Monday, March 19, 2007

Playing Fair

As you may have figured out by now, you’re never going to get a trip review from me for Napa Valley. Sure, there are some great – world class – wines from Napa, but the wine tasting experience there isn’t even remotely enjoyable for me. Crowded, over-hyped and expensive; that’s how I characterize it. A big part of what makes wine tasting enjoyable for me is the relaxed atmosphere; talking with the winemaker him- or herself and enjoying the rural environment.

One of the best places to still capture this experience – and taste some surprisingly stunning wines – is in the Sierra Foothills, only a couple of hours from Chico. This week, I’ll talk about the Fair Play region of Eldorado County. Next week I’ll talk about the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County.

The Fair Play region (roughly 20 minutes south of Placerville) is perhaps the most under-appreciated wine making region in California. Like Lodi, the area is “famous” for its burnt and overblown fruit bomb zinfandels with 16% alcohol, but in my opinion you should skip the zins altogether. What this region really surpasses at are Rhone wines – the syrahs, grenaches and viogniers that hail from the Rhone valley of France.

And one of the best-known places for Rhone wines in Fair Play is Holly's Hill Vineyards ( Holly's Hill prides itself on making Rhone wines and in comparing their wines to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Papes from France. And though they can’t quite compete with a quality Chateauneuf du Pape, they do make some truly top-notch wines. One wine that stands out is the 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah. This was wine has a truly earthy complexity and is well worth seeking out. Overall, all of 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. Holly’s Hill is easily in the top five or six wineries to visit in the area.

Just down the road from Holly’s Hill is Heaven’s Gate Vineyards ( I missed this winery on my first few trips to the area, but it’s very much worth a stop. Like Holly’s Hill, Narrow Gates owners and Los Angeles escapees Frank and Teena Hildebrand specialize in Rhone Valley wines. I haven’t had the chance to do more than taste their wines at the winery, but their syrah and viognier were both excellent. I will definitely be returning to taste their wines in more detail.

Probably the best overall winery in the Fair Play area is Windwalker Vineyards ( Interestingly enough, while most other wineries focus on either zinfandel booze bombs or refined Rhone wines, owner Arnie Gilpin focuses the weight of his craft on Bordeaux style wines, based on cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. And it shows.

Easily the most developed, most complex, and most profound wine produced in the entire Fair Play region is Windwalker’s Lady in Red Bordeaux blend. Both the 2002 and 2003 vintages (when properly decanted) are absolutely stunning wines that – seriously – could complete with cabernets from Napa and Sonoma. How he gets such complex and full-bodied cabernets in this region I don’t know, but no one else seems to be able to replicate his success. All the other cabs I’ve had in this region were worth a pass.

There is another place also worth your attention, though there is no tasting room, and not even any winery – at least not yet. My partner and I had the great pleasure to taste a syrah from Bechard Vineyards ( at a local restaurant. We were extremely impressed with their 2003 Herbert Vineyard Syrah and decided to look up the seemingly homeless winemakers.

We ended up spending a truly wonderful day talking and tasting wines with Andrea and Ted Bechard in their half-built home near Fair Play. The walls weren’t even complete and the winter wind blew right through the four of us, but there can be no more warming experience than tasting wonderful, interesting wines with the very people who made them. To me, that experience – four people sitting around talking about wine and life – is still the high point of my wine tasting experience.

You can still find that experience in California, but you have to be willing to look for it. Trust me, it’s worth it.


Do I need to spell it out? Head down to the Fair Play region this weekend and taste some wines. Do us all a favor and skip the zinfandels. You might be able to arrange a tasting with the Bechards, but please, don’t everyone overwhelm them at once. Absolutely do not miss Windwalker Vineyards.

Directions: Go to Placerville. Turn south. How hard could it be?

Worth a hit: Windwalker, Holly’s Hill, Narrow Gate, Mount Aukum, Busby

Worth a miss: Fleur de Lys, Granite Springs, Toogood, Winery by the Creek, Oakstone

Dinner: The Gold Vine Grill in Somerset ( Owner Mary Kemp is a wonderful person to talk to and knows everything about the local wines. And the food is superb. Best thing to do is show up at 3:30 for the afternoon tasting menu. Great wines and tasty small plates. Yum!

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