I’ve tried wines from just about every part of California’s wine country, but I’d never actually visited the picturesque Fair Play appellation in the Sierra Nevada foothills until last weekend.
After finding a tasty bottle of everyday syrah from Perry Creek Winery on sale for $4.99 at a local wine shop, I made the 120-mile drive from the Bay Area, up Highway 80 and then onto Highway 50 into El Dorado County I found several regional wines that were quite good along with a welcoming community of winemakers eager to share the fruits of their labors with visitors without a tasting fee!
There are about 20 wineries in the region around the small town of Fair Play, a former mining community south of Placerville that survived past the mid-19th century gold rush thanks to the fertile, well-drained land that produced fruits and vegetables along with grapes.
Visitors can fill a weekend with wine tasting in and around Fair Play, where the wineries are grouped within about a five-mile radius of each other, but I only had four hours to squeeze as much tasting in as possible.
My first stop of the day was the Sierra Oaks Estates tasting room on the corner of Mt. Aukum Road and Fair Play. Jim Brown, owner/winemaker, bought property in the area in the mid 1990s and started planting vines with his wife, Toshi. They were weekend wine warriors, commuting from their home in the Danville before making a permanent move after Jim retired from his 9-to-5 job in the Bay Area.
Jim usually has 5 of 6 wines open for tasting and I tried them all — a red blend, an estate merlot, syrah and zinfandel plus a cabernet sauvignon — all from the 2005 vintage.
The best of the bunch was an unusual blend called Zinzabar ($21) which combines 62 percent zin and 38 percent barbera. The rich fruit of the zin matches nicely with the more acidic barbera to produce an interesting wine that tastes great on its own and pairs easily with grilled meats, pasta with tomato sauce or pizza.
A short drive down Perry Creek Road took me to Perry Creek Winery, where the specialty is zinfandel. The zins are good, but I really liked their 2006 Syrah’Del ($18), which contains 52 percent syrah and 48 percent zinfandel. The wine starts with a spicy hit of clove and fresh red fruits and finishes with a cedary backbeat that was delicious.
My next stop on the Fair Play wine trail was Oakstone Winery, which sits on Slug Gulch Road alongside a vineyard of gnarled old vines. The wine lineup, mostly reds, is dominated by zinfandel, petite sirah, merlot, barbera and sangiovese.
My taste buds, however, gravitated to the least expensive wine they make — Slug Gulch Red ($9.95), another blend that combines odd lots of different wines each year. It’s a great quaffer that’s named after a nearby gold mine where large nuggets of gold, called “slugs,” were discovered back in the region’s mining heyday.
I barely touched the surface with my short visit, so I’ll be returning the next time I get a yearning to explore higher elevation wineries. I’d recommend spending a full weekend in the Placerville area, which features another grouping of wineries north of Highway 50 in the Apple Hill region, where orchards and berries also flourish in the spring and summer.
A great opportunity to sample the newest vintages is later this month during the El Dorado County Wine Association’s annual barrel tasting weekend January 30-31. Tickets are $20 apiece through Jan. 23, when the price rises to $25.
Tags: apple hill, barbera, barrel tasting, cabernet, California wine, el dorado county, El Dorado wine, Fair Play, foothills wine, oakstone winery, perry creek winery, petite sirah, sangiovese, sierra oaks estates, slug gulch red, syrah, syrah'del, wine blog. california wine blog, zinfandel, zinzabar