Jeff Fischer doesn't have a vineyard or a winery. He has no formal training and zero employees. Yet in a short time he's managed to land his small-batch Habit wines in nearly 50 of L.A.'s top restaurants, including the Chateau Marmont, Spago, AOC, Ink, the Hungry Cat, Providence, Hatfield's and Bäco Mercat.
"He's on the fast track, and it's kind of crazy," says Caroline Styne of AOC and Tavern, who was the first sommelier to champion Fischer's wines, even writing about them on her popular wine blog, Styne on Wine. "In wine you can't be someone who needs immediate results, you have to be super patient and have a lot of self-control, and for him to get it right from the get-go and keep doing it is pretty astounding."
Fischer's ascent from making 50 cases of Sauvignon Blanc in 2009 to producing nearly 1,300 cases of wine in five varietals last year might look fast to others, says an exhausted Fischer, but the path has been long and arduous.
A journeyman actor by trade, he uses his massively unpredictable income to shore up his passion for winemaking. In the beginning he basically lived in a motel in Santa Barbara County and worked for free at two wineries in exchange for space. He shadowed established winemakers while sweeping floors, picking grapes, crushing fruit and cleaning barrels. He also befriended a thriving group of small-batch, indie — or garagiste — winemakers in the area.
"I don't have my own winery or vineyards, and I move things around like a hobo," says Fischer, smiling despite himself. "Nobody's getting rich off small-batch wine, but everyone is incredibly passionate."
For the last few years, he's been working out of Curtis Winery in Los Olivos in Santa Barbara County and sponging up the extensive knowledge of its winemaker, Ernst Storm.
"My buddy Ernst taught me a lot. Before him it was like I was playing grade school baseball," Fischer says. "And you start working with guys that are pros, and their level of expertise is so much greater. So you pick up so much information."
Among his peers in Santa Barbara County, Fischer draws inspiration from Storm's side project, a tiny operation called Storm Wines, as well as Blake Sillix of Tyler Wineries, who has a little project called Calle Sillix, and Angela Osborne, who produces a small label called Tribute to Grace.
Currently, Fischer buys his grapes from multiple vineyards, including La Encantada in Santa Rita Hills (famous for its Pinot Noir) and Happy Canyon, but when he was smaller and making his wine out of his home, he actually scavenged grapes.
"They'd say, 'How much fruit do you need?' and I'd say, '300 pounds,' and they'd be like, 'Dude, we drop that in a day, just come and pick it yourself,'" recalls Fischer. After he picked the grapes, he'd wash his wife, Terry, down and make her stomp on them in a vat at home.
"He's such a fun and vivacious person," says Styne, whom Fischer relentlessly pestered to taste his wines, "and he's amazing to be around. He's somehow infused that into his wine. I don't know what happened or how he did it. His wines are elegant and restrained."
Fischer, who was raised in St. Louis, has been interested in wine his whole life. His grandfather would hand Fischer, as a child, the wine list at restaurants and have him order from it. Fischer started making wine as a distraction from the disheartening rigors of working as an actor in L.A. His stock in trade is largely in the field of voice-over acting. He has voiced hundreds of ads, television shows and feature films. He even plays an animated eponymous version of himself on "American Dad."
"I always kept wine in the car with me when I went on auditions," says Fischer, who practiced what could be called a form of wine-bombing, in that he would literally just drop in on a restaurant and ask to see the sommelier. "I'd pull up and just break them down. I'd ambush them and say, 'Hi, I'm the tiniest winemaker you know,' and 90% of the time they'd buy it. Sometimes I'd get yelled at, but, as an actor, rejection doesn't faze me."
Rajat Paar, sommelier for the Michael Mina Restaurant Group who oversees the wine programs of 18 restaurants nationwide, says Fischer's wines are truly remarkable. "He's making the wine of the future. His wines are sexy. They have finesse. They're light in body but not in flavor."
This year Fischer has released his very first Pinot Noir, a feat he's extremely proud of. Add that to the Bordeaux blend, a seamlessly smooth Gruner Veltliner, a tasty Sauvignon Blanc and a crisp and bright Chenin Blanc, and you've got the full catalog, one that just scored Fischer representation from a major wine broker called Revel. This could change the small-time game for Fischer and perhaps enable him to take a vacation for the first time in five years.
"He's been able to achieve a balance in his wines in that they definitely speak to the area that they're from, but they're not overblown, fruity wines," Styne says. "They have a great structure and acidity. They are serious to a point, but they are also friendly and easy to drink."