.

But other than that, it's a pretty good crowd here at Joel's, the gourmet restaurant that just happens to be a Fetzer tenant next to their tasting room in Hopland.

There's their mother, Kathleen, talking about her upcoming trip to Scandinavia; Joe, his wife, Julie, and their little one; and Teresa, 24, who's married to machinist Kenny Oster, whom she's known since kindergarten. Teresa, who has two young children, may have the only 9-to-5 job in the operation. She works in the office, helping Mary with sales analysis.

The real coup: catching Jim and Mary both in town. Jim Fetzer, 33, has the title of general manager, and spends about half of his time on the road, meeting with distributors and salesmen across the country. His wife, Diann, is studying law, and this night she's at home with their three children. Mary, 30, is director of marketing and on the road at least three-quarters of the time. She's come in with her husband, Lee Rodriguez, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in Ukiah, and their 4 1/2-year-old son, Tyler.

Patti, 32, in charge of advertising and point-of-sale deliveries, has come up from San Francisco where she has a small office. (All of the Fetzers make the six-hour round trip between the winery and San Francisco with the same weary ease Southern Californians might commute between, say, San Diego and downtown Los Angeles.) Patti's husband, Casey Burke, sells wine for Young's Market.

The Only Unmarrieds

Finally, there's Diane, 27, and Danny, 21, the only unmarrieds. He's the family artist, the person behind the colorful paintings on the Fetzer trucks and all the other logos marking anything Fetzer-owned. He's also helping Diane, who's assistant wine maker.

There's family talk, but there's also business talk. Whether to market a special ski label for wines sold in Mammoth, Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Sun Valley, Ida.; and at what point would owning their own plane pay off?

At one point, Jimmy Fetzer, trying to look at his family the way an outsider would see it, suggests that they must seem unusual, all together as they are, not scattered all over the country. And no Falcon Crest-like feuds or scandals.

A burst of laughter from Mary. "We must sound kind of dull, don't we?"

Somehow, it seems, when you talk Fetzer--you're not talking family, you're talking business. Of course, maybe that's what makes the family work.

It's a rule: no spouses or close friends are employed.

People are paid only what their job is worth--Mary, the super salesperson, makes more than Richie, the truck driver.

When one member of the family had a drinking problem, his wife, several brothers and sisters and their mother took counseling together, then in an organized confrontation, pressured him to stop. He stopped.

On the morning their father died, everyone came to work as usual. "Business didn't skip a beat," John Fetzer said. "Dad's death . . . it made us work harder. In Ukiah, they thought it would all stop. For us, it was a matter of trying to prove ourselves, knowing that we were going to make Fetzer winery work, no matter what it takes."

No one doubted that John Fetzer would someday run the show. Nor did it ever occur to anybody to resent it.

"The way we were raised, we were told you can't be afraid to be Indians. Not everyone can be a chief," Diane Fetzer said as she stopped by her mother's kitchen for a homemade bran muffin just out of the oven. "John was always a grown-up person. He was never silly. He was a leader."

Joe Fetzer, drinking a Diet Pepsi as he drove his pick-up around Sundial Ranch's 380 acres of grapes, agreed. "You hear about so many families where they kill each other to be boss. Well, John can have it. Someone has to do it. He's the oldest. He's got good ideas."

He grinned. Yeah, he and John occasionally have their run-ins. After all, Joe's a farmer and John's, well, not exactly in a business suit--but John gets all these great ideas for expansion and he doesn't always understand that you need a lot of equipment to accomplish these things. "If I can't get through to John though," Joe had it figured, "old Jimbo pulls a lot of power."

A Father Figure

Outsiders see John Fetzer as a father figure to his family and this day, sitting in his office--large but only minimally decorated, piles of files and display samples on the floor behind him--he doesn't deny it. Being the eldest son, his father away on business a lot in the later years, he had most of the responsibility and did much of the discipline.

"I didn't mind it. It made me feel important. And all the projects, I loved that too, every second of it."

Thinking of his father, he draws a picture of a man both charming and autocratic, a man who could talk to anyone on any subject, a man whom you wanted to please. He had no patience for silliness, no time for excuses. If he told you to build a winery, then find out how and do it. Develop a budget and five-year projection and don't come back until it's done--right. "He could intimidate you with a look," John said with a wry laugh, "but he gave us a lot of freedom too."

John's style? "The way he does it, if he wants you to do something, he puts it to you like a favor," Diane said. "And he'll support you in everything you want to do."

Subject of Expansion

Where John really starts sounding like his father, outsiders say, is on the subject of expansion. It's not in these Fetzers just to be satisfied with what they've got. And John Fetzer, some say, is taking it further than his father ever would--or could. Not only has Fetzer Vineyards skyrocketed in production and sales since 1981, but there's all that real estate in Hopland, his plans to build either a Silverado-type resort or a Knotts Berry Farm complex (depending on which way the new freeway comes) in addition to the already-existing vineyards at the 1,200 Valley Oaks Ranch, which the family recently purchased. There's the new gift box business, the civic involvements such as the softball teams and financially supporting the local theater group.

That's the value of family, John insists. "If I owned all this myself, I couldn't do it." But with 11 people . . . "

The subject was money. Earlier in the day, John Fetzer had talked about how he felt poor as a child. Cranapples and peanut butter sandwiches on homemade bread for lunch, picking grapes to buy an organ.

"I thought to myself, someday I'm going to have the best." Which he did. As soon as he could afford it, he bought a Porsche and over the years he's owned an assortment of other sports cars, plus a few Mercedes and Cadillacs.

But he's convinced the way he grew up was the way it should be. "I think that's what builds strong character--not having things."

The others apparently weren't as sensitive to what they didn't have. In fact, later at lunch at a Ukiah restaurant with Mary, Danny, Jimmy and David Hansmith, the winery's in-house public relations person, John is teased. Yeah, so tough about having to eat homemade bread, he's told sarcastically. And all those expensive cars--John's only weakness.

For them, well, there's skiing. That's expensive. And Danny, who drives a Jeep, dreams of being an artist--so a bit of money is spent at the art supply store. But their homes? With the exception of Mary, who lives in Ukiah, Patty in San Francisco and Teresa, who lives on her husband's ranch, all live in houses either they or another family member built on Fetzer land. Aside from Mary, no one has help with cleaning. Several don't even have electric dishwashers.

Yet success, it would seem, only pushes the Fetzers to do more. "We could never sell it (the winery). We would make a lot of money. But we haven't gotten ourselves to this position by wanting to retire," John Fetzer said. "Money is not a priority in my life. It's a by-product of what we like to do."

Asked Jimmy, "What else would we do? All we know how to do is make wine and sell it."

He had headed his truck over a creek and through the trees into the hills behind his mother's house up to the Big Dog Saloon and the Salamander Inn, two rustic structures that he and Bobby built five or six years ago and which they still use for parties. There was a light mist in the air and aside from a few birds, all was silent.

Pointing to a plateau overlooking the valley as where he'll build his next home, Jimmy Fetzer chuckled, "The best home is one without a mortgage, my father always said."

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