Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Weekend Playing Fair - Part 1

Perhaps it's appropriate that my first post is devoted to a review of wineries visited in the Fair Play area of El Dorado County, California. Perhaps it will encourage me to play somewhat fair in my reviews of the areas wineries, instead of mercilessly slamming the ones I hated (Granite Springs) and unabashedly gushing over the ones I liked (Windwalker).

My partner Jhan and I spent the Labor Day weedend visiting about a dozen wineries in the Fair Play and Shenendoah Valley areas of Sierra Nevada foothills southeast of Sacramento in northern California. Most of you (whoever you are) have never heard of this area, but it's an up-and-coming wine area in a state blessed with some of the most over-hyped, over-run and over-priced wine areas in the country. Fortunately, that's not the case here. We spent a good hour and a half at a wonderful restaurant and wine bar in the middle of the Fair Play area - talking with the restaurant owner and tasting a variety of good local wines, and the whole time we were the only people in the place.

Unspoiled - for the most part, that's the word for this wine country. Though we did encounter small crowds at some of our stops, we were also pretty lucky in being able to spend a lesurely amount of time talking to wine makers and tasting wine without any pressure. Given that it was the Labor Day weekend, we kept wondering where all the people were.

Jhan and I had been to this area before - in March - and this time around we revisited several places we had been before. But we also visited a number of new places. The following are my impressions of the wines we tasted.

First stop: Holly's Hill Vineyards. This was the last place we stopped back in March when they were absolutely mobbed by a crowd of wine club members there for their first Rhone taste off. Holly's Hill prides itself on making Rhone wines and comparing their wines to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Papes from France. Well, CdP is my favorite wine, and on our tasting in March I thought there was no comparion. The Holly's Hills wines were all much simpler and all seemed to have a residual sweetness that was unlike anything you'd ever get from France. Jhan and I were definitely unimpressed the first time around, but we also thought that we could have been affected by fatigue (being "wined-out" as we call it), and by the teaming crowd.

So we gave them a second chance as our first stop on this trip. I won't bore you with every wine we tasted. The one wine (I couldn't get them to let me taste their top-of-the-line "Patriarch" cuvee) that stood out head and shoulders above the others was the 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah. This was the one wine of theirs with a truly earthy complexity. This was a standout wine. I was already thinking "wine of the trip" the moment I tasted it. Well worth seeking out. Actually, overall, Holly's Hill wines are a clear cut above of the highly alcoholic zinfandel fruit bombs that many of the wineries in this area churn out. I would put them in the top ten of wineries to visit if you're going this area.

Next on our list was Sierra Vista Winery, right next door to Holly's Hill. Nothing much of note there. The Le Grande Syrah was worth tasting, but the rest of the wines were uninspiring. A disappointment. So let's move on.

Third on our list was Cantiga Wineworks, not because I'd heard good things or was impressed with their wine list, but only because I thought the bottle labels I saw on their website were the coolest I'd seen in a while. They had this whole cathedral theme going on that I really liked, and honestly, I wanted to see them in person. Jhan was skeptical. Tiny little tasting room, run by a strange lady who had to knock back a pretty good "taste" of each wine before pouring us any.

Regardless, I was pretty impressed by pretty much everything we tasted. Impressed in the sense that having been to the area before, we knew the preferred wine style: huge fruit bombs with alcohol in the 16% range. No complexity or character. It was all about the booze baby. But Cantiga completely ignores the conventional wisdom of the area. They make wines in a European style, often without malolactic fermentation. Wines that have character, complexity, and smoothness instead of fruit and heat. With the exception of Windwalker, I would have to say that Cantiga made the most consistantly smooth and complex wines of any place we visited. That's not to say that you'd like them, but they are well made wines. I was most particularly impressed with the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, of which I bought six bottles. Not to everyones' taste, but complex and full of character.

So far, we were off to a pretty good start. Two keepers in three wineries. But we were getting pretty darn hungry and our dinner reservations at Taste in Plymouth were 5 hours away. We had to find something, and that something turned out to be the surprize highpoint of the trip - and right around the corner from Cantiga.

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