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Creating fine wines

Jan./Feb. 2006 California Country magazine

Fess Parker was catapulted to fame as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone but today, he has inspired new fans with his award-winning fine wines.



A successful frontier for Fess Parker


 

An American icon to many baby boomers who remember sitting in front of their black-and-white televisions wearing coonskin caps, Fess Parker was catapulted to fame with his on-screen portrayals of folk heroes such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

Today, the 81-year-old Parker has inspired an entire new following of fans with his award-winning fine wines grown throughout the beautiful and unique coastal growing regions of Santa Barbara County.

Tucked beneath the rolling hills of Los Olivos, just north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley, the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard is a picturesque attraction for wine lovers everywhere.

"We are fortunate to be in an extraordinary growing region. Many regions in the world grow beautiful fruit spasmodically, and I say spasmodically because, if the weather is fine, they generally get a good vintage, but if it rains at the wrong time or it frosts, it destroys the best of hopes," Parker said.

"Here in this little valley on the Central Coast, we are blessed with a semi-desert situation that has the cold, cool ocean breezes to mitigate the level of heat that we generate. It is with this unique growing region, and a personal dedication to quality, that is our No. 1 goal. If it is not quality, we don't want to do it."

Although Parker is recognized worldwide for his portrayal of American frontiersmen for Walt Disney Studios, he has acted in more than 30 films and television shows, and made at least 25 special television appearances. At the conclusion of his Hollywood career in the early 1970s, he hung up his famous coonskin cap and concentrated on real estate ventures and spending time with his wife, Marcella, and children, Eli and Ashley.

Parker said that at the time he appreciated a good bottle of wine, which he says was really his wife's doing. The idea of operating a family-owned vineyard and winery did not come until 1987, when he and Eli became business partners in Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard.

Fess remembers Eli's response when they first talked about the partnership, "He said, 'I don't want to make the wine; I want to farm.' He didn't know anything about farming, but that is what he wanted to do and that is what he did."

The Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard grows close to 400 acres of winegrapes, planted in vineyards named for Parker family members: Ashley's and Rodney's, as well as the most recent vineyard addition, Camp 4 Vineyard.

Located in Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, Parker's vineyard sites are carefully selected based on temperature, soil type and elevation. Each vineyard specializes in particular grape varietals, including syrah, viognier, chardonnay, grenache, petite sirah, pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris, roussane and mourvedre.

The Santa Barbara County winegrape growing region was given an additional boost with the 2004 film "Sideways," whose wine-aficionado characters touted the many benefits of the pinot noir variety. The movie was partially filmed at the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard.

Growing grapes and marketing wine for nearly 20 years, the Parker family enjoys the many benefits that agriculture provides.

"Whether you are interested in agriculture or not, the bottom line is that the agricultural lifestyle and family involvement is a tremendous experience," Parker said. "It is not easy, but very satisfying and I think that can carry over to the urban life where sometimes families just develop and then disappear.

"Having a family business was the normal thing to do in past centuries. If your dad was a leather worker, probably you worked in leather. There is something to be said for that in terms of relationship and understanding, and history and tradition."

Parker, who as a child spent summers on the farms and ranches of his grandparents in Texas, learned the ways of the land as well as a good work ethic that he maintains and has instilled in his own children and nine grandchildren.

"When I was 6 years old, it was 1930. The Great Depression had just begun and in the summertime in Comanche County, Texas, one of the principal things that people were doing was hoeing Johnson grass out of their peanuts, watermelons and cotton. My grandfather had all three of those and he also raised hogs and some cattle. So it was a busy place," Parker said. "I must say, it wasn't my ambition to have any kind of career in agriculture, but as I got to a point of more maturity, I wanted to go back."

Parker and his family's agricultural venture, which began primitively with a small cellar and used winemaking equipment, has become more than they ever imagined.

Today, their highly rated wine varieties are praised in well regarded wine publications such as The Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate and The Wine Enthusiast. Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard rates among the top wine producers in the country.

Eli, who studied winemaking at University of California, Davis, and under the critically-acclaimed talents of winemaker Jed Steele, says superior wines happen when you start with the best quality fruit.

"From a technical standpoint, you need good grapes. You are never going to make good wine unless you have good fruit. Simply, it is about growing the appropriate varieties in the appropriate locations," Eli Parker said. "It originally started with a shotgun approach--plant everything everywhere and see what works."

For the Parkers, the business of growing wine hasn't always been easy.

"When we first started, (being Fess Parker) was a double-edged sword. Before people ever even tried the wine, there was a bias among the trade, the press and distributors that definitely worked against us," Eli Parker said. "People thought, 'What could this guy (Fess Parker) possibly know about making fine wine?' But the consumer was always willing to give us a chance. The bottom line is you have to deliver a product that the consumer enjoys and you must work at that grassroots level and promote the product."

Fess Parker looks forward to what lies ahead for the family as they continue turning out great tasting wines. "We have got a heck of a foundation under us so if we can continue to build on that as a happy family operation, that is the best experience in the world," he said.

(Christine Souza is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at csouza@cfbf.com.)


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