Fetzer Family Farm

Times Wine Writer

Matching wine with food, once the exclusive province of “ultra-foodies,” appears to be reaching down to Middle America.

Experimentation into which wines go with which foods had become popular with wineries by 1980. Beringer Vineyards in the Napa Valley has long staged homages to chefs; Robert Mondavi stages elaborate cooking schools; McDowell Valley Vineyards publishes cookbooklets, and at least a dozen wineries, both big and small, have chefs on staff.

In the last few years, the quest to match the right wine with the right food has invaded even such mundane locations as roadside coffee shops and truck stops. One reason is the ever-growing popularity of serving wines by the glass. Another is the trend toward greater use of unusual vegetables, edible flowers, novel methods of preparation, even strange combinations of common elements. (The blackened-fish fad some years back created all sorts of headaches in wine-food matchups.)


At Fetzer Vineyards in this Mendocino County community, research into combinations of food and wine has reached almost manic proportions. And the reason is that Fetzer began its quest from the ground up, literally.

Today, Fetzer chef Stephen Yundt experiments with the product of one of the most fantastic produce and herb gardens in the world, and his variations on themes are some of the most imaginative ever seen, partly because of his ability to find unusual ingredients.

The key reason Yundt’s experimentation is possible is that he has produce from the garden of Michael Maltas at his fingertips.

This garden is no garden-variety garden. It is a five-acre project Fetzer started three years ago on its Valley Oaks Ranch here. The garden is jammed with every fruit, vegetable, herb, tuber and edible flower you can imagine.

Situated a mile east of this tiny Mendocino County dot on Highway 101, the garden is on a southern block of the Valley Oaks property, a wide swath of land once used to cultivate hops for beer production, then home to some of the world’s best pear trees and now, except for the garden, planted mostly with premium wine grapes.

Maltas, honored as organic gardener of the year by Organic Gardening Magazine in 1985, was hired in November of that year by Fetzer to create the garden. Maltas’ task was to determine the best fruits and vegetables for cultivation and to supply produce for cooking experiments.

Maltas’ mission grew more complicated last spring when, with the garden not yet fully established, the Fetzer family decided to enter the restaurant business. This meant the Maltas’ organic garden would also have to supply vegetables for the restaurant’s guests.

A year ago, Maltas could only talk about what he planned to do, the hours of cultivating yet to be done. Today the project is nearly completed. Some 2,000 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers are growing on carefully tilled mounds, each with a drip irrigation system.

Now, he said, the real work begins--locating the best-quality produce for this microclimate.

“There are more than 1,200 varieties of tomatoes in the world,” Maltas said as he displayed a score of varieties on a table under a pergola adjacent the garden. “And they all have different flavors and tastes.”

To prove his point, he began to cut some that had been assembled at random. They carried names such as Sweet Chelsea, Lemon Boy, Cal Ace, Early Girl, Oxheart, Ultrasweet, Peron and FMX 785. Each had its own taste character, but I found the tomatoes with the most attractive appearance had the least aroma and flavor.

“Those are all the commercial varieties,” Maltas said of the attractive ones. “The tomatoes you get in the supermarket are grown to look nice, not to taste good.”

Then came a melon demonstration: a dozen melons of all shapes, colors, aromas and tastes, including a yellow-flesh watermelon, one called Fruit Punch, another called Ananas, and others with names such as Stutz’s Supreme, Moon and Stars, Pancha and Burpee’s Ambrosia. The best was called Marble White. “It tastes like vanilla rice pudding,” said Kate Ryan, Maltas’ assistant and a specialist in herbs and flowers.

Few of these marvelous melons are available in stores. Maltas said melons are not yet considered a fruit that commands much attention, so cantaloupe, watermelon and honeydew remain boring constants in the market.

For the same reason, when you buy basil in stores, you are almost never told whether you’re getting Neapolitan basil, lemon basil, Fino Verde Picolo basil, cinnamon basil or any of the other varieties that grow in profusion here. Besides all the common herbs planted in a quadrant of the garden, Maltas and Ryan have such rare herbs as creeping lemon thyme, hyssop, epasote, borage, burnet, amaranth, caraway thyme and a dozen others.

Maltas also has some 45 melon varieties, 30 varieties of plums and 85 varieties of apples on dwarf rootstock.

Imagine, then, what permutations and combinations Yundt can conjure up at Fetzer’s new Sundial Grill, which opened in April. Yundt heads a team whose goal is to find the right recipes for specific produce to go with Fetzer’s wines. And things aren’t always cut and dried, he said.

Yundt made the point recently at a luncheon, creating three chicken breast dishes with the exact same spices, all prepared differently. The dishes went with three different wines.

“That shows that even if you use the same spices, the way you cook something determines the wine you serve with it,” said Yundt.

To demonstrate, Yundt prepared all three chicken breasts with marjoram and rosemary. The first was in a cream reduction sauce, the second was simply marinated in white wine and the two herbs, and the third was in a tomato sauce.

The cream version required a fairly rich wine (Chardonnay or even Beaujolais would have been fine); the herb-wine dish worked with a light Sauvignon Blanc; the tomato dish was great with an older Pinot Noir and would have worked with Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel.

(Yundt said he uses wine in most of his dishes and the wine used in the preparation is almost always the one served with the meal. But, he added, “taste buds differ” and that some diners might prefer a wine different from the one used in the preparation.)

This experimentation with produce combinations might easily have ended as simply a private project of the Fetzer family; after all, they have a 1.6-million-case winery to run. Instead, they chose to go into the restaurant business.

