Savoring Success

Coach builders at the outset of the auto industry, part of the Fisher family pulled up their Detroit roots and headed west on a new adventure crafting premium wines.
Fisher family
Family Tribute: Rob, Whitney, Juelle, Fred, and Cameron Fisher toast Fisher Vineyard’s opening of Calistoga Estate in Napa Valley on its first day of harvest in October 2019. // Photos courtesy of Fisher Vineyards

Check out virtually any review of Fisher Vineyards and the results are invariably similar: The winery, located in Santa Rosa, Calif., is renowned for producing premium varietals — but unlike many of its competitors, it operates with what appears to be a willful resistance to the spotlight.

“We do win some competitions,” says Rob Fisher, general manager of Fisher Vineyards, “but we don’t make our wines for that purpose. As we’ve worked through this over the decades, we think our mission and our wines are entirely about enriching life.”

That perfectly captures the essence of the vision Fisher’s parents shared when they decided to get into the winemaking business. “They didn’t come to Napa to be scored on wine,” Fisher says. “They did it as a sort of enrichment, a confirmation of their own life view. There’s a story behind every wine. Slow down and savor that time. I think for my parents it was all about slowing down.”

Rob’s father, Fred, is the grandson of Charles T. Fisher, one of the seven Fisher brothers who in 1908 founded the original family enterprise — Fisher Body Co. in Detroit.  They would go on to build millions of automotive bodies for General Motors, each one adorned near the front door with the telltale “Body by Fisher” imprint, GM’s first mark of excellence.

When the time came for Fred to attend college, he may well have been resigned to ultimately joining the family business, but not along the traditional path. “We were a big Catholic family in Michigan, and many (of us) went to Catholic schools like Georgetown and Notre Dame,” Fisher says, “but my father decided he wanted to go to Princeton. I think that was sort of his version of a black sheep move.”

Fisher describes his dad as a “quantitative numbers guy,” whose focus at Princeton was to be a civil engineer. Then came business school, and another choice for Fred Fisher.

“He tells the story of how he decided between business schools at Harvard and Stanford,” Fisher says, laughing. “The first page of Stanford’s brochure was dedicated to the sun and weather patterns in Palo Alto. And he knew Boston was like hell freezing over (during the winter months). And he concluded that if what he wanted to do was learn, he would learn better in a freezing environment. So he went to Harvard. I mean, that’s his version of pragmatic thinking.”

Fisher Vinyards
Light and Soil: Set high in the Mayacamas Mountains, Juelle and Fred Fisher’s newly planted Wedding Vineyard in 1973.

Fred earned his MBA in 1956, followed by a stint in the U.S. Army, part of which he served in Germany. “And it was on leave from the Army,” Fisher says, “when he was in the lake region between Switzerland and Italy, that he fell in love with wine and the notion of mountain-grown wines.”

Fred finished his enlistment, returned home to Detroit, and worked at GM for several years before heading west to California, where he spent time as a management consultant. From there, he ran a container leasing company in San Francisco, which is around the time he met a young lady named Juelle Lamb on a blind date. They’ve been together ever since.

“They were set up as mixed doubles tennis partners by a mutual friend, a classmate of my dad’s from Princeton,” Fisher says. “My mother had a finance degree and was the first woman hired into the research retail sector at Bank of America in the 1960s.”

Fred and Juelle quickly discovered their backgrounds in business and finance weren’t all they had in common.

“They shared this mutual growing disinterest in the service industry, and an interest in making a tangible product,” Fisher says. “I think the through line from Fisher Body was my dad’s unwavering respect and appreciation for the handcraftsmanship, innovation, and pioneering spirit. That just ran so deep from his own grandfather’s experience.”

In 1973, the couple quit their jobs and Fred purchased 100 acres in the rugged terrain of the Mayacamas Mountains between Napa and Sonoma. The property was remote, lacking water, electricity, and even a suitable access road.

“I think the assumption is, yeah, they must have been free spirits, but ‘free spirit’ probably leads to the wrong impression,” Fisher says. “The reality is both of them are exceedingly just very practical people.”

Fisher Vineyards
Steeply terraced rows of Cabernet Sauvignon vines, planted in 1998 on Fisher Vineyard’s Mountain Estate.

The enterprising couple forged ahead, enlisting a team of neighbors, builders, and enthusiastic supporters to help build a rustic cabin and clear enough land to plant a vineyard. Two years into their project, they were still officially just dating.

“As I understand it,” Fisher says with a chuckle, “my mother had received a job offer in New York. And so she asked my dad, What do you think? Are we going to get married? And his version of a proposal was to say, Yeah, what are you doing next weekend? Let’s get married. And a couple of weeks later, they did.”

The ceremony took place in what became known as the Wedding Vineyard on the Moun-tain Estate, a 10-acre plot that’s particularly special for the family: The vines planted there in 1973 yielded grapes that contributed to the winery’s first bottling six years later — a Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, weddings at the first vineyard are limited to family members.

