Fritz Winery

Reaching for Fruit on the Other Side of the Fence

Fritz Winery

Sonoma County may be large, but it has managed to define its winemaking specialties, each of its picturesque valleys having mastered different grape varieties. Cooler Russian River Valley is now known for some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in California. Dry Creek Valley was settled by Italian farmers in the late 1800s, and they soon discovered that the land provided a natural habitat for Zinfandel. Alexander Valley is more diverse but is producing delicious Cabernet Sauvignon with price tags equal to Napa’s. Sonoma Valley has perhaps even more diverse vineyards, with Bordeaux varieties planted in its warmer areas and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir farmed in Carneros, a cooler part of the Sonoma Valley. But having noted these concentrations of particular grape varieties in particular places, consumers make requests, and winemakers happily comply wherever they may be located.

Clay Fritz is now the second generation to manage the wine estate that his father first developed 35 years ago. Located in the Dry Creek Valley, an hour and a half north from San Francisco, Fritz Winery sits on 110 acres with just 20 of them planted to vineyards, the rest being too steep to farm. Fritz vineyards contain the stellar grapes of Dry Creek, particularly Zinfandel but also Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Clay points out that there is as much Cabernet as Zinfandel planted in Dry Creek. While the area has a legendary reputation for Zinfandel, Cabernet has been the premium wine of California, so farmers and winemakers in Dry Creek and everywhere else have squeezed their feet into the glass slipper. Clay insists that Cabernet does quite well in Dry Creek Valley even though it doesn’t have the reputation that it enjoys in Alexander Valley or Napa.

Clay remarks that Dry Creek Valley puts practical restraints on how he can make Cabernet. If he were to age it for two years in new French oak barrels as Napa winemakers do, he would have to charge $100 a bottle, given the price of those barrels. But the reputation that Dry Creek Cabernet has wouldn’t support the price. Instead, Fritz Reserve Cabernet is a delicious wine with a bit of Malbec and Petite Verdot blended into the wine, and it sells for $50 a bottle while his mainline Cabernet is priced at $30. “It’s hard when your neighbor is Napa, and that’s your competition level,” he says.

For about six years, consumers have been wildly enthused with Pinot Noir. While Dry Creek Valley is definitely too hot for the best expression of either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, any winery in Dry Creek that wants to offer those wines to its customers can do so easily by knocking on neighboring doors in the Russian River Valley. Clay Fritz has done exactly that. Not only does he buy Russian River grapes for Fritz Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, but he has created the separate Lost Canyon label for single vineyard, collectable wines from Russian River, priced around $45 per bottle. He has yet another category of wines for his Jenner label that features just Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast vineyards at lower prices from $20 to $25 a bottle. And finally for adventurous wine drinkers, he offers his Vino Valpredo collection, which offers white and red blended wines from Sonoma County grapes. “These labels all have different price points and different customer bases. I’m trying to keep up with the big boys,” he laughs.

“In the old days,” Clay explains, “we owned more vineyards, but when I took over, we concentrated more on the winemaking side and marketing brands than on farming, which was not my forte. I found that it was much more fun to buy small lots from a wide variety of growers rather than be dependent upon one single location.” Yearly case production for Fritz Winery is 15,000, and an additional four thousand cases is allocated to the newer labels. Clay says that they pour only Fritz wines at the winery tasting room. But he has just opened a wine bar in nearby Santa Rosa to showcase the Lost Canyon, Jenner, and Vino Valpredo labels.

“I think of myself as the ballast of the brand,” Clay says. “I’ve got a great winemaker, and he and I go out and search for unique vineyards, and he’ll bring some of them to my attention. I try to channel his creativity into something that people will desire. I talk to people, see what they like, what they want to drink, and if there are changes I can make. It’s like being in front of the house. I’m the person that customers meet first, but there’s somebody working really hard in the kitchen so that when customers sit down, I look like I did a great job opening the restaurant, or in this case a winery.”

In other words, consumers enjoy a variety of wines, so Clay Fritz is expanding somewhat beyond Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Sauvignon Blanc from his base in the Dry Creek Valley, which has defined itself with particular wines. Just sixteen miles long and only two miles wide at it widest point, it follows the Dry Creek, a tributary of the Russian River. The silence is palpable, broken occasionally by a truck, grinding along a country road. Like Clay Fritz, most land owners here run family operations and have followed other generations into their respective businesses as grape growers and winemakers. The occasional new winery is usually developed by a grower, who wants to bottle estate fruit. Unlike Napa, there is no commercial development, no gas stations, restaurants, hotels, or markets. For those services, both residents and visitors go to Healdsburg, which has transformed over the last twenty years from a quiet farming town to a tourist destination.

“The restaurants there are great,” Clay emphasizes. “Artisan farm activity has increased as more restaurants open and increase demand for specialty products. It could be vegetables, or tomatoes, or peppers. Olive trees and stone fruits are traditional in the neighborhood as well. I call it artisan farming when people do small plots. But that’s Sonoma County. The abundance of local foods that it produces is fantastic. You can’t get that quality or variety anywhere else.” Clay Fritz may be looking over his fence in the Dry Creek Valley at neighboring appellations, but his loyalty and dedication to Sonoma County is total. “I’m provincial,” he states proudly.

