Fess Parker, King of the Wild Frontier, Winemaker, Dead at 85

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DanielBooneDVDDaniel Boone is dead. So is Davy Crockett. That doesn’t sound like news, but to anyone who was a child in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that means Fess Parker is dead, too. Parker died Thursday at the age of 85. Parker personified the legendary personalities of Boone and Crockett in Disney movies and television shows. He was one of the few people who could look good in a coon-skin cap.

After his movie career had cooled, when he was in his sixties, Parker pursued a dream he had had for many years, to own a winery. He started Parker Wines in the early ‘90s, and his product earned some critical praise. (The winery would eventually add his first name to the label to take advantage of his considerable name recognition -- marketing is everything.)

Parker visited Central Florida in early 1992 as part of the Walt Disney World Village Wine Festival, the precursor to the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. To tout his wines, he agreed to have dinner with the restaurant critic and wine writer for the local newspaper.

I remember arriving at his Disney Village townhouse to pick him up. I remember thinking he really is a big man as he walked into the room and shook my hand. I remember some of the things we talked about at dinner, including politics. (It was pretty evident our views weren’t the same, so we quickly moved on to other topics.

I remember that “Old Yeller” had just been released on VHS that week or the week before. Movies coming out on tape was a fairly new innovation. Parker said he hadn’t been aware of the release. I wanted to tell him what an impact the movie had on me, that I remembered seeing “Old Yeller” as a child, at a drive-in, with my family, and how I was certain it was the first movie that brought me to tears with its ending. It still can. But I didn’t. When you’re sitting at a table with Daniel Boone, you somehow don’t want to admit crying like a baby at one of his movies.

I remember a great deal about that dinner, including what a charming, gentle gentleman Fess Parker was. But I can’t for the life of me remember what restaurant we were at. It doesn’t matter.

My account of the meeting ran in the February 7, 1992, edition of Calendar. Read it below.

Orlando Sentinel - February 7, 1992 Try to focus this fuzzy black-and-white image on your old Motorola television: Davy Crockett and his sidekick George are sitting around the campfire making dinner. As George stirs the beans, Davy removes his coonskin cap, reaches into his pack and brings out . . . a bottle of chardonnay. From his own winery, yet.

Davy? Davy Crockett? King of the wild frontier? A winemaker?

These days Fess Parker , the man who brought Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone to life in the '50s and '60s, is working the wine frontier.

No, the wines aren't called Boone's Farm, and yes, he has heard the jokes. But he wants people to know he's serious about Parker Winery and Vineyards. Parker , 67, was in town last week to introduce his wines to Central Floridians at Walt Disney World's Village Wine Festival. He took time to talk about them over dinner.

Parker admits to being a novice at winemaking - and at pairing foods with wines. ''For me, it's always an experience and it's always successful because I like wine,'' he said. He especially likes his wines.

Parker Wines' first release was a 1989 chardonnay that hit the market last March, but Parker first had the notion to become a winemaker back in 1950, about the time he became an actor.

That was just after he got to California. His acting coach back at school in Fort Worth, Texas, advised him that he was probably too big to act on stage, so he headed for Hollywood where the big screen could accommodate his 6-foot-6-inch frame.

One of Parker 's early roles was in a 1954 sci-fi movie called Them, starring his friend James Arness. Walt Disney was considering Arness for a role in his new TV project, an anthology series called Disneyland. But when Disney screened the film, he liked Fess Parker better. So Parker got the role of Davy Crockett and started filming on Sept. 8, 1954. (''I remember the date because I knew something magical was about to happen,'' Parker said.)

In 1964, wearing a similar coonskin cap, Parker starred in Daniel Boone. That series lasted until 1970 and Parker hasn't acted much since.

Through it all, he held on to the notion of becoming a winemaker. He finally acted on it in 1987 when he purchased a vineyard in Santa Barbara County, Calif., where he has made his home the past 30 years.

The winery is a family business with son Eli, 30, and daughter Ashley, 27, sharing in the duties. Parker gives most of the credit for what is in the bottle to winemaker Mark Shannon, 33, a University of California-Davis graduate with 13 years of experience.

At dinner, Parker poured his 1990 chardonnay, made with grapes from a neighboring vineyard (he hopes to have an estate wine next year). The chardonnay had a buttery nose from new French oak barrels. The creamy aroma gave way to a crisper, more acidic taste that carried plenty of tropical fruit flavors. Although the wine is drinkable now, it should be very pleasant in a year or two.

Parker does not put his chardonnays through a malolactic (or second) fermentation because he thinks that gives the wines an ''oily'' texture.

(The chardonnay was good enough to be chosen by the caterers of Elizabeth Taylor's recent wedding and also was served to the five U.S. presidents attending the dedication of the Ronald Reagan library.)

Parker loves to extol the virtues of Santa Barbara County as a wine-growing region. ''Our valley opens to the sea,'' he said, reminding the listener that Santa Barbara is actually west of Los Angeles. ''We have hot days, and at night the cold fog rolls in. We have a very long growing season.''

The cold valley, he said, is ideal for pinot noir - although most pinots are grown much farther north. Parker brought along a 1989 pinot to sample.

''The pinot is a real surprise to me because I've only been drinking it a couple of years,'' he said. ''What I like about our pinot noir is it's a light red, but I don't think it's lost its body.

''I probably drink this wine four or five times a week,'' he said.

The elegant labels on Parker wines show a green patina border around the Parker signature, which is written on a parchment background.

A small symbol, not immediately recognizable, sits over the name. When asked what it is, Parker squinted his eyes just a bit and a mischievous smile came to his face.

''That,'' he said, ''is a coon-skin cap.''

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