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Fisher Vineyards — A family’s 'beautiful journey'

Fisher Vineyards — A family’s 'beautiful journey'

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: July 31, 2020 series
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The Fisher family has consistently made some of the region’s finest wines since the late 1970s, and yet somehow they’ve remained mostly out of the spotlight.

This is surprising not only because of the excellent wines they make but also because of the family’s intriguing history. Fred Fisher’s grandfather was one of seven brothers who started a precursor company to General Motors, and in 1983 Juelle Lamb Fisher co-created the region’s award-winning Sonoma Country Day School.

Additionally, the winery is now jointly run by the founders and their three children, Whitney, Robert and Cameron, which makes this one of the few multi-generational independent winery operations in the region.

With two locations — the first a decades-old wooden winery off Spring Mountain Road in Sonoma County and the other newly opened in Calistoga — each is surrounded by its own vineyards, making the limited-production Fisher wines by definition “estate-grown and made” in both Napa and Sonoma — another rarity.

I have known the family for years and was even hired to take photos at various events that included Cameron’s wedding years earlier. But this time I met with Juelle, Whitney and Cameron at the new winery. To get there, I turned off the scenic Silverado Trail and then drove about a quarter-mile on a newly graveled road flanked by twisting-vine vineyards. I’d come to discuss the family’s history and taste a few wines.

Juelle Lamb Fisher

Juelle (pronounced jew-ell) — oldest daughter of orthopedic surgeon Robert Lamb and Marcia Lamb — grew up in Holladay, Utah, where she attended the Rowland Hall School for Girls and then the University of Utah, where she received a bachelor’s degree in finance.

“I was a bit of a tomboy growing up,” she said. “I loved tennis, rock climbing and skiing, but I also loved everything about school — history, geology and economics. I was really good with numbers.”

After graduating, she wanted to explore the world outside Utah, so she moved to Los Angeles in 1966.

“Because the Vietnam War made companies worry about only hiring men who might get drafted, I ended up being the first woman in the management training program at Security Pacific National Bank in Los Angeles,” she said.

After a few years in Southern California, she then moved to San Francisco, to continue her work as an investment analyst.

“It didn’t seem all that strange then,” she said, “but being one of the few women in the investment world at the time I’d often find myself in situations that would be unacceptable by today’s standards. For example, I’d have to slip in through the service door at some of the clubs to visit with clients. They wouldn’t let me enter through the front door.”

In the early 1970s, she started dating a San Francisco business owner by the name of Fred Fisher.

Fred Fisher

Fred grew up in Detroit Michigan, where his father was chairman of a local bank and sat on the board of General Motors. His grandfather, Charles, had been one of the seven brothers (and four sisters) who had transformed their family’s small blacksmith and carriage business in Norwalk, Ohio, into the Fisher Body Co. that built countless automobile chassis for the burgeoning car-manufacturing market.

By 1919, GM paid $27.6 million for a 60% stake of the company and started placing a small plaque on each body’s front door sill that read “Body by Fisher.” In 1926, GM paid another $208 million for the remaining 40% and the brothers retired or started other small businesses in the Detroit area.

“Detroit was the Silicon Valley of that time,” Juelle said. “It was where nearly everyone wanted to be and where much of the world’s innovation was happening, Theirs was a tight and loving family, but growing up, my Fred always dreamed of doing his own thing and having his own business that he might run and grow.”

Fred had attended the Portsmouth Abbey boarding school in Rhode Island, followed by Princeton University, where he studied engineering and then on to Harvard, where he received his MBA in 1956. After graduating, he spent four years as an Army officer, and while stationed in Germany he got his first taste of wines made from grapes grown on mountainside vineyards.

After completing his enlistment and returning to the United States, Fred spent two years working at GM in their Cadillac division.

“Fred is not a corporate type. He doesn’t enjoy meetings but instead loves the physicalness of work,” Juelle said. “At GM he insisted on working on the manufacturing line, whereas everyone else, I imagine, thought he’d come for a management position, considering his MBA and schooling.”

Moving west to California, Fred spent time as a management consultant at Cresap, McCormick and Paget followed by business ventures that included operating a shipping container leasing company based out of San Francisco.

By 1972, Juelle and Fred had started dating. The same year, when friends suggested going in on the purchase of a property in the rugged landscape of the Mayacamas Mountains between Napa and Sonoma, Fred jumped at the chance.

A perfect fit

“There was just no question — the property was a perfect fit,” Juelle said. “But there was also a lot of work to do — I mean a lot.”

The remote property of more than 100 acres had no water, electricity or even a road, but within a few short years and with the help of consultants, neighbors and friends, the couple had cleared enough land to plant a vineyard and build a modest wooden cabin.

In 1975, the ambitious couple married in what they now call the wedding vineyard — each of their children has been wedded there, too — and they purchased an additional vineyard property in the northern Napa Valley.

The Fishers’ initial plan was to grow and sell their wine grapes to wineries, but when Fred insisted on learning the wine business from the inside, he interned with the influential winemaker Philip Togni at Cuvaison. By 1976, both men became convinced that the grapes the Fishers were selling warranted being made into their own wine.

However, to meet this goal they needed to build a winery. They called the holy “trilogy” of Napa Valley winery architecture at the time into action: Bill Turnbull (architect), Matt Sylvia (builder) and their friend and muse Jack Cakebread. The result was a sturdy barn-style winery constructed on the Sonoma property using only wood milled from trees felled during the earlier vineyard clearing.