The Fetzers own a large number of buildings in Hopland, including an attractive tasting room, a grocery store and a shopping complex that housed a top-quality restaurant. When the owner of the eatery ran into fiscal problems, the Fetzers kept him on as an associate, hired Yundt as head chef, renamed the restaurant and began experimenting.

The Sundial Grill (named for the Fetzers’ Sundial Ranch up the road, where Chardonnay is grown) doesn’t have a full-blown menu yet with such stuff as fish needing a Cabernet and beef requiring Chardonnay. But that, in fact, isn’t the goal.

Yundt does, however, get to play with some of the freshest herbs and vegetables you will ever see in a restaurant setting, and the flavors, being so clean and fresh, allow the restaurant to structure the wine list with food recommendations for each wine.

“Getting corn picked at 9 a.m. and having it for lunch isn’t something every restaurant can offer,” Maltas said.

With vegetables and herbs such a major part of the fare at the Sundial Grill, don’t be surprised to have a Riesling or a Gewurztraminer recommended, something rare these days when so many wine merchants and buyers seem to have a knee-jerk reaction, buying mediocre Chardonnay when great Chenin Blanc is available at a lower price.

The vegetables served at our test luncheon included zucchini sliced lengthwise, marinated (cut-side down) in a sauce, then grilled. Baby potatoes were lightly sauteed in butter and garlic. Gewurztraminer was the perfect selection for that.

“I want to match the texture of the vegetable with its flavors and then with the flavors in the wine, so we try not to overmarinate or overcook anything,” Yundt said.

Even dishes traditionally served without wine, such as salads, affect the taste buds and can help or hinder the dining experience.

For instance, a salad dressing Yundt prepared tasted like it was laden with lemon, but the aftertaste wasn’t at all lemony. The dressing had only one herb in it--lemon basil--and no lemon at all. A dessert of figs was flavored with cinnamon basil, a perfect match for a Riesling.

Yundt and Maltas admit it’s not easy for the average homemaker to duplicate their recipes because some of the rarer herbs are difficult to find. But in time, they believe, speciality stores will begin to carry such items, especially as consumers look to spice up their culinary cabinets and demand a wider variety of produce. (In the meantime, cooks desirous of duplicating some of Yundt’s ideas may need to search out nurseries that specialize in growing out-of-the-ordinary herbs.)

As a side benefit at the Sundial Grill, Yundt also prepares all the baked goods. (Some years ago, he did all the baking at a now-closed Idylwild eatery called the Baker in the Forest.)

The Fetzer family’s property in Redwood Valley to the north has been the hub of the family winery since wine was first made there 20 years ago.

Major changes in that facility improved the quality of the white wines a decade ago, but as demand for the Fetzer wines continued to grow, wine maker Paul Dolan realized the Redwood Valley facility was simply not large enough to make 1 million-plus cases of wine.

When the 2,600-acre Haas farm, a former hops ranch, went on the market here in 1984, the family decided it would be a good investment. Not only would it be more land on which to plant grapes needed for the increasing demand for the Fetzer wines, but also the old hops barn and related buildings could be used for hospitality events.

And there was ample acreage on which to build a new winery.

The acquisition and subsequent planting--including experimental vineyards with various trellising systems--gives the Fetzer family more than 1,100 acres of planted vineyards in Mendocino County, with plans to add more acreage in the next few years. Included in the total is a 160-acre plot that is being farmed organically--no chemical pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals.

Fetzer has been one of California’s fastest-growing wineries in the last decade, increasing sales from 1986 to 1987 by 33%, to an estimated 1.2 million cases. And sales this year are pegged by company president Jim Fetzer at 1.64 million cases, up another 33%.

Quality remains high, though, and Fetzer annually wins a flock of awards at major competitions for all the wines in its line--whites and reds, dry wines and sweet.

Moreover, its line of Bel Arbres wines has had a major impact in the so-called pop-premium market (popularly priced varietal wines).

To acommodate the growth, the family (10 brothers and sisters and mom Kathleen Fetzer) developed a portion of the Valley Oaks Ranch, adding a 40,000-square-foot winery with one of the largest crushing facilities in the world. The winery now has the capability of rapidly transferring grapes to either the crusher, directly to the press, or into specially designed tanks to make Beaujolais.

The interior of the winery building is a prototype design of modern equipment, with stainless-steel transfer lines anchored out of the way of workers, reducing the number of hoses needed to pump wine to a bare minimum. Reduced handling of the wine insures better quality.

An additional 60,000 square feet of space in the rear of the new winery has been reserved for expansion, and Jim Fetzer said he anticipates the winery will top 2 million cases by 1990.

The Valley Oaks winery will be the main processing point for all red wines and all lighter white wines--Riesling, Muscat, Chenin Blanc and so on. The heavier white wines (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer) and some dessert wines will continue to be made in Redwood Valley.

All but one of the 11 children of Kathleen and the late Barney Fetzer work at the winery in various capacities.

The oldest son, John, 40, is chief executive officer of the company. The youngest member of the family, Dan, 24, designed and oversaw construction of the new winery. He also assisted in the redesign of four smaller homes, one large home, five barns and a hop kiln (on an adjoining ranch) that comprise the Valley Oaks property buildings.

Now open at Valley Oaks is a bed-and-breakfast facility. A conference center is planned.

Moreover, the family has built a huge pavilion near Maltas’ garden that will be a demonstration kitchen for visiting guest chefs to experiment with the fresh produce and the wines.

Hourlong tours of the garden are given twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., by hospitality director Bernadette Byrne, by appointment only. To arrange for a Fetzer Farm tour, call Bernadette Byrne at (707) 744-1250 or Rusty Eddy at (707) 485-7634.