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Fetzer and Bonterra: Where do they go?


It was with sadness I read that Brown-Forman is selling Fetzer and Bonterra, in addition to the rest of their wine business. The Wall Street Journal said the reason for the sale was “sluggish sales for several years.

I’m not surprised that any winery has experienced sluggish sales over the last few years. Even well run ones are having difficulties, and Fetzer and Bonterra (with all due respect to everybody who works there) were not particularly well run, in my opinion.

I say that because, as a wine writer in this business for a long time, I always have my ear to the ground, and you can sense when a winery is limping along, if not on life support. It’s like they say about sharks: they can smell blood miles away, or hear the flopping of an injured fish (or human) from an equally far distance. You get an instinct about these things, and my instinct has been telling me for years that these two wine companies, which were really joined at the hip (I always thought of Bonterra as the greener, more biodynamic little sister to Fetzer), were in trouble.

Fetzer, whose founding dates to 1968, got off to a good critical start with a series of well-regarded red and white wines. Keep in mind that this was the same era when the boutique wineries–Stag’s Leap, Spring Mountain, Sterling, Cuvaison, Diamond Creek–were being born. Fetzer never seemed interested in achieving that level of authority. Their co-development of “fighting varieties” (along with Glen Ellen and, to some extent, Kendall-Jackson) made the Fetzer family rich, but they lost momentum, as cheap wine seemed all they were interested in, or maybe they were interested in other things but couldn’t figure out how to make them happen. Anyway, the family sold to Brown-Forman in 1992, each of them going his separate way under non-compete clauses. (Several of the Fetzers now are making their own wines.) After that, Fetzer wines pretty much fell off the critical radar. I’ve reviewed them from time to time, but honestly, while they can be Best Buys, there’s nothing particularly exciting about them.

Bonterra was a more interesting place. I remember being toured at their lovely site years ago by the charismatic Paul Dolan, who even then was so excited about their biodynamic approach. I always found Bonterra’s varietal wines exceedingly pure, which I figured was because of the biodynamism, but the wines have seemed to decline in quality in recent years, going from “interesting” to merely “okay.” The best I could muster for The McNab, their $36 red blend, was 87 points for the 2006.

I guess what I’m saying is that both Fetzer and Bonterra represent, for me, missed opportunities. Look what Jess Jackson did with the humble beginning of Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. On the other hand, Glen Ellen nosedived after they hit the jackpot with fighting varieties, as the Benziger family sold it off (it’s now owned by The Wine Group and is basically a jug brand) and went on to Benziger Family and Imagery, two fine wineries.

Maybe there’s just not life after fighting varieties. I mean, once a brand gets identified in the public’s mind with plonk, it’s awfully hard to upgrade your image. (I still say Jess Jackson wrote the book on how to accomplish the magic trick of successfully making that transition.) Possibly if the Fetzers had held onto the winery, they might privately have done some reserve-style wines, or created new brands to distance them from the inexpensive stuff. We’ll never know, because they didn’t.

As for Bonterra, that’s a sadder story. Why didn’t Bonterra make it? To some extent, it simply had the wrong address: Mendocino, Lake and North Coast, not Napa Valley or Sonoma. Yes, sadly, consumers look at such things, even if some of us understand it’s not that important. And to some extent, I think Bonterra over-played the biodynamic card, from a P.R. point of view. We all admire and respect biodynamic wineries, but the fact that a winery is biodynamic is way, way down the list of “Top Ten Reasons to Buy a Wine,” except for some of my Berkeley neighbors; and there aren’t enough of them to sustain a winery. Bonterra’s wines were (and are) decent and likeable, but there was never any compelling reason to buy them. Brown Forman never developed a narrative.

I don’t know who will buy Fetzer and Bonterra, or if they’ll be sold as a package or separately. It’s probably too late for Fetzer to be anything other than what it is–and there’s nothing wrong with that–but I think Bonterra could make a comeback. The new ownership would have to boost quality, tweak the McNab to make it more serious, and it wouldn’t hurt to produce some single-vineyard wines, at higher price points if necessary, to prove their bona fides. They’d also have to pump some cash into marketing and advertising, but these days, who doesn’t?

  1. Steve, have you ever had Bonterra’s Mc Nab Cab?
    Their website says it is biodynamic, but it rocks anyway!

  2. Don’t they go where all wineries go when they become”brands?” Once the heart and soul of the winery has been sold to a large corporate entity, it usually becomes part of the company’s bottom line, just another cog in the machine. My experience has been that whatever made that wine, the winery and the winemaker something special is soon gone once the “circle of trust” has been broken. Sure, the winemaker may stay on for a while, as part of a contractual agreement, but now the overseers and the bean counters enter into decisions that were once the exclusive domain of the winemaker.

    It’s rare when a “brand” can be revived and brought back to something special — Concannon comes to mind, as one of the “old school OG” California name wineries that has been nothing more than a brand for pedestrian wine (at best) for a number of years. Although there have been flickers recently in a revival of Concannon wines, it still remains to be seen whether something special can be revived there.

