TWO DECADES AGO, when Barney Fetzer moved to Mendocino County, he had never considered growing grapes or making wine. He was a lumberman who had brought his family of 11 children from Oregon to the California sawmill region where Masonite is produced. But while exploring an abandoned ranch he'd found for sale there, he discovered some over-age, poorly tended vineyards in the deep private valley. And that set him to dreaming.
Fetzer's family rediscovered those dreams recently in his diary, which was uncovered during remodeling of the Mendocino homesite:
"I checked the balances in the savings and checking accounts," he wrote. "I checked the cash balances in my life insurance policies again and again. The old house was a tall two-story affair, rambling and rickety. . . . And gardens with their lilacs and roses were rampant. . . .
"I projected. I discussed. I gathered facts. The future of wine grapes. Every spare moment I had was spent going over all 720 acres of this property. It was here, along the creek, in the ageless silence of an autumn afternoon that I made up my mind to buy the ranch and spend the rest of my life here."
Fetzer's son, John, remembers how his mother, Kathleen, baked bread, and often their diet was only beans and rice. The family worked from sunup to sundown, driving old tractors in the vineyards, cooking over Coleman stoves, clearing the hillsides and meadows of heavy grass, planting vines and cultivating vineyards. An April frost once threatened to wipe out the young vines, but they grew, and the grapes were harvested and sold to home wine makers across the land. Those amateurs won prizes for those wines. And in 1968, Barney Fetzer decided to make his own wines on the ranch.
Today, with sales topping 1 million cases each year and the Fetzers' 5 millionth case just shipped, the 20th anniversary year is something to celebrate. Kathleen still bakes bread in the old homestead, and 10 sons and daughters conduct the winery operation. (Barney Fetzer died in 1981.) A new winery at nearby Valley Oaks, near Hopland, will double the production capacity to 2.5 million cases by 1992.
I visited the Fetzer family recently, and during the last hour, I returned to the home to photograph, as I had almost 20 years ago, a bottle of Zinfandel, some bread and cheese, the wine in glasses, with a book of verse, on the lawn, the proud new winery in the background. This time, however, "The Los Angeles Times Book of California Wines" stood in for the poetry volume, open to the full-page color photo of that earlier photographic document of the visit. And the wine was not the 1968 but the current release Zinfandel 1985 Special Reserve ($10).
Also in current release, and highly recommended, are the 1986 Special Reserve Chardonnay ($14), a lovely buttery-oak wine, malolactic softened, with intense fruit; a 1984 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($16), which is a big, hearty wine that's drinkable now but gets better with mellowing cellar aging, and last, the 1985 Ricetti Vineyards Zinfandel Reserve ($11) of Mendocino County, a Fetzer mainstay wine since 1968.
table from Mission Antiques; location courtesy of the Lummis House, Highland Park