Signal company

Why Fetzer Vineyards in California is rebranding itself as an organic business

One of California’s most visible wine companies is changing its name to emphasize organic and sustainable agriculture. Starting Tuesday, Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County — the 19th-largest winery in the United States, according to Wine Business Monthly — will be known as Bonterra Organic Estates.

The rebranding shows the power that organic messaging increasingly holds for wine consumers, and it follows a series of moves by other mass-produced wine companies to signal their environmental stewardship. . The country’s largest winery, E. & J. Gallo, for example, recently launched a line of organic wines with its ubiquitous Black Box brand.

These ads represent a dramatic reversal from a decade ago, when mass-market “organic wine” was stigmatized, suggesting off-flavors. “In the past, it was assumed that if you bought organic, you made a bit of a compromise,” said Bonterra CEO Giancarlo Bianchetti. That has changed, he said: “Now organic is more mainstream.”

One analyst, Technavio Research, expects the organic wine category to grow 7% year-over-year in 2022.

Fetzer’s name change is largely symbolic; in practice, not much at Ukiah society will change. The company has been producing wine under the Bonterra label since 1991, as a sub-brand under the larger Fetzer Vineyards umbrella. Essentially, the company is changing its flagship product: now the Fetzer Vineyards label will be a sub-brand under the Bonterra Organic Estates umbrella.

Giancarlo Bianchetti, CEO of Bonterra Organic Estates, formerly known as Fetzer Vineyards.

Courtesy of Kaare Iverson

At present, it is common among smaller and upscale California wineries to promote their use of organic or environmentally friendly farming practices. The natural wine movement has encouraged consumers to ask questions about the environmental impacts of the wines they buy, introducing jargon like “biodynamics” and “sulfur additions” into the vernacular of some wine drinking circles.

But as important as they may seem culturally, these wineries (and their patrons) represent a tiny coalition compared to giants like Gallo and Bonterra. It is the conduct of these big companies, ultimately, that will determine whether most California vineyards are grown with organic materials or synthetic chemicals.

Fetzer Vineyards has been a powerful force in Mendocino County and the entire California wine industry since Barney Fetzer founded it in 1968. Along with his 10 children, Barney Fetzer enjoyed success in the 1970s and 1980s by selling large volumes of affordable wines. In 1992, for $82 million, the family sold the business to Brown Forman Corp., the Kentucky company that owns brands like Jack Daniel’s. Then, in 2011, Brown Forman sold Fetzer to Chilean wine company Viña Concha y Toro SA. The price this time: $238 million.

Concha y Toro was most drawn to Fetzer because of its breadth as a wine sold around the world, Bianchetti said.

“Fetzer’s size and Fetzer’s ability to distribute were of interest to us at that time,” he said. Its organic sub-brand, Bonterra, was intriguing, but that wasn’t what drove the company at the time.

But Bonterra has seen huge growth since then, from annual production of 220,000 cases in 2011 to 550,000 cases now, said Bianchetti, who expects it to reach 600,000 cases soon. It now accounts for 40% of the company’s total volume and has eclipsed the Fetzer label which is at 400,000 cases. (The winery makes brands other than Fetzer and Bonterra, including a bourbon-aged wine called 1000 Stories.)

Fetzer Vineyards of Mendocino County, one of the most powerful wine companies in the United States, is changing its name to Bonterra Organic Estates.

Fetzer Vineyards of Mendocino County, one of the most powerful wine companies in the United States, is changing its name to Bonterra Organic Estates.

Courtesy of Erin Malone

This growth is due to the growing appeal of organic wine in the market, although Bonterra has also benefited from being in a price segment – $10 to $15 per bottle – that is growing faster than the price segment below. $10 in which the Fetzer brand wines fall. Later this year, the company will launch four new, even more expensive Bonterra wines: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir that will sell for between $19 and $21.

Wines made under the Fetzer label are not organic, Bianchetti said, and there are no immediate plans to convert them. He did not explain why. But in general, it costs more to produce organic wine than non-organic wine, which can make it a tough proposition at the $6-8 price tag that most Fetzer Vineyards wines sell for.

By highlighting Bonterra in its name, Bianchetti said he hopes to emphasize that this company was a champion of organic farming for decades, long before it was all the rage among American wine drinkers. “We are not newcomers,” Bianchetti said. “Now is the time to share with the world that we have been doing this for so long.”

The Fetzer family started using organic farming practices in 1987, and the company instituted biodynamics — an even stricter regime that requires farmers to follow the lunar cycle — in 2000. Last year, it got the even stricter regenerative organic certification status for the 960 acres. of vineyards he owns in Mendocino County.

Obtaining these certifications can be a logistical challenge, requiring re-inspections every year. Each certification has its own requirements. To label a wine “organic,” the grapes must come entirely from a vineyard certified as organic by an agency accredited by the United States Department of Agriculture, such as California Certified Organic Farmers. Beyond aging, there are additional specifications for how the wine is made; winemakers are only allowed to add a limited amount of sulfur dioxide, a preservative.

Since 2015, the estate has been B Corporation certified. Parent company Viña Concha y Toro is the largest winery to hold this distinction in the world, according to Bianchetti.

“We believe we can have an impact,” Bianchetti said. “That’s what we’re trying to achieve – to generate change.”

Esther Mobley is the principal wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @Esther_mobley