Winemaker keeps great-grandfather’s dream alive

2012-12-20T00:00:00Z Winemaker keeps great-grandfather’s dream alivePeter Nowack Napa Valley Register
December 20, 2012 12:00 am  • 

For Fulton Mather, running a winery is about keeping a dream alive, one that was started by his great-grandfather in the mid-1800s.

Sited amid the oldest continuously operating family-owned vineyard in California, David Fulton Winery started as a stone wine cellar, built by its pioneering namesake in 1860. But the winemaker’s dream was short-lived.

The hard-working Fulton, who had made a name for himself as a blacksmith, community leader, and inventor of the “One-Horse Plow” (a narrow implement that revolutionized the early grapegrowing industry by allowing growers to space rows of grapes closer together), passed away in 1871. With hired help, Fulton’s wife, Mary, continued to operate the vineyard and wine cellar for another 17 years before closing the winemaking part of the business in 1888.

The 14.5-acre Fulton vineyard remained in the family, passing from one member to the next. In 1995, Fulton Mather, recently retired from sequential careers as a research psychologist, a tennis pro and a system software engineer, returned to his family’s St. Helena land as steward of a historic, old-vine petite sirah vineyard.

Rather than soaking in the peace of retired life in the Napa Valley, Mather decided to keep his great-grandfather’s dream alive, and re-launched David Fulton Winery.

Fulton and his wife, Dink, painstakingly replicated the hewn-stone look of the original Fulton wine cellar, which now serves as the winery’s foundation. Atop the cellar, they reconstructed the two-story winery building, which had been severely damaged in a 1973 windstorm.

In 1999, Fulton and Dink Mather released the first, 50-case bottling from the “reborn” winery, ensuring that the David Fulton legacy would include a commercial vintage in each century since its founding.

Today, the David Fulton Winery produces about 400 cases of wine a year, all old-vine petite sirah made from the dry-farmed, head-trained vines on the estate. Winery operations remain a family — and a neighborhood — affair, with Fulton and Dink managing the vineyard, tasting room and wine club, their son Richard handling many of the day-to-day winemaking duties, and neighboring winemakers lending a hand to ensure that the petite sirah expresses all the complexity and nuance present in the old-vine fruit.

Staying small is part of the game plan. “Our dry-farmed vines produce a very small crop — only about 2 tons per acre,” Dink Mather said. “That gives our fruit an intensity of flavor, but it limits the amount of wine we can make.”

Fulton adds that there is a certain luxury in being small and off the beaten path.

“We don’t get a lot of drop-in traffic,” he said, “so our small family has a chance to tackle the work that needs to be done in the winery and in the vineyard — and there’s a lot to be done.”

He added, “Because most of the people who visit have found us through word of mouth and referrals from other wineries, they’re very engaged and interested in what we do, which makes for a great wine-tasting experience for them, and for us as well.”

Running the David Fulton Winery and vineyard is not without its challenges. Among these are the threat of urban encroachment, which weighs heavily on Mather’s mind, he says. The rural winery is surrounded by vineyards on all sides, with Napa Valley hillsides in the distance. But just a few hundred yards from this setting is a growing encirclement of businesses and homes in St. Helena.

Mather said he knows that preserving his family’s legacy adds deep meaning to the responsibility of owning the vineyard and winery, and that keeping his great-grandfather’s dream alive means returning value to the land, so that it will remain rural for generations to come.

Though they differ in their styles and varietal preferences, the winemakers and grapegrowers of Fulton Lane share a sense of camaraderie and community that creates a vibrant synergy for the little street. And soon, they’ll be sharing something else — a communal vintage of cabernet sauvignon blended from just four barrels, made only from vineyards and only by winemakers on Fulton Lane, which also includes Calafia Cellars and Scott Harvey Wines, which were profiled in the past two weeks.

(This was the third in a three-part series by Oakland-based wine enthusiast and writer Peter Nowack. Nowack is founding partner of WEmarketwine, a full-service marketing and public relations firm specializing in family wineries. This article was submitted on behalf of his client.)

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