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Fritz Winery 2008 Syrah, Dry Creek Valley

Winemaker Brad Longton’s Notes

Our 2009 Dry Creek Valley Syrah is a beautiful wine with a rich purple color. It has tantalizing aromas of ripe fig, cherries, and pomegranate with underlying notes of black tea and cinnamon. While lighter in body than the typical Syrah, it has a lovely balance of bright acidity and dusty tannins with a rich mouthfeel, which is complemented by flavors of fig and plum that dance on the palate and follow through to the finish (alcohol 14.3%).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Clay Fritz says that he no longer has access to the grapes from this vineyard. Too bad. This Syrah a beautiful wine with red and black raspberry notes and black and white pepper on the finish. The wine is smooth and features mineral, earthy, and spicy notes on the finish. Like all Fritz wines, the balance between fruit flavors, acid, and tannin is superb. Pair with flavorful dishes from roasted meats to pasta with spicy tomato sauce.

Fritz Winery 2010 Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Russian River Valley

Winemaker Brad Longton’s Notes

The color of sun bleached wheat, this wine bursts with vibrant aromas of white peach, papaya, sweet pea layered with subtle notes of honeycomb, and minerality. Our Russian River Sauvignon Blanc has bright acidity and a rich viscous texture that evolves into flavors of tropical fruits and citrus with herbaceous undertones. The finish is pleasantly light and lingers on the palate (13.8% alcohol).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This is a delicious Sauvignon Blanc. It has a rich mouthfeel and ripe fruit but respects the minerality and grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc. In other words, the wine has layers of flavors, and at a decent 13.8% alcohol, you can enjoy several glasses. Serve with appetizers and with entrées of white meats and seafood.

Winemaker Series

Fritz Winery 2009 Reserve Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley

Winemaker Brad Longton’s Notes

Handcrafted from 30 year-old vines grown on the Estate, this wine is a selection from our best barrels of Zinfandel. A garnet hued wine, our Reserve Zinfandel has stimulating aromas of cranberries and ripe fig that explode from the glass, quickly followed by notes of black cherries and subtle spices. Beautifully balanced with bright acidity and supple, yet sell structured tannins. Look for flavors of black cherries and blackberries with underlying nuances of anise and violets that leads into a finish that lasts pleasantly on the palate (14.5% alcohol).

Anna Maria’s Notes

These days, 14.5% alcohol is low for Zin, which often reaches above 16%. Instead of showing the port-like quality of higher alcohol, this wine is wonderfully balanced with fruit flavors, acid, and tannins and is great with food. Serve with roasted duck a l’orange or roast pork with apples.

Fritz Winery 2009 Pinot Noir, Russian River

Winemaker Brad Longton’s Notes

The fruit for this delightful Pinot Noir comes from a 25 acre vineyard located west of Highway 116 in Sebastopol. Burgundy in color, this wine has intoxicating aromas of black fruit, and it softly opens up, allowing for tobacco. Our Reserve Pinot is rich in texture with perfectly balanced acidity and firm, bold tannins. Once it hits the palate, it expresses flavors of Bing cherry, rhubarb, and savory spices. The wine finishes elegantly with lingering flavors of cherry and cocoa powder.

Anna Maria’s Notes

We often read the word “silky” to describe the texture that tannins contribute to wine. This Fritz 2009 Pinot illustrates the concept. The wine feels silky in the mouth and is accompanied by all those wonderful Pinot Noir flavors that we’ve come to love. Pinot Noir is described as the most versatile red in the world in terms of the food that it can accompany. But I think that it is best served with lighter flavored dishes if you want to experience its full flavor range.

Menu of the Month


Glorious Spring, Soon to Arrive

First Course

Crimini mushroom and parsley soup

Main Course

Grilled or broiled squid with pan roasted potatoes
Baby spinach braised in olive oil and garlic


Sliced orange rounds with red onions & capers, dressed
with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled with salt and chopped parsley


Apple cake

Recipe of the Month

Broiled squid with pan roasted potatoes

This wonderful, rustic dish was adapted from Canal House Cooking Volume No 7. The purpose for threading the squid onto skewers so that they hang like laundry from a line is so that you can easily turn them to the other side for cooking.


2 pounds cleaned squid

Extra virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, halved and sliced lengthwise

2 russet potatoes, peeled and cut crosswise into 1/4 inch slices


Lay the squid in a dish, drizzle with olive oil, and mix together with garlic and salt. Cover and marinate at room temperature for at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours in the refrigerator.

Cover the bottom of a skillet with olive oil, add the onions, and arrange the potatoes on top. Pour ½ cup water over the potatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook until the onions are soft and the potatoes are tender and slightly browned, about 30 or minutes less.

Thread the squid bodies onto metal or wood skewers about an inch from the top and the tentacles similarly through the round body end. Place on the grill or in a pan and insert under the broiler about 5 minutes on each side until opaque and marked by the heat.

Put the onions and potatoes on a serving platter. Slide the squid off the skewers and arrange them on top. Drizzle a little olive oil over the squid, season with salt, garnish with parsley sprigs, and serve with lemon wedges.