(Los Angeles Times)
Fess Parker died yesterday at the age of 85. As a memorial tribute, I thought I’d share this article I wrote for the Boston Globe in 1995 about the former actor’s winery. (I’m a firm believer in recycling!)
I haven’t tried the recipe, which came from Parker’s wife Marcella. I think I’ll make it later this week in his memory, however.
After the article came out Parker sent me a couple of bottles of wine. Better yet, he included a black-and-white beefcake poster of himself in his heyday lounging in a bathtub as Davy Crockett.
Unfortunately, my cat Lorelei Lee destroyed the poster by licking it. I guess the handsome Parker was catnip to females of all sorts.
Reading the interview today, I’m impressed with what a convincing actor he was even as a businessman—the presentation of his business as natural, the aw-shucks modesty of his comments about Walt Disney (with whom he had serious disagreements because Disney controlled his contract), the general aura of Americana in which he cloaked himself.
And I recall the charm that moved easily along 3000 miles of telephone lines……
Fess Parker in 1995 (Los Angeles Times)
I’LL FESS UP…. I’ve got a crush on a California vintner who is old enough to be my father, married, and my political opposite.
Fess Parker, who’s in his late 60s, looks darn good. He occasionally dons a coonskin cap like the ones he inspired millions of children to buy when he played television’s Davy Crockett (1954-1955) and Daniel Boone (1964-1970). And his voice retains the Southwestern twang that laced those portrayals with sincerity.
He still waxes homespun like Boone or Crockett. The first thing I said to him was that I knew absolutely nothing about wine. My hero replied, “You know what, Tinky, I love that, because 90 percent of our brothers and sisters in this great nation do not know anything about it, and so your questions will be right on the mark.”
Despite the corniness of the line my cynical heart went pitter-patter.
Parker now serves as spokesman for the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard in the Santa Ynes Valley in Santa Barbara, California. The winery’s first vintage appeared in 1992, and its products have attracted favorable reviews in wine periodicals. Bottles of Fess Parker chardonnay, Riesling, pinot noir, merlot, and syrah—with tiny coonskin caps on their labels—are now available in the Boston area.
Parker is proud of the fact that his is a family enterprise. His son Eli manages the vineyard and serves as winemaker. His daughter Ashley supervises tastings and organizes a popular Fess Parker wine club. And his wife Marcy helps him operate the winery and creates recipes to accompany different wines.
In fact, Parker credits his food-oriented wife with inspiring his interest in wine through an early investment in good French vintages in the 1960s. “We had quite a large wine cellar in our home,” he recalls. “And so she put an awful lot of that wine away. I complained, actually. I said, ‘You’re spending too much.’ I didn’t know that I was going to enjoy fine wine for the next 15 years or so. And so that sort of whetted my taste.”
The Parker spread runs to 714 acres. “In Texas, where I’m from, we’d call that a horse pasture,” laughs Parker. “But here in Southern California to have that many acres and most of them level is quite unique.” He expects to produce about 20,000 cases of wine this year.
Parker’s main job nowadays is selling his wine. He makes numerous public appearances, often wearing his signature fur cap. He would be the first to admit that the coonskins on his head and his label are a marketing ploy, confessing that “the fact that there’s continuing interest in an event that took place 40 years ago is very helpful.”
(Fess Parker Winery)
Nevertheless, at a certain level the politically conservative Parker seems to feel a genuine identification with the pre-industrial heroes he portrayed in film and on television. “I grew up on a farm and ranch part of my life—every summer from the time I was 6 until I was 16, in Texas,” he explains. “You know, we’re not all that far from the agricultural nation that we were.
“When my son and I started the winery in 1989, he didn’t have a clue about farming. But when we started to put the vineyards in, he got right into it. He climbed on the tractor, and he took to farming like he was born to it.”
Parker wears coonskin partly in homage to Walt Disney, who chose the then unknown actor to portray Crockett on Disney’s pioneering television show Disneyland.
“In certain respects,” say Parker, “I would say I was very similar to Mickey Mouse. The difference was, he drew Mickey Mouse. But he personally selected me for Davy Crockett on a hunch. It takes a lot of courage to go with someone who essentially is unknown. A lot of people wouldn’t have given me the opportunity.”
Since his film and TV heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, Parker has continued to take advantage of opportunities offered him. He has parlayed his money, intelligence, and undeniable charm first into a real-estate career; then into ownership of a resort hotel in Santa Barbara (a second waterfront hotel is in the works); and now into the wine business, which he relishes.
“I’m having a great time,” he reports. “I don’t know what my next career is going to be, but for now this one is a dandy.”
Parker, whom I interviewed over the telephone, told me he’d just LOVE to meet me in person. He didn’t offer me a plane ticket, however, so for the moment I’ll content myself with trying his wine—accompanied by one of his wife’s recipes.
Marcy Parker’s Onion Tart
The Parkers use this savory pie as a main dish for a luncheon or a side dish for dinner. It is to be accompanied by the vineyard’s Riesling.
For the filling:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons sugar
9 to 11 sweet (Maui or Vidalia) onions (about 2-1/2 pounds), peeled
1/2 cup Johannesburg Riesling (or other white wine)
1 leek, white part only
1 tablespoon thyme, fresh or dried (more for garnish)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1-1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade or low-salt canned)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Melt the butter in a heavy 10-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet. Sprinkle with sugar and remove from heat. Cut six of the onions in half, fit them snugly into the pan, cut side down, and pour the wine over them. Use more onions if necessary to cover the bottom of the pan.
Cut the leek to the same thickness as the onion, and fit the slices into the spaces in the pan. Sprinkle with half of the thyme, the salt, and the pepper.
Slice the remaining onions 1/4 inch thick and arrange them over the onion mixture in the skillet. Sprinkle with the balance of the thyme, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes.
Reduce the heat to medium, and cook for another 5 minutes, until golden brown. Shake the pan from time to time. Pour the stock and vinegar over the onions and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 to 25 minutes over low heat until tender. Remove the lid and raise the heat; cook until the liquid is syrupy and almost completely reduced. Remove from heat and cool in pan. The mixture will hold together.
For the pastry:
1-1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon thyme, fresh or dried
1 small shallot, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons ice water
Blend the flour, salt, and butter in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the thyme and shallot. Process, adding water, until the dough just holds together.
Form the dough into a flat disc; wrap and chill until firm, 30 minutes or more.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll out the pastry 3/8 inch thick, making sure it is slightly wider in diameter than the skillet in which the onions were cooked.
Place the rolled pastry on top of the mixture in the skillet and tuck any excess dough into the pan.
Transfer the skillet to the preheated oven, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly. Take the pan out of the oven, cool it for 10 minutes, and invert onto a serving plate. Garnish with more thyme. Serve with a salad and steamed, chilled asparagus.
Serves 6 as a side dish, 4 as an entrée.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider taking out an email subscription to my blog. Just click on the link below!
Subscribe to In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens by Email.