Patianna Organic Vineyards

Patianna Organic Vineyards: A Way of Life

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

At Patianna Organic Vineyards along Old River Road north of old Hopland biodiversity is apparent at first sight. Chickens scratch between grape vines. Goats nibble in riparian borders. Owl boxes mark remains of pesky rodents. Lush compost piles will enrich the soil. Biodynamic and organic describe Patianna’s operation and lifestyle.

As workers pull off an abundance of lush leaves from shading the copious clusters of tiny Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, Patianna’s proprietor Patti Fetzer and vineyard manager Horacio Ortega show me around the 126-acre property.

The fifth in line of the eleven Fetzer children from Mendocino County’s renowned Fetzer family, she grew up in the vineyard. “I was five when we moved to the family ranch in Redwood Valley,” says Fetzer. “As soon as any of us was tall enough to reach the vines we learned to sucker and thin.” Clearly she hasn’t lost her enthusiasm for the vineyard as she goes from vine to vine looking for possible “shatter” which could affect how the crop ripens. Shatter comes from too much moisture, heat or cold and breaks apart the clusters.

“It looks really good,” she pronounces adding that a little space between the grapes in some of the clusters is not a bad thing. If the weather gets too moist, the grapes can dry off easier and she won’t have to worry about rot.

When she was growing up Fetzer and all her siblings worked with their dad in the creation and success of the Fetzer wine brand. She laughs at a memory of a story her dad liked to tell. “When he told folks he had eleven children and they asked if he had a football team, he said, ‘no, a wine team’.” Everyone found their niche and Patti Fetzer was the artist of the bunch. She designed the labels and was in charge of all package design for the different Fetzer labels as well as point of sale pieces.

After their father Barney’s untimely death in 1981, the Fetzers turned to and became leaders in the organic movement. They purchased the renowned Valley Oaks Ranch and through many educational and consumer events Fetzer Vineyards was synonymous with America’s new found food and wine pairing passion in the 1980s. “We grew the winery from 200,000 to more than two million cases,” she says. The family sold Fetzer to Brown-Forman in 1992. They kept most of the vineyard properties accumulated over the years and farmed them together.In 1998 the Fetzers divided the vineyards among the family members. Patti Fetzer took the property now known as Patianna.

The 126-acre former pear ranch has been farmed organically since 1993. In 2000 the 75 acres of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc vineyards were Demeter certified Biodynamic. Ranch foreman Ortega has tended the grapes on this ranch for more than 25 years. He grew up in Cerro Colorado, Michoacan, Mexico, where his father was a farmer. Ortega helped his father grow guava, mango, watermelon, bananas, cucumbers and tomatoes until he immigrated to the United States in 1984. Ortega and his wife Lorena live on the ranch. They have three children Alejandro [ck], Melissa and Brianna. He became a United States citizen the same year Patianna received its Biodynamic certification.

Ortega stayed on after Patti Fetzer took over the property in 1998 and enthusiastically embraced the Biodynamic practices, which builds upon organic farming in an even more labor intensive and integrated biodiversity.

Acting like a proud papa Ortega points out the healthy growth and vibrant color of the vines. When they were worried about the glassy winged sharpshooter, which is devastating to grape vines, he explains, “we can’t put chemicals because we want to keep the natural habitat, which, next to the Russian River can be a breeding ground for the sharpshooter. So we fenced areas and brought in sheep and goats which graze and eat down the foliage where the sharpshooters like to breed.” The chickens, which spend the night in a coop on wheels that is moved around the vineyard, are also in the vineyard for a purpose, says Ortega. “We had cutworms and now we don’t because they scratch under the vines, keeping bugs, insects and weeds away.” “And they lay the most wonderful eggs with orange yolks,” adds Fetzer. Patianna wines are made by Mike Lee, cofounder and former co-owner of Kenwood Winery in Sonoma Valley. “He bought Sauvignon Blanc grapes from this vineyard since 1996,” says Fetzer. She describes their estate grown wine as “fruit forward with no oak” and Lee as “the Sauvignon Blanc king.” Patianna Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are all stainless fermented. Their Syrah comes from Julie and Joe Golden’s Fairbairn Ranch (formerly a Fetzer property) in Hopland. Next year Patianna will include Zinfandel grown at Venturi Vineyards in Calpella and the Dolan family’s Dark Horse Vineyards just north of Patianna. All Patianna wine is made by Lee at Weibel Winery’s custom crush facility east of Hopland in McDowell Valley.

Stopping to look at the vineyards Ortega says that most of the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc vines are now 30 years old. “Every time we want to replant, Patti says not yet.” Not wanting to tamper with a good product, Fetzer is reluctant to pull up vines that are still producing. At a recent Thirsty Thursday event featuring a tasting of a dozen Sauvignon Blancs at Sip! Mendocino in Hopland, Patianna’s was the favorite of many of the local wine tasting crowd.

The name Patianna comes from Fetzer’s name Patricia Ann, “with a bit of Italian accent on my German heritage,” laughs Fetzer, who is slim with a bouffant halo of big curls and warm outgoingness. Her husband Gregg Hileman, a chef who cooked at Fetzer’s Valley Oaks with John Ash, is Patianna’s general manager. His dad was in the wine packaging business and sold products to Fetzer’s dad in the early days. He grew up in the wine industry and worked for years in wholesale wine sales. He and Fetzer like to travel, which means going on sales trips and hosting tastings for Patianna’s wines. They are building a new home designed in the style of the historic hop kilns across the road from the vineyard.

“It’s nice having a chef in my life,” smiles Fetzer. Hileman cooks at home and for winery events. Some are held at a casual picnic area next to the Russian River. The focal piece on the grounds is a ten-foot carved replica of a wine bottle with the Patianna label, designed by Fetzer, engraved on the sides. It was carved by Mark Colp of Lake County from a 4000-pound redwood log.

Several of Fetzer’s siblings have property adjacent or nearby and gather for family picnics regularly. As we pass a tangle of blackberries laden with what portends to be a bounteous crop, Fetzer, clearly delighted thinks out loud, “Mom taught me how to bake, I can’t wait to make a cobbler for us.” Kathleen Fetzer, the family matriarch at 88, still lives in Ukiah and Redwood Valley.

“I get a lot of pleasure from this lifestyle,” Patti Fetzer says convincingly. “My mother taught us to put things back better than we found them. Mother Nature deserves the same.”

TASTING NOTES: An ultimate summer wine, Patianna Estate Vineyards Mendocino 2007 Sauvignon Blanc is crisp, refreshing and has a sublime affinity with plump Alaskan shrimp (caught by our neighbor) right off the grill.

For more information on Patianna Organic Vineyards contact the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission at or the Mendocino County Promotional Alliance at or

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

Next Week: Coro Mendocino

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