Just as their aspiration for the winery and vineyard operations had expanded within only a few short years, so had their family. Whitney was born in 1976, followed by the birth of Robert in 1978 and Cameron in 1982.

By the early 1980s, Juelle had begun exploring the local area for schools that spoke to her deep love of a rigorous education. When she didn’t find a perfect fit, a friend suggested she might open her own. She took the concept to heart and opened K-8 Sonoma Country Day School in 1983 with two like-minded local friends. All of the Fisher children attended that school, and then like their parents before them, each spent time at boarding schools before heading to prestigious universities.

The second generation returns home

“We all grew up in and around the winery, but there was never any expectation that we’d ever actually work at the winery as adults,” Whitney said. “So it’s a little strange when I think about it that we are all now back and helping run the business.”

After graduating from Princeton University, Whitney never imagined that she’d one day be a winemaker (her title is actually “winegrower” as she’s involved with both vineyards and winemaking) at her family’s business.

The same could be said for Rob, who is now acting GM, and Cameron, who is involved with marketing and sales. Each left college believing he or she would end up somewhere else.

“I remember when Whitney returned I was a little surprised,” Cameron said. “But when Rob left his ‘fancy’ job in New York to come back, I was totally surprised. But we are so glad they did because he’s become the glue and, well, you can taste [Whitney’s] wines.”

Prior to Whitney’s becoming the official winemaker in 2002, she worked under Mia Klein, who was then the Fishers’ winemaker. Klein has been instrumental in some of the most popular “cult” wines in the Napa Valley, having made wine at Spottswoode, Dalla Valle, Hyde Vineyards and her own brand, Selene, among others.

Working under Klein’s tutelage, Whitney was encouraged to take over the winemaking role within just a few years.

“Her lifelong connection to the vineyards gives her perspective like no other,” Klein wrote in an email. “Whitney has been at the forefront of the redevelopment of [the family’s vineyards] and that foundational knowledge…is critical. Her angle on the winemaking itself is unique, more practice than theory, more ‘let me see for myself’ rather than take anything for granted.”

Although Whitney remains intimately involved with the winemaking and vineyard operations, Adam Goodrich has held the title of Fisher’s winemaker since 2017.

The wine

We tasted three wines: The 2017 Mountain Estate Chardonnay ($75 a bottle, 434 cases made), the 2016 Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon ($110 a bottle, 2,456 cases made) and the 2013 Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($165 a bottle, 360 cases made).

Drinking any Fisher Chardonnay is an experience. These luscious wines are made using grapes grown in their Sonoma vineyard, and they are consistently densely packed with vibrant aromatics, rich mouth feels and lingering finishes. The 2017 continues that tradition with a golden color tinged with a green hue. The aromas are of baked pear, marzipan, crème caramel and sea stone. The lingering flavors include vanilla, honeysuckle and grilled pineapple. This wine would pair perfectly with sautéed sea scallops topped with crispy pancetta and sauced with lemon and butter.

The Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon is named as a nod to the Fishers’ chassis-building history. The grapes for this wine are grown just east of the new winery in Calistoga, which abuts famed vineyards such as Araujo. Opaque with a ruby rim, the wine has aromatics of ripe Bing cherry, black raspberry and herb-roasted duck fat. On the palate, this wine is almost creamy in texture with flavors of espresso, cocoa nib and crème de cassis. Grilled duck breast brushed with Chinese plum sauce would make a sublime pairing.

The Lamb Cabernet Sauvignon was named after Juelle’s father and was originally produced for his personal enjoyment until the first public release in 1991. The grapes for this wine are also grown near the new winery and produce a darkly colored wine with a violaceous rim. Full of the aromas of summer-ripe blackberries, sweet herbs, potpourri and plum with flavors of dried fig, mocha, pipe tobacco and a Brandy Alexander cocktail, this wine would turn the head of any Napa Valley Cabernet fan who was used to drinking wines at three or four times the price.

You could pair this with classic Beef Wellington, but you might want to enjoy this wine without any distraction.

The future

Wines are only a part of any winery story, and with the opening of their new winery in Calistoga, the Fishers have embarked on a new phase of their nearly half-a-century journey. Estate wineries and vineyards in both Sonoma and Napa that have stayed family owned and operated are a rare breed indeed.

The result? The Fishers have built a successful, sustainable small business that makes expressive wines that are consistently of the highest quality and at a price — although expensive by some measures — that remains a relative value compared with similar wines of the region. Beyond these measures the Fishers have made an impact on their families, friends and community. Are they the flashiest operation in the region? Not at all. But that seems to be exactly how they prefer it.

As we spoke in the breezeway of the new winery a light wind picked up, bringing with it the scent of a nearby stand of fennel and the comforting smells of fermenting wine in oak barrels. Through the large scenic opening to the west the Mayacamas Mountain range loomed hazy blue, while toward the east the sun shimmered off the rocky Palisade formations, their towering presence providing a dramatic reminder of the area’s volcanic geologic history.

“It’s a little against my nature to look back because my whole personality has been about moving forward,” Juelle said. “But when I do, I see a past full of family, wonderful friends and a strong community. In the end, it’s not about the destination but the journey — and it’s been a beautiful journey.”

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