From the Vineyard: Fetzer celebrates 50 years; movement in Chilean market

Fetzer Vineyards was founded in 1968 by Barney Fetzer, an admitted hippie who adopted organic grape growing long before it became widespread. From his outpost in Mendocino County, home of counterculture in California, Fetzer produced “fighting varietals,” varietal wines to sell at affordable prices.

Varietal wines displaced the old generic “chablis,” “burgundy” and “rhine” wines made from any grapes but those used in those European regions that had been popular in America. Among them was its Sundial Chardonnay, which was almost free of oak. The fresh, fruity wine became immensely popular, and Fetzer became a big force in wine.

Unfortunately, the large Fetzer family (11 children) sold out to Bourbon maker Brown-Forman in 1991, and after initial excitement, BF realized that they made much more money on whiskey than inexpensive wine.

Fetzer went into a slow decline; but in 2011, Concha y Toro, Chile’s largest wine company, bought it and has set about to restore Fetzer’s glory. One step was to resurrect the old vineyard names like Sundial and Valley Oaks (for Cabernet).

At about $10, the Sundial Chardonnay is a great buy, particularly if you want a clean white wine, not one reeking of butter and oak.

Fetzer’s $11 Shaly Loam Gewürztraminer is America’s most popular Gewurz. It’s slightly off dry (in other words, a tiny bit sweet), very fragrant and floral, a perfect match for much Asian and Caribbean food.

Fetzer grows many of its grapes organically and practices sustainable rowing and winemaking. Its sister Bonterra Winery uses all organic grapes; but the wine can’t be called organic, as they add a bit of sulfites to kill bacteria and keep the wine fresh, an almost universal practice (also used in dried fruit and many other products).

Speaking of Chile, family-owned Delicato Family Vineyards, the fastest-growing “Top Ten” U.S. wine company, has signed a deal to import Viña Santa Rita wines into the U.S., which should make them more widely available.

Santa Rita is the best-selling wine in Chile and the second Chilean brand in the U.S. It’s Delicato’s first import brand. Its other brands include Bota Box, Noble Vines, Gnarly Head, Black Stallion Estate Winery and Z. Alexander Brown wines.

American’s are also nuts over Argentine Malbec, but Chile’s wines are more diverse, and none have become iconic; though Carmenere, a variety now abandoned in Bordeaux, is a standout.

In another interesting twist, the large Italian wine company Zonin, which is most famous for its Prosecco, has invested in Chile with its new Dos Almas brand selling for $15. Not surprisingly, one wine is a sparkler, but the Sauvignon Blanc is my favorite.

This is Zonin’s first investment outside of Italy (It has an impressive winery in Sicily called Butera.) since Barboursville in Virginia in 1976. And yes, Barboursville also makes excellent wines.

Paul Franson lives in Napa Valley, CA.

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