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Foxen – Degrees of Separation

July 16, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 6 Comments

There are certain truths in life. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. The Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.25 days. Bob Barker will never die. There are six degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and the rest of the world.

Many are familiar with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, a trivia game with the goal of tracing anyone in the entertainment industry back to Kevin Bacon in six or less steps. I myself can be traced to Kevin in four degrees:

  1. I have a friend named Rob.
  2. Rob has a friend who wrote the screenplay for Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief.
  3. The Lightning Thief starred Pierce Brosnan.
  4. Pierce Brosnan and Kevin Bacon contributed text to a book of photographs by British photographer Andy Gotts.

Actually, I can do it in three degrees, but that’s another story.

There are the same separations in wine. There are certain wineries or winemakers that are linked to everyone else and in far fewer than six degrees. Zaca Mesa, Edna Valley, and Chalone are all good examples. Half of the winemakers I know have some connection with one or more of them. Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard was briefly at Edna Valley as well as Zaca Mesa. Clay Thompson was also at Edna Valley before Claiborne and Churchill and Zaca Mesa was part of his inspiration to get involved with wine. Paul Clifton of Hahn was at Chalone. Paul is also friends with Nick de Luca, who put me in contact with Dave Potter of Municipal Winemakers. And it goes on…

The story of Foxen is no different. Bill Wathen and Dick Doré, co-owners of the winery, also have a connection with Chalone (not to mention they are an easy bike ride away from Zaca Mesa). Bill served as Chalone’s Vineyard Manager in the late 70’s where he was mentored, as Paul Clifton was, by the late Dick Graff. Even with a few thousand wineries, California remains a small wine world.

Few wineries are at the heart of Santa Barbara County in the same way Foxen is. If you don’t know Benjamin William Foxen, you don’t know Dick. Dick, is Dick Doré, the great great great Grandson of Captain Benjamin William Foxen.

One of the great allures of wine is the rich history it helps preserve. Numerous wineries and regions take their names from local history, family or otherwise. In Santa Barbara County, Zaca Mesa, Rancho Sisquoc and Foxen are all examples of this. Zaca and Sisquoc take their names from the original inhabitants of the region, the Chumash, but Foxen’s name has personal importance to Dick. William Benjamin Foxen, an English born sea captain, was the first white man to build a home in the area, on Rancho Tinaquaic. The Mexican Land Grant that made up Rancho Tinaquaic originally comprised of some 9,000 acres and included much of the eastern half of the Santa Maria Valley and most of what is now called Foxen canyon. The story of the Western half of the valley will follow next week.

It was on this land that Dick was raised and where he would later found his winery with Bill Wathen. The story of Captain Benjamin William Foxen is a fascinating one. How he raised eight children. How he used an anchor brand (which Foxen winery adopted) on the cattle he owned. How he was felled by the poisonous bite of a spider. How his mournful daughter Ramona influenced the building of the San Ramon Chapel in 1875, where he was laid to rest, so she could mourn his passing. But those stories have been told and are synonymous with Foxen.

On the beautiful morning I sat with Dick, we spoke about the tremendous diversity in Santa Barbara County and why making wine is such a difficult and sometime ridiculous profession.

“Making wine is a stupid business,” I have been told repeatedly. Many assume that winemakers are a very wealthy group of individuals. Some are.  However, in the wineries I have worked with I have found only two reasons for wealth. Either they have been at it for a very long time, twenty or thirty years, or they were wealthy at the start. In most cases, starting a winery is a money pit with endless challenges that can rob you of both finances and spirit. Many fail. Those that succeed without a large initial bank role have only done so by enduring years of financial struggle and looming financial destruction. This was true for Dick and Bill

“We started on a shoestring,” he says of their early days. “Bill and I had no money, all we had was an ambition to make wine and a family with a bunch of barns and old buildings. We were able to make a deal with my family and went in and did all the work ourselves. We didn’t take a salary for about ten years and actually worked side jobs [to pay the bills.] I remember going to Kate Firestone after about five years and saying, ‘when does it all start making sense?’ And she says, ‘at about ten years you stop worrying so much.’ And that’s about it. We found at about ten years we were able to start taking a little stipend and making some money, making it a business we could live on rather than a hobby.”

Foxen was built on the premise of creating exceptional vineyard designated wines. Although the initial focus on Bordeaux varietals (they wanted to make a cabernet that didn’t taste like bell peppers) has shifted more to Burgundy varietals. Dick and Bill continue to take advantage of the many micro-climates Santa Barbara County enjoys producing wines that reflect the regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and even Italy.

