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Body by Fisher : A Legendary Name Moves From Motown to the Mayacamas


The first in a sequence of three teaser ads shows a magnifying glass, with the caption: "Where's the body?" The second ad reads: "The body is in the coach." And the third, with a very recognizable General Motors logo, reads: "The body is in our Coach Insignia Chardonnay, by Fisher. "

Roses punctuate the rows of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon vines in a secluded nook cradled in the Mayacamas Mountains, between the Napa and Sonoma valleys. In 1973, Fred Fisher II, the grandson of the founder of the Fisher Body Corp., a Princeton graduate in engineering with an MBA from Harvard, found this idyllic acreage--1,200 feet above sea level, promising more moderate temperatures than the adjacent valleys, which are subject to extremes of summer fog and heat. Well-drained soils of clay and loam would provide an ideal growing environment for choice vinifera.

In the winter of 1973, Fisher began building his own home from trees timbered and milled on the estate. To plant a vineyard meant mastering the skills of maneuvering a tractor on the hillsides. In the spring of 1974, he planted two vineyards. He named the first the "Wedding Vineyard," to commemorate his marriage--on the site--to Juelle Lamb; the second was later christened "Whitney's Vineyard" in honor of the couple's first-born daughter. Once the vines were in, Fisher enrolled in viticulture and wine-making courses at UC Davis. In 1976, the Fishers bought a well-established vineyard on the floor of the Napa Valley, planted also to Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to bring body and complexity to the wines of their more intensely flavored mountain grapes.

In 1979, Fisher asked a friend, famed architect William Turnbull, to design a winery for the mountain site. Like Fisher's home, it was built from redwood and fir trees timbered and milled on the estate. Sitting among the trees in filtered sunlight, it is almost starkly simple in design, but it has been recognized by the California AIA and the American Wood Council as the best-designed winery of the decade. Current production is 7,000 cases.

During the past few years, Fisher, wine maker-cellar master Henryk Gasiewicz and consulting enologist Charles Ortman have implemented their "Fisher Vineyard" techniques, such as barrel-fermentation and some malolactic fermentation, plus aging-on-the-lees.

Earlier this year, I asked him the perhaps inevitable question: "What on earth projected you into the wine business when all signs on the road ahead were rather forbidding?"

"I was an engineer, but for generations our family has been involved in fine craftsmanship. I wanted to make something myself. Finding that property up there in the Mayacamas Mountains, driving that tractor under the blue skies and laying out those vineyards convinced me that I'd made the right decision."

We were drinking a 1981 Fisher Vineyards Sonoma Chardonnay, a lovely soft wine, accenting the fruit. "We had problems with this wine," Fisher mused. "Halfway through the fermentation, it stopped. A stuck fermentation. Other growers had the same problem. But it pulled through, at last, and we aged it for six months in new Limousin oak."

For our next meeting, he brought, from the winery library, a 1979 Napa-Sonoma Chardonnay, his first vintage, of which there were only 500 cases. Seven years have deepened its golden hue, intensified the bouquet, and have proved the ability of those mountain-grown grapes to make superior wines. A 1982 Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, with 5% Merlot and aged in Nevers oak, had that varietal perfume one always hopes for from this popular California wine. A few more years will bring the softening and finesse for world-class stature.

The label of their first reserve Chardonnay, the Fisher Vineyards 1984 Coach Insignia Sonoma County Chardonnay ($15), bears, discreetly, a small golden oval containing that very familiar Napoleonic coach, the proud Fisher Body logo found on nearly every General Motors automobile. It is a blend of grapes from three vineyards. Most are from the Mayacamas estate, some from the Fisher Napa Valley vineyard, and some from a friend's vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley. I found the wine to be delicately composed, good now, but with a certain promise of profound enhancement with two or three years added age.

"I have just an average palate," Fisher told me at one of our dinners in Orange County. "It's like 95% of the people. I don't want to have a big winery; I just want to make a living, and a success of my wines." You only have to taste any of the Fisher Vineyard wines to know that once more hard work has paid off, even in an industry that's been having hard times.

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