The Story of Fritz Underground Winery
A farming community – that’s what wine country is. A collection of families pursuing one of the world’s oldest and most romantic professions, producing unique estate grown wines in small batches, working the fields themselves, passing on their knowledge to the next generation in the hopes that someday they will step back and watch their children take over.
Or at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be….
Recently however that image has become blurry, as more and more small estates are being acquired by the industry giants and private equity firms. With the shifting sands in ownership (some brands change hands multiple times in just a few short years) it can be difficult to determine who is still actually family owned, and who is part of a larger portfolio… as some brands still like to tell that story despite not having been an independent entity for some time. That being said… the family owned estate, while not as prevalent as it was a decade ago, is still alive and well. There is perhaps no better example of that, than Fritz Underground Winery.
Tucked neatly into the rolling hills of Dry Creek Valley is a one of a kind subterranean winery that was way ahead of its time. The 127 acre idyllic hillside estate was originally purchased by bay area business executive Jay Arthur Fritz and his wife Barbara in 1970 as a vacation home for their family. While there were some vines on property (mainly consisting of once prolific California varietals like Alicante Bouschet and Burger), winemaking was initially not on the radar. However, Fritz being an enterprising and visionary captain of industry, it wasn’t long before he started to realize the estates tremendous potential as a winery. There was a natural spring on site to provide a reliable, sustainable source for irrigation, the towering Sequoia trees on the estate leant to a unique micro climate, and the soil was perfect for producing ultra-premium fruit.
Still, it wasn’t without its challenges. Two in particular. First, the estate was located on a slope, and building a winery would mean ripping up vines and excavating prime vineyard real estate. Second, 1973 was the beginning of the infamous Oil Embargo and energy crisis, making consumption and sustainability a prime concern. It wasn’t long before a solution to both of these problems was realized…
Don’t build up. Build in.
Jay conceived of a completely subterranean winery built directly into the hillside. This had several advantages. It would have minimal impact on the plantable acreage. It would also – perhaps most importantly – provide a naturally cool environment ideal for winemaking and barrel storage, drastically reducing both energy consumption and carbon footprint, an extremely forward thinking idea at the time. That commitment to sustainability would become a hallmark value for the Fritz family, and is still very much alive today as Fritz Family Winery continues to utilize the natural cooling properties of the cave to keep energy consumption at a minimum.
Finally, it would allow for a very specific type of winemaking: gravity flow. Gravity flow (or gravity fed) winemaking uses multiple levels in a winery to allow the juice to flow naturally from press, to tank to barrel, essentially eliminating the need for energy draining pumps or mechanical force. Allowing color, flavor and tannin to be more gently extracted.
Committed to radical sustainability, tradition, and high quality estate grown wines the two story Fritz Underground winery was born. Its first vintage was 1979, with the cave being constructed in 1985 to allow more focus on oak finished fine wine production. In the beginning, Jay would drive to local restaurants and retailers himself, knocking on doors and breaking bread with chefs and owners to get Fritz wines out into the world.
In 1988, after over twenty years with the company, Jay Arthur Fritz retired from his position as Chairman of Fritz Companies – an international transportation firm his father had started and he had joined in 1966 after graduating from law school. Under his leadership, Fritz companies had grown to become the leading firm of its type in the world, with over 50 offices and 2,000 employees. But, as is often the case, the call of being a vigneron was simply too strong to ignore. Under Jay’s stewardship Fritz continued to add more offerings to the award winning lineup of estate grown wines, including Russian River Pinot Noir which he began producing in the mid 1990s.
In 2001, Jay’s son Clay joined the family business. A graduate of College of the Holy Cross in Worcester (pronounced “Wooster”… or “Woostah” if you’re a local) Massachusetts, Clay had spent his post college years working in the tech sector, and although he had spent many a harvest on the family crushpad at that point, he hadn’t really given much thought to returning to his family’s estate. However, the dot com bubble burst and ensuing recession of the late 90s/early 2000s had clay reevaluating his priorities. After rejoining his father, slowly but surely Clay began to take over the day to day activities of running the winery.
In 2002 Clay married the love of his life Natalia, who had actually been in boarding school with Clay’s sister Jenner. They finally met when Natalia was a bridesmaid in Jenner’s wedding and… as it is often said… the rest is history. Natalia was no stranger to agriculture as she hails from a long line of farmers in Bakersfield CA. However, Natalia had also worked for the iconic luxury hotel company Four Seasons, and brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the front of house operations of the winery. Her passion for hospitality, cooking, gardening, and the wine country lifestyle would prove to be an invaluable asset to the estate.
It wasn’t long before the third generation would join the Fritz team. Cannon was born in 2004, with Bianca coming in 2006 and finally Leo in 2009. With Clay and Natalia having taken over the reins at Fritz Winery, Jay and Barbara were free to enjoy their later years and occasionally (regularly) spoil their grandchildren.
The next generation taking a break from harvest work.
Today the kids are eager harvest helpers, but Natalia and Clay say Bianca is the front runner for the next in line to take over.
“She’s our worker”, says mom.
Stop by the winery today and you’ll see a story play out in front of you. It’s not the most flashy tale. There aren’t grandiose pillars or marble floors flown in from the far away parts of the world. You’ll find no $300 Cabernet on the list. Absent are the dramatic embellishments one usually finds at wineries these days. What you will find is a breathtaking estate, alive with wildflowers and busy bees. You will find the natural spring that still bubbles and keeps the vines hydrated. You will find the cool, wet caves filled with the sweet scent of oak and grapes. You will still find the towering sequoias that first drew Jay Arthur Fritz to acquire this piece of land 46 years ago. You will of course still find the award winning estate grown Fritz wines. But most importantly, you will find Clay and Natalia, and Cannon, Bianca and Leo.
It’s a family’s story. It’s a wine country story.
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