There are literal degrees of separation in Santa Barbara County, with cool fog shrouded regions located only a short drive from valleys that burn with heat in the summer. It allows world class Pinot to be produced in short proximity to Cabernet Franc. It’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, winemakers can choose from dozens of varietals all sourced from local vineyards. On the other hand, it makes Santa Barbara County hard to brand the way Napa has. Napa is the king of Cab, the Royal One. Santa Barbara is the beach party everybody is invited to, fun, but harder to get people to remember. But Dick sees progress.

“We’re still babies, we’re still a very youthful area. We have only been making wine here, even in the earliest, 45 years. When I first started going out 25 years ago the first thing I had to do was tell them where Santa Barbara County was. Now that has changed. Thanks to people like Jim Clendenen and Richard Sanford and people who were really the first disciples of our County, who put up with people saying, ‘who the hell are you and where did you come from?’ Now at least Santa Barbara is known out there. We still have to explain why Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow so well in the southern part of California, but even that story is getting out there. The movie Sideways did that a little bit. The whole name of the movie “Sideways,” our Valley runs sideways.”

Do you have a favorite aspect of your job?

“Drinking. I’m into serious drinking of wine.”

So you consider yourself a student of wine?

“Exactly. I love the pairing of food with wine. I do a lot of cooking. Nothing is more exciting to me than when I do a winemaker dinner, to see what the Chefs pair with my wine and to see how they see my wine.”

Who has inspired you in California wine?

“I think for our winery we would have to go back to Dick Graff at Chalone. He was a real pioneer. He was the man who turned California wine around back in the 70’s. He was the first man to import French oak. He was the first man to do malolactic in Chardonnay. He did things that incorporated traditional Burgundian methods into California winemaking and took us beyond hardy Burgundy in a half gallon jug. He would be number one on our list. He was just an amazing man and one hell of a winemaker. Other than that, I would say Dale Hampton (who planted much of the original vineyards in the area) as far as farmers and planters go. He really knew the business and came in here and planted the grapes in the right places.”

After twenty five years of hard work Dick seems like a man pleased with the fruits of their labors. Last year, they reached an important milestone, completing a new winery and tasting room just a short drive up the road from their “tasting shack.” The facility is 100% solar sustained and utilizes native drought resistant landscaping. It is a beautiful but practical winery, befitting two men who have spent decades of building what they have today. They have made it. And still, in the tasting room hang two pictures, one of Dick, gold club in hand, and one of Bill, his face half hidden by a baseball bat. “Those are alter egos,” he told me, “I wish I could golf, that’s what I would like to do. Billy wanted to be a baseball player.” Instead, they had to settle for making fantastic wines in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I think they are happy with the choice.

Oh and by the way, there are four degrees of separation between Dick Doré and Kevin Bacon:

  1. Dick appeared in Wine for the Confused with John Cleese.
  2. John Cleese was a member of Monty Python with Michael Palin (my favorite person ever).
  3. Michael Palin appeared in the film Brazil with Bob Hoskins.
  4. Bob Hoskins appeared with Kevin Bacon in the animated film Balto.

I bet you didn’t know that.


Foxen Winery & Vineyard
7600 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA 93454
Phone: (805) 937-4251

Foxen 7200 (The Shack)
7200 Foxen Canyon Road
Santa Maria, CA 93454
Phone: (805) 937-4251

Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. You definitely started and ended well with Kevin Bacon. :) We were up in Santa Barbara last September but I was not able to visit Foxen. I will have to put it on my list for next time.

  2. Liz Dodder says:

    Another Foxen/Zaca Mesa connection for you: the Experts at Foxen first provided wine consulting services for Tres Hermanas Winery when it first got started. The winemaker who then took over at Tres Hermanas? Luke Lindquist, son of Bob Lindquist.

    Love reading your blog, these long stories/profiles are informative and entertaining!

  3. Wayne says:

    Well most things in life start and end with Kevin Bacon. You should go though, Foxen is a fun place.

  4. Wayne says:

    Good point Liz. Foxen also did consulting for Bob Davids, owner of Sea Smoke, where I was yesterday. One day I want to do a winemaker family tree with all of the connections. But I am a very lazy man Liz.

    Thanks for the encouragement. I know I get wordy, but the stories are just too interesting to dumb down to sound bites. I hope you keep reading. I continue to be amazed by the wineries and winemakers I get to work with. I have some big names coming up and some you have probably never heard of.

  5. lost says:

    My friend and I were arguing about this! Now I know that I was right. lol! Thanks for making me positive!

    Sent from my iPad 4G

  6. [...] how well it was all going. Tablas Creek, check! The Ojai Vineyard, a very excited check! Barrel 27, Foxen, Jordan, check, check, and [...]

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