I confess that I have had a bias against Fess Parker wines for many years. The winery itself is gorgeous, nestled in the midst of mature vineyards along a picturesque winding road in the Santa Ynez Valley. On one of my early visits to the winery (early 1990s) we met Fess Parker himself, and were pleased to have “Davy Crocket” (or “Daniel Boone” if you prefer) autograph one of his bottles of Pinot Noir for us. It was quaint, though the facade of a skilled Hollywood production was obvious. This guy knew how to market wine… even wine that was quite unremarkable. Over the next few years, the number of tour buses visiting the winery increased, the array of products available in the tasting room eclipsed the varieties of wines, and the wines themselves… well, they remained unremarkable. So I stopped visiting Fess Parker Winery, and probably raised my nose a bit every time I drove by on my way to one of the lesser known wineries up the road.
That was until last week. One of the area’s most interesting new wine makers, Larry Schaffer, met us for a private tasting of his Tercero Wines (see yesterday’s review of his Outlier Gewurtztraminer). I came to find out that Larry is on the wine making staff of Fess Parker Winery. That got my interest. Larry spoke very highly of Blair Fox, the head winemaker at Fess Parker, and gave me a different prespective on the resources that are available to the wine making team as part of a larger enterprise. They have the luxury of selecting only certain barrels to include in their finest wines — a reality not available to the smallest producers. They have the resources to have a wine making staff, not just one winemaker and one palate shaping the wine.
Still, what made me visit Fess Parker Winery again was its accessibility to less well-trained wine consumers… I took my mother-in-law. She likes wine out of a box. White Zinfandel is her wine of choice. She wouldn’t like Tercero’s complex flavors or the big flavors in Beckmen’s juice. Of all the wineries in the valley, the one bearing the mark of the ‘coon skin cap is the one she’ll like the best.
I had set up a private tasting at Fess Parker with Larry Schaffer, assistant winemaker, to guide our experience. The first wine was a Santa Barbara County Chardonnay. I almost skipped the pour. Larry’s expressive face told me to try it. The wine had a clean, elegant aroma that got my attention. THIS is Fess Parker’s wine? I sipped and was instantly humbled. This is a new kind of wine from Fess Parker. Thinking it might be a fluke, I was still reluctant as we continued the tasting. Boy was I wrong. This team of winemakers is doing something really interesting — they are exploiting the resources available to them to create some really fine wine.
We bought two bottles — I’d have bought more if we weren’t restricted by our need to take it home on an airplane. The chardonnay would be a gift for the couple taking care of my mother-in-law’s dog (nice gift!), and I’d keep the wine that changed my mind about this winery — the 2005 Syrah “The Big Easy.” They have captured some of Santa Ynez Valley’s finest Syrah character in that bottle. See some of my impressions in the review below.
Oh, and fortunately I’ve still got that autographed bottle on display in my wine cellar at home.