On a sunny winter afternoon, 84-year-old Fulton Mather talked about his great-grandfather, David Fulton, and the nearly 40 acres he bought 158 years ago, on Jan. 12, 1860.
Fulton cleared the land of rocks and trees and in the spring planted six acres of Mission grapes. Wine grapes have been planted on that property ever since and today Mather and his wife, Dink, own 14.47 acres planted entirely in Petite Sirah grapes. Today’s oldest vines were planted in 1965; the youngest in 1973.
The Mathers live in David Fulton’s historic 1864 farmhouse on the property and since 1995, they have built a re-creation of Fulton’s stone wine cellar, originally built in 1861 – making it the first commercial wine cellar within the St. Helena city limits – and produced wines from the vineyards. Today, according to the family, it is “the oldest continuously owned and operated family vineyard in the Napa Valley.”
But, not much longer. “We’re in the process of selling the winery,” Mather said on Jan. 12. “I can’t tell you who,” he added. “We’re pretty close (to a deal) right now, we have a backlog of people who are interested.”
Why are they selling the family property? “We’re just too old; I am too old for it. It’s really necessary to watch people pick and watch what they’re picking and it’s very easy to lose grapes to people, because they come and take them. I’d have to buy machinery and drive around all the time,” Mather said. “I’m not saying that because I’m paranoid, I just know it happens.”
How long have you been searching for a buyer? “We haven’t been searching, they just appeared,” Mather said. “We have people who walk down this road and some of them own wineries and some of them own grapes and some have stopped in and asked if we’d be willing to sell.”
On the anniversary of the day that his great-grandfather bought the land, Mather was reflective of the work he and his wife have done in the past 23 years since Mather inherited the property in 1995.
“I’m really happy that we brought the winery back. It’s an interesting part of the history of St. Helena and I think the town and appellation of St. Helena deserves to know what it is,” Mather said. “Our family has contributed something to St. Helena and I think I have, to a certain degree, too.”
Mather said the vineyard and winery are located in a cultural center of Napa Valley, with ETS labs, the Napa Valley Vintners offices and the St. Helena Public Library nearby. “This is an area where winemakers are constantly running into each other, and when they do, they share information. Isn’t that great?
“I think we have contributed to the Napa Valley in some kind of way and I feel good about what we’ve done,” Mather said.
Fulton Mather’s history
Fulton Mather was born April 16, 1933, to Fulton Increase Mather Sr. and Alice Margaret Toomey at Mercy Hospital in San Francisco. His mother died when he was 12 months old. Because his father found it difficult to find a trustworthy nanny, his sister, Gladys Eloise Mather Beard, requested to raise Fulton, who would live with his aunt and uncle Ferdinand Wallace Beard, until he went to college in the early 1950s. They lived in Yountville and Mather graduated from Napa High School in 1951.
While Mather grew up, the Beards owned the vineyard and property on Fulton Lane and the property was always planted in grapes, Green Hungarian or Palomino or Petite Sirah. “As time got on, I got older and older, stronger and stronger, so I did a lot of the tractor work, although we hired other people, too,” Mather said. During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, two-thirds of the property was planted in prunes, “because prunes got a higher price per acre than grapes did at the time,” he said.
After Gladys died, the Mathers (Fulton and Dink) inherited the property. Gladys’ grandson, Ed Beard Jr., inherited five acres.
Mather said, “I was near retirement, I was 67 years old. But I had a year’s worth of leave, so I kept my job at the Department of Social Services (he was a managing software engineer) and went to UC Davis and went through their wine program.”
During that year, they kept selling grapes and then Mather said he realized that if you had a story, it was “worth a lot to a winery, and my God, who had more of a story than we did?
“I saw some of the stories and I didn’t think they superseded what we had to offer as far as the story is concerned,” Mather added.
At that time, they were selling all of their grapes but in 1999 they kept one barrel of their processed fruit to make wine.
“My family had gotten used to picking the second crop of grapes, so we picked the second crop for 1999 and mixed that in, so we got almost two barrels for the first vintage,” Mather said. That 1999 wine was their first vintage of David Fulton Petite Sirah from their St. Helena vineyards.
In 2001, Mather, his family and friends processed five tons of grapes to make wine and have done so for several years. Today, they keep 10 tons to make wine and Mather said, “We will soon be keeping all of it to produce Petite Sirah.” The grapes are dry-farmed, head-trained, and grow on St. George rootstock.
About David Fulton
In the past 23 years, it’s clear that Mather has done a lot of research about his great-grandfather, David Fulton, who was a blacksmith by trade living in Vermont. He came west by the ship INO in 1852 and landed in San Francisco. Several weeks later he came to St. Helena and was hired by F.E. Kellogg who was hired to build the Bale Grist Mill. (All of the historic information in this story comes from what Mather told this reporter and from the written history on the website.)
In 1858, Fulton constructed a building for his saddlery shop at 1230 Main St., which is where Amelia Claire is now located. It was one of the first buildings in St. Helena, which also had a hotel and a grocery store. Behind his shop, where the railroad tracks are today, Fulton planted grapevines, with cuttings from Kellogg.
Two years later, Fulton sold his property and bought 39 1/2 acres on what is now Fulton Lane. He cleared the land, planted six acres and a year later sold 15 acres so he could build a two-story winery – a cellar down below and a barn where he kept his blacksmithing tools upstairs — and bought more cuttings so he could plant additional grapevines
“His intention was to grow grapes and make a winery but he knew the grapes wouldn’t be ready for a couple of years,” Mather said, “so he continued his blacksmithing. When I was a kid, there were all kinds of blacksmithing tools here that were in the winery building.”
According to the St. Helena Star, a violent windstorm knocked a tree into the dilapidated winery building and destroyed it in 1974.
Fulton died in September 1871 and his wife Mary Albina Lyon Fulton ran the winery for four years, along with raising two young daughters – not an easy task. In 1877, she hired William Scheffler to run the winery, which he did for another 12 years. He also owned a small winery on Zinfandel Lane.
“He was interested in the winery because he had invented a still and David Fulton had a brandy license,” Mather said. The David Fulton Winery closed in 1887.