I didn’t know Barney Fetzer, a lumber executive turned legendary wine entrepreneur. He had already died when I arrived in Mendocino County 25 years ago. But over the years I have had the privilege of getting to know Barney Fetzer’s wife, Kathleen, and their 11 daughters and sons.
On Friday in Ukiah there was a funeral Mass celebrating Kathleen Kohn Fetzer’s life, and the impacts she had on her family, friends and adopted community. It was a reminder how fortunate Mendocino County is to have this family working the land and reinvesting in a local wine industry it helped push to national prominence. Kathleen Fetzer died last week at age 88.
To be sure wine grapes were being grown in the county long before the rambunctious Fetzer family arrived in Ukiah in the 1950s. The Parduccis, Barras, Grazianos and other longtime families had for decades tended their vineyards and bottled some high quality wines. The first Fetzer wine wasn't bottled until 1968.
Barney Fetzer in the beginning turned to grape grower Charlie Barra and others to teach his sons and daughters the grape-growing business from the ground up, while he focused on the dollars and cents of the new family venture. The family had more brawn than money, and through sweat and tears transformed a brush and weed-infested Redwood Valley spread into a series of vineyards and winery operation that came to symbolize the local wine industry’s future.
Barney Fetzer saw his dream evolve into a successful 200,000 case winery, but he died unexpectedly in 1981 just as Fetzer Vineyards was poised to become an industry leader.
His grief-stricken offspring, with the support of mother Kathleen Kohn Fetzer, seized the moment. Eldest son John stepped into his father’s shoes to head the family company, sharing responsibilities with his brothers and sisters. Brother Jim became company president and with sisters Mary and Patti he launched an attention-getting marketing campaign for Fetzer wines. Other family members shared in company demands. Brother Bobby, who tragically died in 2006 in a rafting accident, oversaw the family’s vineyards and outside grape buying. Brothers Dan, Joe and Richard found their own niches within the company, as did sisters Diana and Teresa. A fifth sister, Kathleen, became an investment adviser.
With the collective push Fetzer Vineyards soon emerged as one of the country’s biggest premium wineries. It was on the cutting edge of sustainable grape and food production, and the company became the first mass marketer of organically produced wines under the now widely recognized Bonterra label. Fetzer’s Valley Oaks Center - recently refurbished by new owners as Campovida - became an iconic Hopland food and wine showcase that catapulted Mendocino County into the forefront of an organic movement sweeping the nation.
In 1992 the family made headlines when it sold Fetzer Vineyards to Brown Forman, the Kentucky-based liquor conglomerate. It was a mega-deal that enriched family members, and set the stage for their later return as individual players in the wine industry. Ceago, Saracina, Jeriko, Masut, Patianna and Oster wines are among the current ventures.
Differences among family members are varied, and sometimes large. While the Fetzers remain a clan, as individuals they are fiercely independent in the pursuit of their own dreams.
But on Friday they gathered together at St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Ukiah to honor their mother, a woman described as "rock solid."
It was a moving tribute to a gracious individual who embodied family and church traditions of a time passed, yet enjoyed the successes and rewards of a way of life earned by her hard-working family.
Kathleen Kohn Fetzer was as much at home in the kitchen where she preferred to entertain visitors with a cup of coffee and fresh baked cookies as she was traveling the world after her husband died. She drove a silver Mercedes in her last years, but she never lost her passion for a glass of gewürztraminer despite disapproving looks from wine snobs.
And while she relished the privacy of her beautifully restored Redwood Valley home, she also enjoyed making public appearances to help promote family wine ventures and her 2005 book, “Kathleen’s Vineyard.”
Its likely Kathleen Kohn Fetzer’s greatest legacy, however, will be her quiet generosity.
The Kathleen Kohn Fetzer Family Foundation was established in 1984 to enhance community life. Grants have benefited numerous causes, including the Mendocino Music Festival, an annual Food Bank fund-raising drive, and educational programs for children at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah.
To honor their parents, Fetzer family members are asking that memorial contributions be made to the Kathleen Kohn Fetzer Family Foundation, P.O. Box 289, Mendocino, 95460.