Monday, September 04, 2006

A Weekend Playing Fair - Part 2

The only place open for food within 15 miles in any direction of Fair Play at 3:30 in the afternoon was the Gold Vine Grill, where we met owner Mary Kemp. Since we were the only people in the place at that early hour, we chatted with Mary as we looked over the wine bar menu (they start serving at 3:00). We ended up choosing the Greek-style Quesadillas, Portabellini Mushrooms, and Ginger-Shrimp Ravioli.

The quesadillas were tasty but not mind blowing, but the portabellini mushrooms were a delight. They weren't really "stuffed," though; a pate of sausage, spinach a cheese was piled on top of the cooked mushrooms. Though a bit unconventional, they were delicious, driven by the intensely flavorful sausage. As good as they were, they didn't hold a candle to the raviolis, which were just stunning. Gingery shrimp in a Chinese wonton, served in an incredible coconut broth brimming with Asian spice flavors. Yum!

While we ate, Mary graciously let us try several local wines from their wine bar free of charge. Most were from small wineries without public tasting rooms that either conducted tastings only by appointment or not at all. Several of these wines were particularly notable, including an Obscurity Barbara and a 2003 Bechard Herbert Vineyard Syrah. The latter had deep raisiny notes that brought up visions of hot summer days, as well as a surprising smoothness. We asked Mary how we could get some and she promptly called the winemaker and arranged to have them drop off a couple of bottles at the restaurant. Thanks Mary.

Mary also arranged for us to take a tour of Cedarville Vineyard, run by the extremely friendly and engaging Jonathan Lachs & Susan Marks. Like some of the smaller wineries in the area, Cedarville only conducts tastings by appointment. Jonathan gave us the tour of their facility, which was simple but surprisingly nice. The cement cave was particularly interesting. As for their wines - overall I found them too acidic and tannic for drinking now, but with good potential for aging. Their Syrah and Cabernet seemed the most promising, so we bought several bottles to cellar. I'm hoping that their wines are as ageworthy as they seem.

After all this wine tasting it was getting late and Jhan and I were pretty hungry, and so we headed for Restuarant Taste in the small town of Plymouth. Taste seems to be the new place in town, and already has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the area. In that sense, it didn't disappoint. The salmon and roasted Rabbit were excellent, as was the cheese plate we had as an appetizer with a bottle of Cedarville Syrah. The syrah went extremely well with the cheese plate, particularly the "Roaring 40's" blue cheese, but unfortunately didn't pair well with the rabbit. Presentation and service were excellent, and we topped off the dinner with a Boston Creme Pie (excellent) and a Warm Ginger Cake with vanilla bean gelato (very good). Overall, I'd say that Taste lives up to its reputation and is well worth visiting again.

Saturday morning found us dozing in. We pretty much skipped breakfast, knowing that we would be lunching at the Gold Vine Grill.

Our first winery stop turned out to be Domaine de la Terre Rouge, which we had visited before. Terre Rouge (like Holly's Hill) specializes in Rhone-style wines, and is easily one of the better wineries in the area. We were the first customers of the day and tasted through several syrahs. My easy favorite - and Wine of the Trip - was the 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah, notable for its strong earthy flavors and mellow complexity. I ended up buying a case of half-bottles on sale at a ridiculous $6.75 each. Jhan disagreed, preferring the 2001 Sentinal Oaks Syrah.

Our next stop - given that several people had recommended it - was Oakstone Winery. Though the location was beautiful and the people were exceedingly friendly, none of their wines were stunning. Their Reserve Cabernet was notable for having particularly huge tannins, but lacked structure for aging.

After the disappointment at Oakstone, we headed to lunch. We ate at the Gold Vine Grill, this time having a sausage sandwich and a tuna salad sandwich. Jhan's tuna salad was apparently excellent, but I was a bit disappointed in the sausage sandwich. I had been hoping for the same spicy, savory sausage they used in the mushrooms, but no such luck. Though good, the sausage in the sandwich was on the bland side.

After lunch (and a quick visit back to Cantiga), we headed to Granite Springs, whose petite sirah had been given raves by someone, sticking Granite Springs in my head as a place to go. The place was absolutely mobbed by people, which I've begun to suspect is an indicator of uninspiring wines. True to form, none of their wines were even mildly interesting, including their rather insipid petite sirah.

We finished off the day with a quick visit to Dillian Wines. With only two bottles of their Zinfandel left on the shelf, and less than a case of their sauvignon blanc, the place was pretty empty of both wine and people. Tom Dillian and his son were quite friendly, however, and we tasted the aforementioned wines as well as a pretty little 2005 Orange Muscat. The muscat would make a great gift wine; sweet, smooth and nicely packaged.

Although we had reservations for the highly rated Zachery Jacques near Diamond Springs, our hotel was in Sutter Creek, and we decided to go to Caffe Via d' Oro in downtown Sutter Creek instead. Given that it was Saturday night on Labor Day weekend, they weren't packed, and we had no problem getting in on such short notice. We started off with a Bibb salad, which was excellent despite the fact that you had to take it apart to eat it. Jhan had sea bass in phyllo dough, which was interesting, but not particularly tasty. I had a filet in an ancho chili rub, with sauteed mushrooms that was superior. The spiciness brought out plenty of savory flavors in the meat, and the texture of the mushrooms was the perfect compliment. The potatoes were a bit bland, but that was only a mild disappointment.

My main complaint about Via d' Oro is their wine list. Heavy on local zinfandels (which I mostly detest), they didn't have a wide selection of other interesting wines. We ended up buying mostly unmemmorable wines by the glass. The only one that was memorable was a 2004 Campus Oaks from Lodi that tasted like fermented raisins. Definitely different, but not good.

On Sunday our plan was to hit at least two wineries before heading home to beat the Labor Day rush, but we ended up visiting only one winery - Windwalker Vineyard. We'd been to Windwalker before, and fallen in love with their 2002 Lady in Red Bordeaux blend - easily the best wine in the Sierra foothill wine country. Over all, I find that Windwalker has the most consistently well made wines of any of the wineries that we've visited. This time around, their 2003 Barbera was a winner, with deep smoky flavors and just a hint of raisin. Where many barberas can be stern and austere, this wine was opulent and rich. The Sierra Sunset was a surprise as well. For an everyday wine under $10, this had a balance of fruit and richness lacking in most other vineyards cheaper cuvees. Many of these are just alcohol and grape juice, but the Sierra Sunset is a real wine.

The big disappointment - and the reason I wanted to stop there in the first place - was the 2003 Lady in Red. Where the 2002 could, in all seriousness, complete with any top-of-the-line Napa Cabernet, the 2003 was a much weaker effort. The nose was totally different and not strong, to the point of having a whiff of moldy pool cover. The taste was better, but not as full or complex as the 2002. Hopefully with some bottle age, the '03 will improve, but it looks like a disappointing year for the Lady in Red.

Wines of the Trip

Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah
Bechard 2003 Herbert Vineyard Syrah
Cantiga 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon
Holly's Hill 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah

OK, so three of the top four are syrahs. I'm not sure if that's me, or an indicator of what this area does well.

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