Published in California Wine and Food, Summer 2004
Fetzer’s Five Rivers Ranch leads California toward sustainable vineyards.
By Mark Storer
Steve Peck stands atop a hill, soaking in a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside with a smile on his face. He might well smile as he surveys the 460 acres of vineyards on the 640 acre ranch in Paso Robles. The ranch is Fetzer vineyards’ first physical move which brings them south of their Mendocino County home and into Central California wine country. It represents so many things on behalf of one of the best known and one of the bigger brand names in winemaking, but it is first and foremost a testament to a new way of thinking that has already begun to change the planting, harvesting and processing of wine grapes in the world. Fetzer’s Five Rivers Ranch is the largest contiguous vineyard in the world that is certified organic by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).
“We kept looking for bigger plots of land, but this is as big as we could get for now,” says Peck. He is the winemaker for the Five Rivers Ranch facility in Paso Robles. Fetzer has been undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts, and it starts with their commitment to sustainable practices in the vineyard, in the winery and even in the company’s culture.
“Right now, we’re just trying to establish root structure, spur positions and cord on for the vines here. We won’t harvest this year. We’re not farming for the fruit this year.” Fetzer’s establishment of this vineyard in this place is a concrete example of the company’s sustainability-minded culture. By 2010, for example, all vineyards from which Fetzer buys grapes must be certified organic. Currently, not all the vineyards are organic, but most are heading in that direction with fewer, and in some cases, no pesticides or chemicals used in the vineyards.
The result is an interesting blend of circumstances. “As a winemaker, I think of it in pretty plain terms. We can’t add fertilizer to these vines so the crop is a bit more modest,” says Peck, “and the berries are a bit smaller. But we’ll get excellent concentrated fruit that yields some really good wine.” What’s more, the long term sustainability of the vineyard is not in question and the wine is simply more of a pure product.
The newest Fetzer vineyard, planted here in 2001, sits near Highway 46 as it winds east through Paso Robles. It’s near the Tobin James winery and borders on other vineyards, yet it is different from all of its neighbors in so many ways. The parcel is broken up into 77 blocks, rather unusual for a ranch of this size which normally would have fewer blocks and lengthier vine rows.
“You’ll never see these vine rows go down a hill and continue up the other side.” The reason for that, as Peck pointed out, is because in those lower points of the vineyard, the water collects. Vines get much more bushy and greener there whereas the vines at the top of the hills are a bit leaner. The result, of course, is much different fruit characteristics. “This ranch is not only about being organic,” says Peck. “It’s about being a vineyard that is farmed to the highest standards we know and that shows not only out here, but in the culture of what we do.”
Because it takes three years to become certified organic it is acceptable by CCOF standards to develop the vineyard using chemicals and non-organic methods. As long as the first crop, which is harvested in the fourth year, is farmed using organic methods, the vineyard can maintain its certified organic status. “We chose to take the high road, though,” says Peck. “We’re not only going to farm organically but this vineyard is being developed organically.” In other words, you won’t find the use of Round-Up for weed control, nor will you find Methyl-Bromide in the ground, both common practices for fledgling vineyards and farming of many kinds. Instead, special tools that pull weeds out but don’t harm vines as they are dragged along by tractor are used and cover crops are planted that harbor predatory insects like ladybugs and wasps. The combination of these, along with more scientifically complex methods such as weather stations in the vineyard and acreage development that is low impact, produces an organic vineyard.
Back at the winery, a fair distance down and across Highway 46, Peck oversees a facility that is only about half completed, but still can process 10 truckloads of grapes a day and a total of 200 trucks or so throughout harvest. You won’t find a tasting room here, nor a tourist facility. Located where it is, out of the way of major winery tour traffic, Fetzer has decided to concentrate its efforts completely on winemaking and getting those wines to market.
In the winery itself, the storage tanks, each able to hold some 15,300 gallons of wine, go on what seems almost endlessly down the length of the facility. Fetzer has pioneered the use of these giant slope-bottomed tanks that resemble large missile silos on a submarine and provide a real sea-change for winemaking.
“Every year in the industry around the world, there are several lives lost due to sluicing out the tanks,” says Peck. Sluicing is the process of shoveling out the skins, seeds and other sediment from the tanks. At times, workers have been asphyxiated from inhaling too much CO2 when performing this task. These tanks don’t require that. The hatch is opened down at the bottom and with a little help; the tanks are emptied by gravity. “The other benefit, though, is that as the tanks are being slowly emptied, the cap of skins and seeds at the top turns end over end instead of coming straight down,” Peck explains as he demonstrates the tank’s operation. “What we get from that is more juice and specifically, more of that concentrated juice from the very center of the grape itself, which makes for better wine.”
The facility is being built in four phases. “We’re in about phase one and a half right now,” says Peck. Able to hold some 12,000 barrels, all of which are manufactured by Fetzer’s own cooperage at its home in Mendocino County, something most wineries don’t have, the storage facility is 30,000 square feet. Numbers don’t do justice to the description. The place is enormous and could easily be confused with an airline manufacturing hangar, like the ones at Boeing off I-5 near Seattle.
But all of this means nothing if the wine doesn’t measure up. Fetzer has a solid reputation in America as a mid-level, mid-value wine. That has changed, however, and the company is winning more and more accolades, awards and trophies as it produces a truly drinkable and truly affordable wine.
The first wine I tasted from Five Rivers was Syrah, straight out of the barrel. When barrel samples are poured, generally it’s understood that what you taste is going to mature, ripen, get better with age and so you sort of “adjust your palate” accordingly. There was no need to do that here. The wine was, in fact, so good, smooth and rich with deep red cherry and aromatic flavors, that we thieved out more than just a taste. We each took a whole glass and brought it with us to the lunch table. It was truly great stuff. These wines are not from the Fiver Rivers vineyard. These are still from grapes grown in Fetzer contracted vineyards, such as the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara County.
Next, I opened a bottle of a specialty wine that Steve Peck produced here at the winery called Zhone. A blend of 65% Zinfandel, sometimes referred to as the other Rhone because it is not truly a Rhone varietal, and 35% Syrah, a true Rhone, it derives its name from these grapes. Soft and velvety, but bold like good Zin can be, this was a great and unique blend. My wife Susan made some mushrooms stuffed with Asiago cheese, garlic and sausage to go with the Zhone and the result was a perfect match. The appetizer was spicy and hearty, and so was the wine, though just enough to get those ripe berry, red cherry and tannin flavors fully pronounced.
Since we had marinated whole chicken for dinner, we opted to try the Pinot Noir that seems to garner a great deal of attention. As it turns out the attention is well deserved as this is a Pinot with all the stylish smoothness, wispiness and fruit forward flavors that make Central Coast Pinot what it is. Really good wines handcrafted, but on a large scale; more to go around. The cost: Each bottle retails for $12.99 and at this price, they’re a value worth trying.
Fetzer is indeed in the Zhone and while going to great lengths to change not only their own culture, but that of farmers, vineyard managers, winemakers and distributors—indeed the whole wine business, they’ve also managed to craft some remarkably smooth, delicious and affordable wines.