Beverage Industry

High-tech organics

March 1, 2004

High-tech organics

By SARAH THEODORE
Fetzer's natural approach is also quite scientific
In the beverage industry, wine is one of the only products for which one company is responsible for growing, processing and bottling. Fetzer Vineyards prefers to have even more control over the process, and winemakers even have access to their own barrel-making and cork-printing operations.
Fetzer branded wines are produced at the company's winery in Hopland, Calif. The company produces about 3.8 million cases per year of nearly every kind of wine, but is especially strong in chardonnay and merlot.
While Fetzer has chosen to take an organic approach to grape growing, that doesn't mean just letting things happen as they will. There is a great deal of science that goes into every bottle of Fetzer wines.
"It's assumed that organic farming is all about not using chemicals, and it is about that, but it's really more about healthy soil and creating a healthy environment for the vine to thrive," says Fetzer President Paul Dolan. "If you have healthy soil, you'll have a healthy vine, healthy fruit and better quality wines.
"We have to be much more attentive and spend more time in our vineyards," he continues. "You can't be an absentee farmer, so to speak. You need to be out there every day in every corner because when an infestation or an insect shows up, there are benign things you can do that need to be done quickly and at a certain stage."
Fetzer uses a number of cover crops and non-grape plantings to attract birds and beneficial insects to the vineyards to feed on insects that damage grapes, and improve the health of the soil. By providing a variety of plants and other elements, Fetzer increases the diversity of microorganisms in the soil, which gives the plants more access to more minerals.
"We believe that diversity creates a more natural expression for the vine," Dolan says. "We allow the vine roots to go down and extract what they think is appropriate rather than what's fed to them. We think it's a truer expression of the terrior in that particular soil, location and climate."
That diversity also helps protect plants against infestation, says Bob Blue, winemaker at Fetzer's Bonterra ranch.
"We know that in nature, the best systems are more complex because they have more stability. The more diversity you have, the less insect pressure you have. You have [insects], but they don't cause the same problems," he says. "The opportunist doesn't have a chance to come in and kill the plant because it's fighting for nutrients along with the other plants.
"The people who do the farming are the next level of farmers. They are educated and intuitive, and they can use all sorts of strategies that are pretty powerful. In some ways, it's kind of high tech," he says. "It's not farming by neglect or hippie farming. It's very proactive."
Winemaking: a creative process
Once the grapes are grown and harvested, Fetzer's winemakers take over. The company has seven winemakers who oversee specific brands and are responsible for developing each wine variety.
At harvest time, truckloads of grapes arrive at the Hopland winery and are emptied into large presses. Red wines are crushed — skins, seeds and all — because they help deliver the desired color and tannins. White grapes, on the other hand, are pressed more gently to remove the juice from the skins and the seeds, which would make the wine too bitter.
From the crushing stations, the crushed grapes and juice are put in fermentation tanks. Depending on the type of fermentation required, some of the wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks and others in barrels. To allow the winemakers to further control the process, most of the tanks are jacketed for cooling and some for heating.
Just as Fetzer parent company Brown-Forman uses its own barrel-making for whiskey, Fetzer has access to Mendocino Cooperage, an onsite cooperage facility owned by Brown-Forman. Winemakers at Fetzer are able to provide direction on wood selection, aging and toast levels to achieve the results they are looking for.
"We want our winemakers to talk to the barrel-makers and say 'this is the type of barrel Iwant to make this particular kind of wine'," says Hoke Harden, manager of global wine education at Brown-Forman. "We don't want other people to control our destiny so we involve ourselves in making as much as we can every step of the way."
Barrels are stored in one of two barrel warehouses, depending on whether they are red or white. The red barrel warehouse was one of the company's first forays into environmental construction. The structure is similar to a reservoir, with dirt built up along the sides. The environment inside the barrel room, which stores about 48,000 barrels, is humid to protect barrels from evaporation. The red barrel room is not air conditioned, but has night fans that circulate air in the evening, and misters that keep the humidity levels up. Another 12,000 barrels are stored in the white barrel warehouse.
"Barrel storage is a critical element of winemaking for us because it gives the wood flavors and it allows the wine to breathe," says Dolan. "It's important to the development and the aging of the wine."
In the plant
When the wine is done aging and has been blended, it is piped over to the plant for a few finishing touches, and finally, for bottling.
