Dunne on Wine: Fetzer's Sundial Chardonnay upholds varietal's standing

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

The honeymoon is over, but Dennis Martin looks and sounds as if he's never been happier. A year ago, the high-production Chilean winemaker Concha y Toro bought from the Kentucky spirits house Brown-Forman one of California's larger and more enduring wineries, Fetzer Vineyards, with headquarters in Hopland, Mendocino County. Brown-Forman had owned Fetzer since 1992.

For $238 million, Concha y Toro got the brands Fetzer, Bonterra, Sanctuary, Jekel, Five Rivers and Little Black Dress, as well as Dennis Martin, now in his 20th year as Fetzer's director of winemaking. During his tenure, Fetzer's yearly production grew from 2 million cases to 3 million.

Though such corporate transitions are fraught with uncertainty and apprehension, officials of Concha y Toro seem to recognize that they acquired in Martin one of California's more seasoned, studious and amiable winemakers, and are letting him continue to do what he's been doing since joining the company as assistant winemaker in 1985.

Martin is bald, bearded and ruddy, with an attitude quietly assured. His wines are similarly expressive – confident, agile, friendly. They aren't flashy, but they win medals steadily on the competition circuit. Almost without exception, they deliver to consumers varietal clarity at everyday prices.

Over the past two decades, ever since it launched Bonterra in 1990 (a brand devoted to using only organically grown grapes) and built a large administration building in 1996 (constructed of rammed-earth walls and recycled timber), Fetzer has become as recognized for its environmental sensitivity as the value and quality of its wines.

Officials of Concha y Toro are acting as if they plan to continue and to capitalize even more on Fetzer's longtime commitment to the principles of environmentally aware winemaking.

For one, they've restyled the label to remind consumers more forthrightly that Fetzer is "the Earth-friendly winery."

Among other things, the label claims "14% less carbon emissions" but doesn't say less than what. The figure refers to how much Fetzer reduced greenhouse gas emissions by switching to a bottle made with lighter glass.

"By reducing the total glass used by 17 percent in the first year when we converted to lighter weight bottles, the transport costs and other energy impacts for the glass were also reduced, which reduced greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 14 percent in the supply chain in a year," explained Ann Thrupp, manager of sustainability and organic development for Fetzer.

As to wines, Concha y Toro is expanding the Fetzer lineup. To capitalize on the current popularity of muscat-based wines, for one, it has relaunched the winery's entry in the field with the vibrantly sweet and spicy Fetzer Vineyards 2010 Valley Oaks California Moscato. And to capitalize on the growing appeal of Argentina's signature wine, it's introduced the youthful, fresh and light Fetzer Vineyards 2011 Mendoza Malbec, made with juice from the company's Argentine property.

"There is very little inventory of malbec in California to launch a line extension from here," said Martin in explaining the unusual but not unprecedented use of foreign fruit by a California-based winery.

"My role isn't any different, other than I now have the opportunity to work on new projects. That's been fun," Martin said of changes since Concha y Toro took over Fetzer.

One of those new projects involves creation of a high-end "icon" wine, which officials of Concha y Toro are eager to produce, Martin said. As a consequence, he is scouting Napa Valley for a source of grapes that could support a wine that likely would sell for around $100.

"At that level, it has to be from Napa Valley," Martin said of the project, which isn't likely to result in the release of a wine for another three years.

Concha y Toro also has resurrected the proprietary name "Sundial" for the chardonnay that is Fetzer's most celebrated wine. Though Fetzer has been making the chardonnay for three decades, Brown- Forman dropped the Sundial name several years ago.

Officials of Concha y Toro, however, wanted the name revived. "They are very much into heritage," Martin said, noting that Concha y Toro itself dates from 1883.

As much as any wine, Sundial, introduced with the 1981 vintage, is responsible for the standing of chardonnay as California's premier white wine. At first, Sundial was fermented and held only in stainless-steel tanks, with no oak influence.

Over the years, as competing and heftier chardonnays threatened Sundial's standing, Fetzer applied oak and gave it a touch of residual sugar, but it never much deviated from its original style, which is to say a chardonnay lean, crisp, balanced and persistent, its fruit in some years suggesting apples, in others a member of the citrus family.

The Fetzer Vineyards 2011 California Sundial Chardonnay is an especially fragrant representative of the varietal, in part because Martin added about 5 percent riesling to provide a floral note to the smell and to enhance the wine's mouthfeel. Some semillon, viognier, sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer also were added to the chardonnay, which was mostly fermented in stainless-steel tanks to preserve the fresh fruitiness of the grapes, though 15 percent was barrel fermented.

Despite an unusually cool summer and despite early fall rains last year, the grapes that went into Sundial developed well and escaped significant damage. Overall, the wine very much is in the Sundial tradition, emphasizing the directness of the fruit and providing refreshment more than complexity and challenge.

While Martin doesn't anticipate returning to the original unoaked model for Sundial, he is keen to have it express more fruit than wood and hits that goal with the 2011.

The Sundial name stems from the 1,130-acre Sundial Ranch in Mendocino County, which the winery's founders, Barney and Kathleen Fetzer, bought in 1981. Originally, the grapes that went into the wine came from the ranch. Nearly half the grapes that went into the 2011 Sundial, however, were from the Lodi area, with Central Coast and North Coast also contributing to the blend.

Fetzer Vineyards 2011 Sundial Chardonnay

By the numbers: 13 percent alcohol, 600,000 cases, $8.

Context: Since its inception, Sundial has been one versatile chardonnay, as at home with seafood and chicken just off the grill as with lightly seasoned pastas tossed with seasonal vegetables.

Availability: Fetzer's Sundial Chardonnay is stocked by most major supermarket chains.

More information: Visit the website, www.fetzer.com. Fetzer no longer has a tasting room.

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