Fritz Underground Winery
Sonoma County region
Fritz Winery stands as one of today's most innovative Sonoma County wineries
The fact that Fritz Underground Winery is the correct name for this month’s Gold Series selection tells you right off that there is something unique about the Sonoma County business. But, there is a great deal more to the story than an appealing name.
Fritz Underground Winery traces its roots back to 1971, when founders Jay and Barbara Fritz sought a weekend retreat for their growing family. Fritz’s business was international shipping and customs work and was located in San Francisco. He traveled extensively abroad and the thought of a bucolic setting when he returned from those trips seemed attractive. Sonoma County’s famous Dry Creek Valley beckoned and a suitable piece of land was found on which to plant grapes.
Initially, the grapes were sold to other wineries. In 1979, Jay Fritz decided to enter the winery side of the business and Fritz Winery was born with an opening release of somewhere around 3,000 cases. Jay Fritz was also a visionary, one of the more significant to inhabit Sonoma County in quite some time. He envisioned his property as a green space environment before green space became a worldwide crusade. He carefully studied his property then chose an acceptable location on which to build the winery. The spot he chose was directly above what had become Fritz’s prized Zinfandel vineyard, the center piece of his viticultural efforts. First, the location was excavated (two stories worth) with the idea of reusing the dirt after the winery was built. The cool, subterranean excavation became the cellar and aging space for the new winery. The dirt was then moved to the top of the winery, effectively making it an underground winery.
For the outside, Jay Fritz chose the work of 19th Century Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi as his inspiration. Imposing rounded windows dominate the site, offering a marvelous commune with nature and a living testament to the importance of the grape.
Due to its unique nature, Fritz Underground Winery employs a full gravity flow process for its winemaking. Such a process is quite beneficial to the pressed juice and keeps oxidation down to a minimum and helps the aromatic aspects of the wine. The process helps promote fullness in the wines and provides some lingering aspects to their finish.
Today, Fritz Underground Winery produces around 17,000 cases, down from as high a number as 30,000 in its past. Jay and Barbara Fitz’s son Clayton (Clay) has followed his parents into the winery business and runs the day to day business of the winery.
“When I took over the winery from my parents,” he explained, “there were a number of important decisions to be made. We were either going to expand a great deal and become a large winery, or consolidate some areas and make ourselves smaller.” Clay Fritz chose the latter route and slowly decreased production to its present levels. He stated that he now feels comfortable in making superior wines that have “certain handcrafted features that appeal to our customers.”
Considering the fact that Fritz Underground Winery has been around more than three decades, its reemergence and excellent price/value ratio is exceedingly good for the wine industry. Throw in the fact that Fritz Underground Winery has garnered an impressive list of awards and kudos for its portfolio of fine wines, the ultimate winner in all this is the faithful consumer.
We applaud Fritz Underground Winery for its innovative nature and for its long term production of really good wines. Would that there were more wineries around that could follow Fritz’s lead and downsize in order to produce better, less expensive wines. We would all be the better for such actions.
About the Vineyard
Since only twenty of Fritz Winery’s 105-plus acres are planted, it is necessary for the company to buy additional fruit to meet its production needs. These grapes come exclusively from other parts of Sonoma County and include some famous vineyard names. For instance, most of Fritz’s Chardonnay comes from the esteemed Dutton Ranch, one of the finest vineyards in all of California.
Owner Clay Fritz puts it this way. “Why would anyone in their right mind ever look outside Sonoma County for fruit? We have everything here and sufficient soils variation to provide a wide assortment of truly great varietals,” he stated.
The company maintains 3 and 5-year contracts with growers to insure the quality fruit they are seeking for their extensive portfolio of wines.
The Art of Fine Wine
Part of a pastel grouping of Sonoma landscapes, painted by artist Anthony George.
Brad Longton - Winemaker
A number of things about winemaker Brad Longton make him unique among California’s relatively tight brotherhood of winemakers. First of all, he’s Australian. He hails from Perth in Western Australia, and has been in the United States (off and on) for the past two decades. Longton is also a vegetarian, somewhat unusual for a livelihood that often depends on matching wine flavors with specific foods, quite often meat-oriented dishes.
Brad is also a self-taught winemaker, one who has learned on the job through the school of hard knocks and hard work. He is fortunate to have been tutored by one of the true heavyweights in the wine business, namely the iconic Heitz Cellar (and its stellar Martha’s Vineyard) where he worked for more than four years.
Tall and athletic, he also enjoys basketball and his young family. He considers himself to possess a soft hand with his winemaking, a factor that is evident throughout the entire Fritz wine portfolio.
Clayton (Clay) Fritz - Owner
Clay is only 40 years old, but, by his own account, the personable owner of Fritz Underground Winery has already stacked a great deal of living into those four decades. He is of French/Swiss ancestry and his family originally emigrated from Alsace in the 1930’s. When he was called on to run the winery more than ten years ago, he realized the decision would shape the remainder of his life.
‘When I took over the winery from my parents, I knew it would require a great commitment and I was prepared for all eventualities,” he began. ‘Mom and Dad had done a great job up to that point, but I saw that some changes were needed in order for us to go forward. I was given the chance to do things my way, and, fortunately, it has all worked out for the best.” A fourth generation San Franciscan, Clay Fritz graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA with a degree in religion and philosophy.
‘My degree didn’t exactly prepare me for the wine business,” Fritz confessed. ‘But my 30th birthday came and my parents wanted to pass on the winery to someone. That someone turned out to be me. My Dad always said that Fritz Winery should be run by a Fritz and I agreed with his way of thinking.” Clay Fritz’s intention was to reinvigorate the winery and scale it to a position that would invite additional national exposure.
‘We had always been very popular around Sonoma and in California,” he explained further. ‘But, we had never really concentrated on the rest of the country. I wanted to make artisan-style wines that people could easily identify with and then position them at a price level that everyone could afford. That might sound simple to do, but, in truth, it isn’t all that easy to accomplish.” Clay Fritz uses his prized Zinfandel vineyard (now from 15 to 35 years old) to spearhead his efforts. The family’s 20 planted acres is 60 percent Zinfandel. There is also some excellent Sauvignon Blanc that benefits from the property’s bench land soil structure as well as a smaller mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot that is mostly used for blending. He also made an important decision to continue buying fruit from other sources in surrounding Sonoma County.
‘We have had a long time relationship with a number of top growers around here,” Fritz continued. ‘People like the Dutton Family who own some of the best vineyards in Sonoma, if not all of California. I strived to reinforce our relationship with many of these families and was able to begin producing wines with distinctive personalities. This led to more awards and higher scores for the winery that ultimately benefited what we were attempting to achieve.” Fritz is extremely proud of his Estate Reserve Zinfandel that has always been a high-scoring, top-rated consumer favorite. But, he also turns to some of his lesser known wines as his greatest achievements.
‘To me, making a truly hand-crafted wine is a work of art. If you can achieve elegance in the bottle without it costing a fortune, you have something special,” Fritz concluded.
Clay Fritz himself is something special, in a relaxed sort of way. He is a person that has taken what he was given and made the best of it, no matter the circumstances. He is a strong believer in family and the proper way of doing business and this has aided Fritz Underground Winery’s reemergence into the top echelons of California wineries.