A pioneer turns 30
‘Fess would be so tickled with everything that’s transpired,” says Ashley Parker Snider. The daughter of late TV icon Fess Parker was part of the launch of his eponymous wine brand in 1989, when Santa Barbara County’s viticultural industry was still in its infancy. The family business, which has blossomed into a third-generation hospitality powerhouse, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
“The original motivation for buying the ranch (in 1987) was the fact it was a gorgeous piece of property, and its proximity to Santa Barbara,” says Mr. Parker’s only daughter, referring to the 714-acre estate along Foxen Canyon Road. Early on, “he said, ‘Let’s plant a little vineyard,'” she recalls. “So it started out very organically.”
Today, Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard produces close to 70,000 cases of wine a year through various labels, including the flagship Fess Parker brand that specializes in premium pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, viognier and Riesling. The wines are the star attraction at the estate’s tasting room and visitor center, which are open daily; sprawling picnic grounds help make it one of the most visited wineries in Santa Barbara County. The property has 110 acres of planted wine grapes, and the estate vineyard, Rodney’s, a clay loam plot at an elevation of 1,200 feet, is named after Fess Parker’s late son-in-law.
What’s an industry success story today “was a dud” in the beginning, according to Ms. Parker. The label was simply dubbed “Parker” at first, “because we didn’t want to really trade on the name. We wanted the wines to stand on their own.” Fess Parker, after all, had long been a household name. The Texas native and World War II Navy veteran who’d moved to California to study drama at USC became a TV star in the 1950s and 1960s, portraying American heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. With the roaring success of his character portrayals, as well as several other projects produced by Disney, Paramount and Warner Bros. during television’s formative years, Fess Parker became one of Hollywood’s original celebrities.
With lackluster sales at first, the Parker-only appellation “was a fun experiment for a first vintage,” Fess Parker told his kids, Ashley and son Eli, who were marketing the wines. “‘It’s going to be ‘Fess Parker’ going forward,’ he said,” recalls Ms. Parker, “and he was right. Sometimes, when you’re starting a wine business, you need a little cachet.”
Riesling was the first grape variety planted at the Fess Parker ranch, and the label’s first decade was defined by aggressive experimentation with myriad grapes, and with both hits and misses.
“When Tim came on board, we were making, like, 15 varieties,” says Ms. Parker, referencing her husband, Tim Snider, a Sonoma County native who left E. & J. Gallo Winery for Fess Parker in 1999 and was named the winery’s president the following year. “Tim really provided a level of knowledge and focus and direction for us that have made the last 20 years possible.”
The Fess Parker label sources syrah and viognier, mainly, from its estate Rodney’s Vineyard and has long-term lease contracts with vineyards like Bien Nacido and, more recently, Sanford & Benedict and Fiddlestix for its award-winning pinot noir and chardonnay programs. The brand still sources grapes from Rancho Las Hermanas, vintner Bill Foley’s vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills that was originally developed by Fess and Eli Parker and dubbed Ashley’s Vineyard. (Camp 4 Vineyard, also launched by the father-son Parker team, was sold to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in 2010, the year Fess Parker passed away.)
Head winemaker Blair Fox agrees that, since about 2000, “we’ve become much more focused and quality-oriented.” The UC Davis alum and former Sunstone winemaker leads a winery team of 14, most of whom he’s personally trained, and employs what could be called an Old World winemaking style. “Hand-stirring everything, basket pressing, the very best barrel cooperage, the best fruit sourcing,” he says. “I’ve always been a hands-on winemaker. I have small winery mentality as far as winemaking is concerned, and I’ve always liked a delicate touch.” That touch helped Mr. Fox earn the prestigious André Tchelistcheff Winemaker of the Year Award in 2008, two years after Eli Parker won the same honor, and has made the Fess Parker wines among the most award-winning in Santa Barbara County.
The Parker family enterprise also includes the Epiphany label, launched by Eli Parker in 2000 to focus on Rhone varieties and blends; it runs its own tasting room in Los Olivos. The family’s Bubble Shack opened in Los Olivos in 2015 to promote a growing line of locally produced sparkling wine. And Addendum is a new small-lot project that sources cabernet sauvignon from throughout Napa Valley; grapes are harvested, loaded onto temperature-controlled trucks and transported to the Parker winery.
Fess Parker’s foray into wine was an extension of his penchant for thoughtful real estate development, which had started two years earlier with the opening of a 23-acre resort along Cabrillo Boulevard in Santa Barbara. After he’d left Tinseltown in the 1970s, Mr. Parker and his wife, Marcella, became Santa Barbara residents, and the hotel project in 1986 marked the onset of a partnership with Hilton hotels that remains to this day. The Parker family is 50-50 owners of the property with Hilton, which manages it and just last year rebranded from it a Doubletree to the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.
Mr. Parker purchased the luxury 19-room Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa in 1998, which quickly became one of the county’s premier boutique stays. Today, the downtown Los Olivos property is also a foodie haven, thanks to the stellar success of The Bear & Star restaurant. With Chef John Cox at the helm, the popularity of the upscale ranch-inspired eatery hinges on its ingenious, sustainably inspired dining concept. Most every item on the menu is raised, grown or harvested on the Parker family’s 714-acre ranch, less than seven miles away.
The focus on hospitality throughout the brands is an extension of Fess Parker’s personality. He was known for daily strolls through his tasting room, engaging guests, telling stories and signing autographs. “That personal touch is something that persists in the DNA of everything we do,” says Mr. Snider. “Our goal is that people can feel that — that they see that the family’s involved, the family cares, and the family takes personal pride in all of it.”
In fact, a third generation of Parkers is already intricately involved in the business. Of Ms. Parker’s three children, son Spencer Shull, a Denver resident, manages sales and pours at trade events across the country, and daughter Greer Shull helps manage the company’s digital marketing and social media.
“I have tons of early memories of running around on the grass at the winery while my grandpa, parents and uncle greeted guests and poured wine during events,” says Ms. Shull, 24. “My grandpa was such an amazing people person and had a really unique ability to make people feel like they were part of the family. Now that I’ve joined the business, I hope I can help continue that.”
Ms. Parker’s youngest, Henry Shull, is 20.
Eli Parker’s children that continue the family business include Katie, who raises the family’s 100-plus Wagyu cattle and leads trail rides across the ranch through her company, KAP Land and Cattle; Amanda, who oversees catering and special events at the Inn; and Kris, who’s expanding the family footprint into beer with his Third Window Brewing Co.
Several special events are celebrating Fess Parker Winery’s 30th anniversary, including the limited release of only 500 magnum bottles of a commemorative sparkling wine, which will be sold through the tasting room beginning next week. Open That Bottle Night takes place Feb. 23 at the winery’s barrel room and includes a gourmet dinner with dedicated sommeliers at each table and an array of library wines; tickets are $125 at fessparker.com. And World of Pinot Noir, an annual gathering of the world’s top pinot producers at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Goleta, will feature a “30 Years of Fess Parker” retrospective dinner on March 1; tickets are selling for $165 at wopn.com.