    The Fetzer brand is probably too far gone to the territory of bottom-shelf grocery store shelves to be extraordinary again. I think you’re right in your analysis of Bonterra — they don’t have as far to go to come back; the question is whether they have the will to do so.

  3. John Roberts says:

    Biodynamic is over-estimated. Any value hinging on prescribed wine growing methodologies is where a lot of winieries are going to fail, whether it’s crop thinning, early picking, or organic growing. I for one will steer clear of a biodynamic wine because and NOT in-spite of it’s being biodynamic, if that is the only thing it’s got going for it, if that is all the owner can say of his product. Any grower can go through the predicable motions of growing organically or biodynamically and this does not move me. I drink Frog’s Leap because it is tasty and I respect the family and what they do. I’m not sure I’ve tried Bonterra, but I wouldn’t try it because of how it’s made. I like the wine first, then if I’m told they harvested according to the moon and buried cow horns and all the hockus pockus involved in biodynamism, then I can say I am impressed. But I must say, those that buy because of the biodynamism, these are not people that appreciate wine first, they are people than appreciate certain techniques first. Unproven techniques at that. There is a difference between growing wine in the most human and sacred of ways, and prescribing to this well-structured and delineated edict of biodynamic.

    Saracina is a great example of what could have been a part of the Fetzer empire. It they market to wine geeks, Mendocino wine can be successful – look at Goldeneye, Copain, Navarro, etc. When families sell out, as is sometimes unavoidable and usually advantageous, the buyers almost never maintain what previously existed. Of course, isn’t the entire fighting varietal category hurting right now? I predict (and secretly hope) Sanford fails, simply due to what happened to the Sanfords.

  4. Sherman – Agreed!

    I think the failures of Fetzer/Bonterra brands have more to do with the ‘bean counters’ and their economic model than they do about some indictment on Organics/Biodynamics.

    Certainly, it doesn’t take an economics expert to realize that there was ALWAYS going to be failures from the mass brand acquisition craze of the late 90’s early 00’s. There are issues with Constellation, Segrams, LVMH, Fosters, etc, etc, etc. The wine industry is littered with corpses of bought and sold brands.

    To try and spin this in any other direction is ridiculous.

    Kudos to the Fetzer family for getting out when the getting was good and building a new wine empire.

  5. I think this is just the beginning of a lot of consolidation, it seems that there are a lot of CA wineries that are fighting for that 6.99 to 9.99 market and they are all the same taste and varieties. Now you have the premium box wines fighting for the same space and everyone is squeezed. Seems like Bogle is only winery that I think is making a good market in that space.

  6. It brings the question: what is the heart and soul of a winery? And why does it appear to get lost once in the hands of corporate vintners?

    The McNab Ranch started out just as that: the McNab Ranch. Then Jim Fetzer turned it into Ceago Vinegarden and I remember tasting terrific vineyard designated wines from that ranch when I’d attend their Biodynamic conferences. When it finally became the flagship site for Bonterra I think it got lost within the bigger brand which was making wines from all over the place. Maybe what we’re seeing is in part the result of Dilution?

  7. John Hancock says:

    Steve, to me the brand was never the same. In a way, yeah it was good that the family got out, and were able to be unique in their own way, but it also broke the family bond up. They also never gave the upcoming generations a chance with it. BF ran the tires and rims off of Fetzer several years ago, and it has definitely has affected the local area.

    In the end, if you can pay the bills, do what you love…that’s the ticket. Watch out for that third generation though, they will be nipping at the heals of the industry in 2011. Stubborn Germans!

  8. John, I’m watching as much as I can to see what the third Gen of Fetzers is up to. It’s hard keeping up with everything!

  9. Ron Saikowski says:

    Good job of outlining one of many areas of declining wineries. Big news, but what about the almost 200 wineries gone broke in the Loirne River valley within ten miles of the Atlantic. Even bigger news. France is in a huge decline of wineries and wine culture. With Muslims being the dominant religious group in France, expect huge problems. California wineries are being hit hard, but France is getting ravaged, except for those French wines with sales in China!

  10. Ron, I seriously doubt that Muslims are the dominant religious group in France. France has been prodominantly Roman Catholic for many centuries. Sharia is not about to take over in France, or anywhere in Europe, or in America, despite the scare tactics used by some ultra-conservative elements on the right.

  11. Jim Selfridge says:

    Classic Brown Forman to pump up volume, then run the brand into the ground. When they’ve wrung the profit out, dispose, a la California Coolers and Bolla.

  12. Bonterra has made some simple, but good wines at reasonable prices. Although their Zinfandel finished fifth in our Zinfanatic Mendocino County Zinfandel tasting, it was a solid wine. Here’s hoping that the new owners make a good effort to maintain and improve the brand.


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