California winemakers are serious about sustainability. From installing solar panels to growing organic grapes, incorporating environmental practices into commercial wine making is virtually a given across the Golden State. Still, the industry’s commitment to going green is a relatively recent development. A decade ago, the pool of eco-vineyards was significantly smaller than it is today. Two decades ago, “green wine” was exclusively the stuff of pioneers – Like Fetzer Vineyards.

Fetzer, which today stands as one of the country’s most environmentally responsible winemakers, began its life – appropriately – as a trailblazer. In the late 1950s, Barney and Kathleen Fetzer bought and began to fix up a dilapidated ranch in Redwood Valley, with the hopes of eventually planting vines that would help put Mendocino County on the international wine map.

The release of their first commercial vintage in 1968 coincided almost perfectly with the American wine boom of the 1960s, as American consumers began to look to wine as an important part of dining and recreation. According to A Companion to California Wine by Charles Lewis Sullivan, per capita wine consumption doubled from one gallon to two between 1960 and 1979. Talk about good timing.

Over the next two decades, Fetzer Vineyards grew alongside the California wine business, adding new varietals (Chardonnay and Riesling) to their repertoire and expanding to a second crushing facility dedicated to white wines (another risky move on their part, as white wines were not taken seriously at the time).

And in 1985 — before some of today’s green wineries ever harvested their first grape crop — they began to make the switch toward sustainable agriculture techniques. According to the company’s manager of sustainability, Ann Thrupp, the idea started when Fetzer hired an organic gardener to establish a five-acre, on-site fruit and vegetable garden, which the company originally planned to use for food and wine pairings. The winemakers were so impressed by the quality of the tomatoes, peaches, squash and herb bounty, that they decided to expand the techniques to their grapes.

“They figured if these great flavors were happening in the garden, maybe they would happen with the grapes as well,” Thrupp said. Fetzer’s vineyard went fully sustainable by 1988. Whole Foods, in comparison, was a mere 8 years old.

Today, Fetzer’s green business practices extend far beyond the fields, into almost every corner of their business. The company continues to eschew the use of synthetic pesticides on their 1,800 acres of planted vineyards, and plant cover crops that attract helpful bugs (spiders, ladybugs etc.) to control unwanted pests. And after the harvest, the grape stems and seeds get composted and eventually spread back onto the vines as nutrient-rich fertilizer.

From the bottling plant to the tasting room, Fetzer’s facilities are powered 100 percent by renewable energy, including a massive array of solar panels that generates more than 1 million kilowatt hours of energy each year. Inside the administrative office building, which was constructed in 1996 from sustainable materials (dirt, recycled wood), they have reduced landfill waste by 95 percent since 1990 through company-wide recycling centers, and a commitment to using recycled glass and cardboard in their bottles and packaging boxes. They also use recycled paper goods — everything from letterhead, business cards and press releases to paper towels and toilet paper.

Fetzer’s dedication to conservation extends into the larger natural community as well. They worked with the National Audubon Society to establish a sanctuary for blue heron along the nearby Russian River, continue to participate in annual river cleanups, and are a certified Fish Friendly Farming site.

As for the future, Thrupp said that the company continually looks for ways to expand water (“Water is always an issue in our area,” Thrupp said) and energy conservation, and is planning to launch a community garden for employees next year. “Before, the garden was always just for visitors to look and taste,” she said. “Now employees will actually get to work on their plots and grow food for themselves.”

Not surprisingly, Barney and Kathleen’s eco-winery dynasty spawned a second generation. In 2003 year, Patti Fetzer, the fifth of the Fetzer’s 11 children, launched her own organic vineyard, Patianna. Her vineyard, which produces certified organic and biodynamic Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah wines, is part of the new crop of vineyards that takes its cues from the visionary work of pioneers like Fetzer. Patianna’s Web site includes a motto that Patti’s father liked to repeat: “Many footprints in the vineyard show that the vines are well cared for.” Luckily, the wine world is listening.

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California's Fetzer Vineyards was sustainable before it was cool
Barney and Kathleen Fetzer began to make the switch toward sustainable agriculture techniques at their vineyard in 1985.