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by Fred McMillin
for April 14, 2000

 

Winery of the Week

It's the Price, Stupid


Prologue

1989, Stuller and Martin's Through the Grapevine...
"Fetzer's fighting varietals may sell for as little as $3.49 a pop, providing good value for the price. Such wines almost scream to be taken home and consumed with regular, just-the-family meals on Tuesday and Wednesday nights."

Norm Roby's Connoisseurs' Handbook of California Wine...
"The Fetzers shunned advertising...but kept prices below their competition."

Fetzer Tasting Room

Fetzer Tasting Room


The Rest of the Story

So Fetzer let their prices do the talking. Let's see how it worked out

SALES
1968 (first year)—2,500 cases
1990—2,500,000 cases
Not bad!

VINEYARDS
1958—70 acres (Kathleen and Bernard Fetzer soon are selling grapes to others, since they have no winery.
1968—Their vineyards have expanded to 170 acres as their winery opens.
1990—Their vineyards total 2,000 acres and they have long-term contracts for another 2,000 acres.


Value of the Operation

It sounds pretty valuable to me. It did to Brown-Forman Corp., too. (Jack Daniels, Korbel, etc.) So, in 1992 they bought Fetzer for a reported $100 million, The Fetzer family retained most of the vineyards, and have returned to their origins, selling grapes (to the Fetzer winery, of course.)


The Wines

There are three categories, the low-priced FIGHTERS, the medium-priced BARREL SELLECT, and the RESERVES.

The Fighters—Partly under the Fetzer label, and partly under the Bel Arbor (name of the road leading to the winery) label, sales are near three million cases annually. The star is Sundial Chardonnay. Critic Robert Parker Jr. calls it "a consistent winner in the under-$l0 Chardonnay sweepstakes...well-made...exuberant." My panel also always gives high marks to the Gewürztraminer.

Barrel Select—The noted authority James Laube writes, "this second tier has maintained high quality at affordable prices." The Cabernet Sauvignon is the leader. Total Select production is only about 5% of Fighter volume.

Reserves—Cab, Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot...total only 10,000 cases. They have been pleasant suprises in my tastings.

Let's add a fourth group...organic. Sales are already in the 100,000 case range. The label is Bonterra. The sulfites are LOW and the flavor intensity is high.

Contact—Director of Public Relations Sara Moore Cummings. She's helped me chase down winery facts for years, and I'm sure you'll find her very helpful, too. Ph. (415) 444-7426, FAX (415) 444-7483.


Postscript

Bernie and Kathleen's children (11) have always played a major role in the family winery. When it was decided to build a little winery in 1968, sons John and Jim converted an old barn into the first Fetzer plant. When at age 61, Barney died unexpectedly, ten of the children joined their mother to keep the show on the road. Equally responsible for the Fetzer phenom are Paul Dolan and Dennis Martin. Barney hired Paul as head winemaker in 1977. Paul hired Dennis as his assistant in 1985. Since then they've turned out nearly half a billion bottles...but we'll do the Paul and Dennis story later.

 
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

 
 


This page created April 2000

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