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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

July 13, 1998

Davy Crockett star finds second frontier out in cyberspace

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free,
Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree,
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

"The Ballad of Davy Crockett"

To many Americans, Fess Parker is the very image of a frontiersman -- Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone rolled into one. That's not surprising, considering that he played both characters in many television shows and movies in the 1950s and '60s. These shows have been so enduringly popular that many Baby Boomers -- and later generations -- can still sing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."

What many people might not know is that under Fess Parker's coonskin cap lurks the mind of a savvy businessman. One of Parker's most recent ventures is a vineyard and winery in California's bucolic Santa Ynez Valley. Parker is proving to be every bit as much a pioneer in this business as he was on TV -- only this time, he's exploring virtual frontiers.

How Parker's winery uses the Web shows the benefits even a modest Internet-commerce effort can produce for a small but growing business. Parker's general manager, Charlie Kears, single-handedly created and maintains the Fess Parker Web site at http://www.fessparker.com, using IBM's Home Page Creator, a Web site creation and hosting service that lets the winery take orders online. Updates to the site are done through a Web browser, and IBM handles the site's servers, reporting, and maintenance.

Kears manages most of the winery's 25 or so employees in addition to the Web site.

"I run his entire business -- ranch and vineyard -- and I still have time to do this beautiful site," Kears said. In fact, the biggest burden of having an Internet presence may be answering all of the e-mail.

I visited the winery recently to see how the Web fits into the overall business. From the sunny valley, with its rows of grape arbors and ancient California oaks, the Web seemed distant indeed. But the upscale crowds passing through the winery's tasting room proved that the business is thriving, and the Web site certainly plays a role.

The truth is, orders originating from the Web won't rival sales made at the winery and through distributors anytime soon. Rather, the site helps most by marketing the winery to the world. Kears compares the monthly $55 Web hosting fee to the cost of renting a billboard, which can run as much as $30,000 per year -- and wouldn't have the same global reach.

Kears also uses the Web site to solicit new members of the Fess Parker Wine Club, a group of 7,000 people who receive two bottles of wine via mail every quarter. Kears is even planning a "virtual wine tasting." He'll send a bottle of wine to those who sign up. Then, at an appointed time, everyone participating will log on to a chat room, open their bottles of wine, and type their comments in real time as they sample the vintage.

Will the winery make a lot of money from this virtual tasting? Probably not.

"I figure we need five people to make it worthwhile at first. That's enough to make it fun," Kears told me. But the point is to use Web technologies to generate interest in the winery, and to drive business -- virtual or otherwise -- in Fess Parker's direction.

"With a click heard round the world," Parker said at a recent press conference, "you can learn about our vineyard. You can place an order if you wish. And that's what's great about America."

Dylan Tweney (dylan@infoworld.com) doesn't have a coonskin cap, but he can sing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."

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