“On the business side, from sunup to sundown, we’re dedicated to farming, growing, and producing world-class wines, which leaves little room for event-type tourism, though we do offer a limited number of private tasting visits by appointment each day,” Fisher says.

Yet another example of the sensible, hands-on approach the founders share emerged as the family began to expand with the arrival of Rob and his two sisters. “Looking around in the late ’70s, my mom was really disappointed with what school options were available. So she got together with two other friends and founded a school,” Fisher says.

That was in 1983, and today the nationally acclaimed Sonoma Country Day School is still going strong. So are Fred and Juelle, but they’ve happily turned over the bulk of daily operations to Rob, along with sisters Whitney, a winemaker who oversees all aspects of vineyard management, and Cameron, who handles sales and marketing.

In addition to the original Mayacamas Mountain Estate vineyard and winery in Sonoma County, in 2019 the Fishers opened the doors to a new winery on their Calistoga Estate in Napa Valley, firmly rooting the family in two regions that are globally renowned for producing exceptional wines.

Fred and Rob Fisher
Fisher and his son, Rob, in 1984.

“We’re not making inexpensive wines,” Fisher concedes, “but one thing that carries through is fair pricing. We’re in the top dozen or two dozen producers in Napa and we deliver our flagship Napa Cabernet at the current retail of $125 (a bottle). Believe it or not, that’s viewed as a value from the leading wine critics in the world. We’re competing with wines that are priced up to $750 or $1,000 a bottle, and we hold (our) price.”

How the Fishers manage to do that starts in the dirt, literally. “When we think about what it takes to make great wine, you can only do it with a great vineyard,” Fisher reveals. “You can never make great wine out of average grapes.”

Or without money. The financial commitment is enormous. “There isn’t a two- or three-year period that goes by that we don’t have a major, major capital commitment (to make) in carving vineyards, building our business, and reinvesting in quality.”

The emphasis of quality over quantity remains the high-bar standard, and it was set by Fred and Juelle from their very first days in the winemaking business.

“Maybe that comes out of my dad’s experience with the industrialism of Detroit,” Fisher says. “He was always chasing after the Fisher Brothers’ original inspiration, which was craftsmanship, and he always reminisces about the love they had to start with for these handcrafted wooden carriages.”

Fisher Vineyards Coach Insignia Cabernet celebrates the spirit and history of the family. Before arriving in Detroit, Fisher’s ancestors built  horse-drawn carriages in Norwalk, Ohio, located roughly halfway between Toledo and Cleveland.

“We think of Coach Insignia as our father’s namesake wine, because that brand pays real homage to the old Fisher Body business and refers to the insignia of the Body by Fisher (adorned with an ornate coach),” Fisher says. “He wanted to use that moniker to represent our flagship wine from our Napa vineyards.”

Fred Fisher
Terroir Ties: Fred Fisher peers over the first harvest in 1977, eager to create what’s likened to “poetry in a bottle.”

All three of the Fisher siblings have their own namesake wines: A 2018 Chardonnay is produced by Whitney’s Vineyard, there’s a red simply labeled 2018 Cameron, and Rob’s 2016 Merlot comes from the vineyard identified by his initials, RCF. But the family is clearly most excited about their Unity line, which combines grapes from the Napa and Sonoma vineyards, as well as other nearby growers — the offerings include Rose, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

“Unity is a really special brand,” Fisher says. “Our parents actually trademarked the name in the late 1990s because they had this feeling that togetherness is what it’s all about. I mean, wine brings people together, and the production theory behind that wine is give the winemaker the ability to bring these great sources together. Good things happen when you have unity, and it kind of translated to the winemaking.”

These days, communal unity has been limited by outside forces. COVID-19 has put an end to the usual winery tours and tastings that are a staple of the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions.

“When people come and visit, it’s wonderful, but we can deliver curated tastings to an audience around the country that we didn’t used to be able to do,” Fisher explains. “We can touch a lot more people on a Zoom virtual tasting, when people want to get a dozen friends, family, or colleagues together and sit and taste and talk about wine.”

COVID-19 has also brought friends and families together in ways that beforehand perhaps weren’t priorities, or certainly as frequent, providing occasions and opportunities that align perfectly with everything that first lured Fred and Juelle Fisher to the Mayacamas Mountains.

“It’s certainly true that the pandemic has led us all, on some level, to regain an appreciation for home cooking, as well as the way wine can enhance even simple meals (by) slowing the pace or the race to eat and move on,” Fisher contends. “We aim for each of our wines to enrich those occasions, complimenting food with flavors that can transport (people) to another place or another time, or simply offering another dimension to savor with each other.

“(On) nearly every occasion, colleagues, friends, and family from around the country are simply overjoyed to see one another raising glasses to toast, immersing their senses, and indulging in the diversion — all of which offers us a great sense of accomplishment.”