Parker, of course, is famous to Baby Boomers as TV’s Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. But he was also a force in wine country, founding The Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country some 30 years ago.
I visited the winery in late 2002 while writing a story about celebrity vintners. I really didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a gracious, silver-haired giant of a man who radiated equal parts charisma, country charm and a sly sense of humor. He was 78 then and full of energy, driving myself and a photographer around the property in a Hummer, occasionally stopping to stride through vineyards, his long legs eating up the yardage. One of our stops was at a local diner where the waitress knew without asking to bring him his usual breakfast, a substantial plate heavy on the pancakes.
Fess was my favorite kind of interview, the subject who has interesting things to say and isn’t shy about saying them. The deep, gravelly drawl didn’t hurt, either. We drove around hills that were just beginning to turn green with winter rains and he talked about everything from his serious pursuit of wine excellence to his days in Hollywood. And he told stories on himself, like the time his wife went to the wine store to fill the cellar in their new Bel Air home and came back with such famous wines as Chateau Lafite from France. His reaction, he said with a twinkle, was a shocked, “How could you spend $6 a bottle for wine?”
Interestingly, the family at first called the winery simply Parker, wanting the wine to speak for itself. But it wasn’t long before Fess convinced them they needed something extra to stand out from the thousands of brands crowding store shelves. “I learned one thing from Walt Disney,” he said, “and that was the value of a trademark. Some people take it the wrong way and say you’re just promoting yourself. But my vision is to have a presence that represents quality.”
After the interview was over, I thanked him, went home and wrote the piece. I didn’t expect to hear from him again but a few days after Thanksgiving a fax came across my office machine _ a handwritten thank you note from Fess. That’s unusual in this business, and very unusual from a celebrity.
So, today lots of people will be remembering Fess Parker in his roles as frontier heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone _ great characters both. But I’ll be thinking of Fess Parker, wine pioneer and gentleman.