FOR 13 years, the Fetzer family has been producing soundly made red wines from grapes principally grown in the north coast California counties of Mendocino and Lake. Yet the recent success that Fetzer vineyards has demonstrated with both its red and white varietals, combined with a modest pricing policy and an excellent national distribution network, now make Fetzer vineyards one of the top choices for both the thrifty wine consumer and the wine connoisseur.

Barnard Fetzer and his wife Kathleen began their wine careers rather inauspiciously. Purchasing a 750-acre ranch in Mendocino's Redwood Valley in 1958, the Fetzers began by selling grapes from 70 acres of vines to amateur wine makers. Fetzer, a lumber executive with the Masonite Company, eventually realized that the wine business was his first love, and in 1968 the Fetzer Winery sold its first wines commercially.

Fetzer Vineyards is truly a family operation, with nine of their 11 children actively involved in the winery's operation. The acreage under vine has expanded from the initial 70 acres to over 170 acres in Mendocino County. In addition, Fetzer supplements his own production with significant quantities of grapes purchased from growers in both Mendocino and Lake counties. From a total production of 2,500 cases in 1968, the winery has expanded its capacity to over 200,000 cases.

Fetzer's early reputation was established on the winery's success with red wines, particularly the nonvintage "Premium Red Table Wine" ($2.29), which continues to be one of the best red wine values on the market, and the winery's Mendocino cabernet sauvignons and zinfandels. Fetzer's white wines were a totally different story. Consumers who found the Fetzer line of red wines delicious and reasonably priced were dumbfounded as to why the winery fell on its face when it came to producing white wines. This enigma was resolved in 1978 when Barnard Fetzer appointed John Dolan to make his white wines, with the red wine making capably managed by 31-year-old John Fetzer, the eldest son.

Since 1978, Fetzer's white wines have shown remarkable improvement and, along with the winery's array of fine red wines, represent some of the very best values on the market. The recent results at the Orange County Fair demonstrate just how far Fetzer Vineyards has come. Only one winery, Chateau St. Jean, an expensive boutique winery in Sonoma County, won more awards than Fetzer Vineyards. St. Jean came away with 13 medals, while Fetzer received 11, five of which were for the winery's white wines. If one adds the medals won by Fetzer's secondary label, "Bel Arbres," Fetzer actually won more awards than St. Jean. This achievement is noteworthy to consumers. Fetzer's wines are priced significantly lower than Chateau St. Jean's and have the added virtue of being widely available.

It is extremely rare to be able to endorse an entire line of wine from a particular winery, but with the exception of Fetzer's pinot noirs, an occasional bland chardonnay and the winery's port, the most recent offerings from Fetzer Vineyards are consistently above average to very good in quality. Furthermore, there is not a wine among Fetzer's offerings that carries a retail price of more than $10 per bottle, a rather remarkable phenomenon given the often absurd pricing practices of some California boutique wineries.

Among the red wines, in addition to the soundly made nonvintage premium red table wine ($2.99), frugal shoppers should look for Fetzer's 1979 Lake County zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons ($3.99 to $4.99). Both have enough varietal character to please the traditionalist, as well as a soft, medium-bodied character which makes them ideal everyday-drinking wines.

Moving slightly up in price as well as in quality, Fetzer offers a 1978 Mendocino cabernet sauvignon ($6.99 to $7.99), a 1978 Mendocino zinfandel ($5.49 to $5.99), and a 1977 Mendocino petite sirah ($6.99). All three compete favorably with their more expensive peers, and share in common a deep, balanced fruity character, and an early maturing style that is supple and clean with the authority of the varietal grape clearly in evidence. The petite sirah is the richest and biggest wine of this trio, but retains excellent depth of flavor and concentration without excessive tannin.

Fetzer's most prized and expensive reds are his special reserve petite sirah and his three vineyard-designated zinfandels. These wines are usually among the most intense made in California and, while appealing in their youth, have the best potential for aging of all Fetzer's red wines. Zinfandel enthusiasts no doubt salivate over the prospect of downing a Fetzer zinfandel from one of the Mendocino vineyards designated on the label as "Ricetti," "Lolonis" and "Scharffenberger." All three vineyards produce zinfandels that are big, robust and intensely flavored with plenty of tannin, yet each with a slightly different style. The 1978's from these vineyards, all priced between $7.99 and $9.49 and increasingly hard to find, are high-quality blockbuster zinfandels made in a very full-bodied, aggressive, remarkably concentrated style, which makes them best reserved for after-dinner sipping with an accompaniment of strong cheeses. The 1979 renditions of Ricetti, Lonolis and Scharffenberger, priced between $8.99 and $9.99, are softer and less tannic, but still generous, warm and full-bodied wines which should have wide appeal.

For devotees of the inky black purple, highly concentrated oaky, hippopotamic style of wines, Fetzer produces a limited amount of 1978 Special Reserve petite sirah ($9.99), which has extraordinary concentration and high tannins, making it a good bet for drinking around the year 2000, if not later.

Among the Fetzer white wines are three inexpensive crowd pleasers. The least expensive white wine, the nonvintage white table wine ($2.99), is clean, tart, with good fruit and just a trace of residual sweetness. Fetzer's 1980 chenin blanc ($4.99) and 1980 French colombard ($4.99), are fresh, crisp, clean, fragrant, fruity wines with low alcohol and charming personalities. The chenin blanc is moderately sweet, but balanced nicely by acidity, whereas the French colombard is dry with a pleasing tartness. The chenin blanc was a gold medal winner at the 1981 Orange County Fair.

Fetzer's 1980 gewurztraminer ($6.99), 1980 fume' blanc ($6.99), 1980 johannesberg riesling ($4.99) and 1979 muscat canelli ($8.49), are equally successful although more expensive. The first three of these wines won silver medals at the Orange County Fair. The fume' blanc is the only bone dry-styled wine among this group, and it will especially appeal to wine enthusiasts who have been weaned on the dry, austere white wines from the Graves region of Bordeaux. Both the gewurztraminer and johannesberg riesling are soft, intensely fruity wines, with low alcohol and a moderately sweet style. The muscat canelli is very sweet with luscious fruity flavors and aromas suggesting fresh honeysuckle and tobacco. It deserves a fruit dessert to complement its lush sweetness.

With a successful history behind them and an apparent string of highly admirable wine releases coming on the market, the Fetzer family, with its continued emphasis on moderate prices and high quality, is in a position to capture and keep the fancy of many a wine buyer.

The Fetzer wines are widely available in the local market. Only the vineyard-designated zinfandels are on limited allocations to stores in this area.