JIM FETZER WANTS TO TAKE the intimidation out of wine buying. “The general consumer is afraid of it and shouldn’t be,” he says, suggesting that the two biggest questions have to do with price and pairing.
He was in the area recently to conduct a seminar on wine and food matching at the Desmond Americana, bringing with him a supply of the Fetzer product along with winemaker Dennis Martin. It was a seminar with a difference, however, because it is designed to teach the teachers – the hotel’s food and beverage staff.
A slide presentation describing the Fetzer operation began the session, offering an armchair tour of the pleasant-looking Mendocino County facility. “We farm about 1400 acres of grapes,” Fetzer explained, “450 of them organically, the largest such area in the world.”
It was an offshoot of a more ambitious gardening project built on a former hops-processing farm. “We bought the Valley Oaks Ranch in 1984 and converted it to a food and wine center. A lot of people laughed when we said we were going to do this, but we see now that we were right on target what with things like tax initiatives and an upcoming pesticide ban. A more organic approach is needed throughout the industry, so we redefined our mission to support a lifestyle of health, moderation and responsibility.”
This emphasis on wine as a food item is one of the most important turns the industry has been taking in recent years. Winemakers are trying to align American attitudes with those of other countries that appreciate wine as an agricultural product and an important accompaniment to a meal.
“Fifty percent of food and wine pairing is subjective,” he said, introducing the next event. “We should know what goes into the objective half by looking at textures, tasting components. The other half of it is sheer pleasure.”
Participants were served a platter of grilled chicken breast pieces with accompanying sauces of tarragon cream, mustard cream, mild salsa and roasted pepper relish. Six wines were poured for the tasting, and, as Martin described some of the processes that go into making the reds and whites that comprised the selection, we were encouraged to try each wine with the various food combinations.
“Notice how the acid in a food will completely wipe out a wine’s acid, sometimes making it seem almost tasteless,” Martin said. “It’s important to be aware of the contrasts and complements involved, because wine and food can do so much to support one another.”
Both Fetzer and Martin were characterized by an outspoken casualness that seems typical of wine-industry people. Fetzer – tanned, thin and looking impressively youthful – spoke with infectious enthusiasm. The stocky, bearded Martin hardly looked the type to fiddle with test tubes and thermometers, but there’s no Central Casting model for winemakers.
All that time in the garden can’t be too unhealthy, and Fetzer described the year-round harvests with the passion of a proselyte. “The garden project is intensive. We have five acres planted with 1300 varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs, growing in harmony as they would in a natural setting.”
Among the items in a recent planting were 102 varieties of melon, 35 varieties of garlic and 64 types of tomato, all overseen by master gardener Michael Maltas, a Zimbabwe native who got his BS from the University of Capetown and managed to win Organic Gardening magazine’s 1985 Gardener of the Year Award for his work on a farm in Missouri.
“Ninety percent of organic farming is cultivating and maintaining healthy soil,” says Fetzer. “We have 10 acres of experimental vineyards in which we’re trying out 18 different kinds of root stock and experimenting to see how we can combat pests using natural means.”
A kitchen at the winery is built in the midst of the garden, overlooking a lake. The cooking area faces the dining room, with overhead mirrors to emphasize the processes. “We’re trying to move into healthier cooking, getting rid of cream sauces in favor of the natural flavorings of herbs.
“We’ve long believed that a premium segment of the wine industry is here in the restaurants, so several years ago we began going out to learn more about what goes on here. We would sit with the food and beverage director and begin talking about things like pH balance and acid and feel them going to sleep. They wanted to know how to sell the wine and what it goes with. That spurred us into developing this program.”
Although it certainly makes no secret of Jim’s pride in the family name, he is teaching skills useful with any good wine, encouraging staff and customers to talk about it as much as possible.
“From the earth to the table, that’s our new theme, to include both wine and food. If we just made wine, it wouldn’t be any fun.”
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 22 October 1990