By Wendy Thies Sell
Before he was a beloved Hollywood star and real estate developer, 20-year-old Fess Parker hitched a ride up the California coast while on furlough from the Navy. When his boots hit the ground and he laid eyes on Santa Barbara, he was determined to return and make it his home.
More than 70 years later, seven years after his death, the descendants of Fess Parker carry on his legacy in Santa Barbara County, even fulfilling some of his abandoned dreams.
Parker permanently moved his young family—wife Marcy, son Eli and daughter Ashley—to Santa Barbara in 1968. At the time, he was increasingly captivated by real estate; he built mobile home parks and with his wife, an interior decorator, flipped houses long before it was trendy.
“We lived in nine houses in the first 13 years of my life!” recalls Eli Parker.
An enthusiastic tennis player, Parker started looking for property in Santa Barbara in the early 70s to build a tennis club. He negotiated a deal with Southern Pacific, buying the railroad’s 32-acre waterfront property along East Cabrillo Boulevard. After a 13-year approval process, he built Fess Parker’s Red Lion Inn, now The Fess Parker, a Doubletree by Hilton Resort.
At age 63, Parker purchased a 714-acre ranch in Los Olivos, thinking he would raise cattle, but he planted a vineyard instead.
“When they told me he was going into the wine business, frankly, I thought he was kind of nuts,” Eli admits. “He was at an age when most people are thinking about slowing down and retiring.”
Parker asked Ken Brown, then owner of Byron Winery, to design a business plan for a “fairly modest” 7,000 case winery.
“Ken sat down with Dad and said, ‘Okay, this is going to be about a $3.5 million investment.’ I still remember the look on Dad’s face. It was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! We’re not going to spend three-and-a-half million dollars to do this!’ Over the course of the next 10 years, it was probably three times that amount,” Eli recalls. “People used to say, it’ll be 10 years before you make a nickel in this business, which seemed absurd to Dad as well. But it was every bit of 10 years before there was any profitability.”
Both Eli and Ashley switched careers to work alongside their dad. Their efforts have paid off; today, Fess Parker Winery produces 65,000 cases and enjoys respect from both critics and consumers.
Winery visitors who had the good fortune to meet Parker tell similar “Fess stories,” of how the soft-spoken, surprisingly approachable and larger-than-life celebrity (Parker stood 6’6″) had an extraordinary ability to remember everyone.
“He would meet people that he had met once and remember their names,” shares granddaughter Tessa Marie Cody. “He had a love for people, entertaining people, sharing everything he had with people. He was a very great man!”
Tessa, one of Eli’s seven children, started her own label, Tessa Marie Wines, at age 17. “[Grandpa] really did set a high standard for us,” she says. “I still ask myself, what would Grandpa Fess do?”
Ashley, who operates Fess Parker (FESPAR) Enterprises with Eli, has three children—Spencer, Greer and Henry Shull—with her late husband, Rodney. Ashley’s husband, Tim Snider, is president of Fess Parker Winery.
Greer, who graduates from Westmont College in June, aspires to work with her family promoting the winery. “My grandpa was such a hard worker, and he taught us to do the same,” she says. “We all really miss him. He was such a family guy, and he totally cherished that over anything else.”
Parker’s widow, Marcy, age 88, resides in Santa Barbara.
“I’m a little surprised that she is still with us, just because losing Fess was pretty rough on her, but she is a very tough cookie,” says Ashley.
Parker and his wife purchased The Grand Hotel in Los Olivos in 1998, renaming it Fess Parker Wine Country Inn & Spa and undergoing an extensive renovation. Parker referred to the inn as “the Texas Embassy” because at any time so many of his buddies would assemble there.
The family unveils the inn’s new restaurant, The Bear and Star, in March. The name is a blend of California and Fess’s home state of Texas.
Acclaimed chef John Cox, formerly of Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, is chef/partner for the ambitious new project, the concept of which is “refined ranch cuisine.” Much of the organic vegetables, herbs, fruit, eggs, honey, beef and wines come from the Parker family’s ranch on Foxen Canyon Road.
“We’re trying to take the farm-to-table thing one step further, more like from our farm to table,” says Eli.
The family’s cowgirl, Katie McDonald, raises the restaurant’s beef. Eli’s daughter founded Fess Parker Cattle Company in honor of her grandpa. They often rode horses together on the ranch; Parker bequeathed his saddle and bridle to Katie when he passed away in March 2010.
“My grandpa and I were really close!” Katie says with emotion. “Every day, we’d walk to lunch and talk about all my crazy ideas. He could take nothing and turn it into something so amazing! He was a genius.”
The horseback stuntwoman used to raise rodeo bucking bulls. Today, she owns cattle ranches in New Mexico and Texas with husband, professional bull rider Rocky McDonald.
Her 110 head of Wagyu cattle are out to pasture on the family’s Los Olivos ranch, while Katie and her dad build a feedlot where the exceptional beef cattle are sustainably fed grape pomace and distillers’ grains.
“We like to set the bar high and go get it!” exclaims Katie.
Another grandchild fulfilling one of Parker’s dreams is Eli’s oldest son, Kris Parker.
“I was very, very close to him! He was like a father figure to me in a lot of ways,” says Kris, whose beer-loving grandpa inspired him to walk away from the financial world and renovate an old feed mill on East Haley Street (in the Mill development) into Third Window Brewing Co.
“He loved craft beer. Grandpa and I talked a lot about starting a brewery,” says Kris. “My grandfather had incredible vision and the determination to see that vision achieved. The thing I try to emulate is being fearless in the pursuit of a vision.”
One of Kris’s first memories of his grandfather has provided lifelong inspiration.
“He gave me an autographed picture that said, ‘My wish for you is to take Davy [Crockett’s] saying to heart: Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.’ There’s a certain courage in pursuing your dreams and your beliefs that I think is central to my perspective of who I am. That came from him directly. There are easier paths to sow, but when you look back on your life, hopefully there won’t be any regrets for the opportunities you didn’t take.”
Perhaps the Parker family legacy is more than show business, wine or real estate; it is the confidence to pursue one’s true passion, no matter how lofty the dream.
This story was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.