Before filling, the wines are filtered, or polished, to the winemaker's specifications. The wine is held in polishing tanks, which range in size from 350 to 120,000 gallons, depending on the speed of the bottling line and the size of the wine blend to be bottled.
Wine is not released for filling until it is approved by the QA/QC department, and quality control personnel also are responsible for approving all raw materials such as glass, labels and corks.
Glass arrives at the plant in Fetzer-owned trucks, which, not surprisingly given the company's environmental philosophy, run on bio-diesel fuel. To make the most of each trip, the trucks not only deliver finished product, but carry raw materials such as glass on their way back to the plant.
Cases of glass are depalletized and bottles are sent to the filling line while empty cases go to the end of the line to be recased with finished product. The glass goes through a cleaner that rotates the bottles 360 degrees. At 180 degrees, any bits of dust that might be in the bottle are vacuumed out, and then carbon dioxide gas is blown into the bottle to remove oxygen, which could cause the wine to oxidize on the shelf.
The Hopland plant has three bottling lines: a 750-ml. line that runs at 250 bottles per minute, a 1.5-liter line that runs at about 110 bottles per minute, and a third line that is used for smaller runs of specialty products. In all, the three lines turn out about 19,000 cases per day.
Bottles are filled, corked and laser coded, which allows the company to track not only when the wine was made, but where the grapes came from and who was operating the bottling line when it was filled.
Filling levels are monitored by electronic inspection, which removes any bottles that are not filled to the correct height. Once the height has been verified, a wax applicator drops melted wax on top of the cork to seal the bottle. Fetzer imports its corks from Portugal, but has an onsite cork factory that prints its own logos and messages on the corks. The company also has an in-house designer who creates the cork designs.
Once sealed, bottles are then labeled with front, back and flange labels. They are recased and the cases are coded with all of the information relevant to production, as well as any promotions, such as Fetzer's current Olympic sponsorship, or general product information.
Cases are repalletized and stretchwrapped, and are stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse, which holds about 600,000 cases.
Quality control is tightly monitored at the Fetzer plant, and production stations are checked every 30 minutes.
"We are ISO 9001 certified, and we're one of the first wineries to be certified for that," says James Sobbizadeh, who heads production. "From a quality standpoint, everything we touch is going to be done the same way, whether it's 200 cases or 200,000 cases."
Green operations
Fetzer's commitment to the environment extends past organic farming to practically every aspect of its operations. The company developed what it calls the "triple bottom line", which requires that environmental issues be factored into decision-making.
"Everybody here knows what that means. You can ask anybody, they all know something about it," says Patrick Healey, who has overseen development of many of the environmental programs at Fetzer.
From an open office architecture that helps regulate temperature to the use of recycled paint, renewable materials and biodegradable cleaning products, Fetzer has chosen environmentally friendly alternatives, and has reduced waste by 95 percent since 1990.
Healey describes the mission as a work in progress, but says it often is not any more expensive than conventional operations.
"A lot of these things don't add cost. You actually break even," he says. "And you also can feel good about yourself. I think you get better employee retention, too, because
people like working here." BI
The good earth
Just up the road from Fetzer's main Valley Oaks property is the company's Bonterra ranch. Unlike Fetzer branded products, Bonterra, which is derived from French and Italian words for "good earth", uses organics as a brand message. Products feature the words "organically grown grapes" on the front labels.
The 300-acre Bonterra property is located in Mendocino's McNab Valley and is not only farmed organically, but biodynamically. Only subtly different than organic farming, biodynamic farming can be thought of as organic, with a few additional steps.
In biodynamic farming, special preparations are created by making "teas" from things such as fermented plants, nettles, oak bark and cow horn. The "tea" is added to compost material and sprayed on the soil, adding a number of new elements.
Another biodynamic preparation includes the use of ground quartz that is sprayed before flowering and before maturation, creating a prism effect that is thought to aid in sugar ripening and maturation of the flower.
"We use those practices from the standpoint that it helps us expand our understanding of agriculture and what agriculture can be, and to be more holistic in our approach to farming," says Fetzer President Paul Dolan.
The company also is helping expand the understanding of biodynamic farming by taking part in a Washington State University study at Bonterra to examine possible benefits of biodynamic practices.
"There is no evidence to show this stuff works. It's not proven, it's all anecdotal," says Bob Blue, winemaker for Bonterra. "But there are amazing things that happen that we don't understand, and this is one of them."