- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

LOS OLIVOS, Calif. — Fess Parker, better known to baby boomers as Davy Crockett, likes to tell the story of the critic who passed up the Parker vineyards on a tour of central California wine country.
What, the critic wondered, could an old TV actor know about fine wine?
Plenty, it turns out. Mr. Parker is among the famous faces and names taking root in California's wine country, trading pop culture for viticulture.
Director Francis Ford Coppola is the godfather of the Hollywood-and-vines movement, with nearly 30 years of experience. Comedian Tommy Smothers is making a serious effort in Sonoma County.
Mr. Parker's move to the wine frontier came in the late 1980s. By then, he already had segued from acting to a second career as a developer and hotelier.
He bought land north of Santa Barbara and started making wine that initially was sold as "Parker."
"My children didn't want to call it 'Fess Parker.' They wanted the wine to speak for itself," he says.
Several years later, it had become evident that something more was needed to compete with the hundreds of other California wines. "I said, 'Listen, guys. This is tough. We'd better use whatever we can.'"
Being an outsider may raise eyebrows in rarefied wine circles, but when it comes to getting consumers' attention, "being famous has got to help," says Jim Lapsley, author of "Bottled Poetry," a history of California wine.
"When people buy wine, they're consuming a lot more than just liquid in the bottle. They're consuming extraneous experiences. They're consuming memories. They're consuming status. They're consuming love," he says. "If celebrities already have that built-in emotional connection they'd be absolutely silly not to use it. It's perfectly legitimate."
Other celebrities drawn to the grape life include descendants of the Firestone tire family, who have vineyards near Parker, and race car champion Mario Andretti (Andretti Winery). A handful of other sports stars, politicians and Hollywood figures have wine country connections, some more low-profile than others.
At 78, tall and grandfatherly with a strong face and a shock of silver hair, Mr. Parker bears only a fleeting resemblance to his TV incarnation until he speaks in that deep, reverberating Davy Crockett drawl.
"I can go stand someplace and people might think they recognize me, but they're not sure until I speak. They say, 'Oh, you must be ' and I say, 'I am today.'"
Mr. Parker is well-versed in the double-edged nature of the Crockett legacy. After Walt Disney put him on television as the legendary frontiersman in 1954, the country went wild for all things Crockett, spending millions of dollars on lunch boxes and the like and buying so many coonskin caps, the price of raccoon fur went up.
Almost overnight, Mr. Parker was famous and typecast. His hit TV series as the coonskin-capped Daniel Boone ran from 1964 to 1970.
"I learned one thing from Walt Disney and that is the value of a trademark," he says. "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."
These days, coonskin caps are available in Mr. Parker's winery gift shop, including a cute little number that can be slipped over a bottle top.
The winery's official label is a dignified green-and-gold-script affair, but Frontier Red, a very drinkable blend of Rhone varietals, Bordeaux varietals and zinfandel, carries a picture on its label of the young Parker in all his buckskin glory.
Mr. Parker wines have won more than 30 medals and received high ratings from top critics. Mr. Parker's son, Eli, serves as president and winemaker; daughter Ashley is an executive vice president. Mr. Parker, who occasionally gives guests a tour of the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in his air-conditioned Humvee, is "relegated to finance and PR," he says with a grin.
Mr. Coppola, director of "The Godfather" films and "Apocalypse Now," got into wine when he bought part of Napa Valley's Inglenook property in 1975. He takes second billing on the Niebaum-Coppola Estate Vineyards & Winery, which incorporates the previous owner's name, and didn't do publicity until the wines were established.
"This is a very, very personal endeavor for him and the family," says Niebaum-Coppola winemaker Scott McLeod.
There are easier ways to make money. Capital-intensive and slow to show a profit, "if you want to make $1 million in the wine business, start with $2 million," Mr. McLeod says, quoting an industry axiom.
The Smothers' wine venture began when Dick Smothers bought some property in the Santa Cruz area in the early 1970s. Tommy Smothers later moved the operation to Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.
At first the wine was sold under the Smothers Brothers label, but after a few too many cracks ("It's a nice wine with a funny finish"), Tommy Smothers decided to call his place Remick Ridge Vineyards after his grandfather. Smothers Winery is still on the label, but in fairly small print.
"Wine on a table enhances a meal, enhances friendships, as a good movie or a good song or a good book enhances life," Tommy Smothers says.
Mr. Parker's wine education began in the 1950s, after he and his wife, Marcy, bought a house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. Marcy promptly set about filling the empty wine cellar, returning from the venerable Greenblatt's Delicatessen with about 20 cases of Chateau Lafitte and other noble vintages.
"When I saw the bill I said, 'How could you spend $6 a bottle for wine?'" Mr. Parker recalls with a twinkle.
The Parkers try to keep their prices moderate; Frontier Red can be found for $10 wholesale, and their most expensive wine is a $45 bottle of single-vineyard pinot noir.
Which brings us back to the critic who didn't think he'd find Parker wines to his taste. The winery sent him a few bottles, and a follow-up column soon appeared.
A slow smile spreads over Mr. Parker's face as he gears up for the punch line: "He said, 'I've tried it and I'm happy to say it went very well with crow.'"


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