FAIR PLAY The big guy with the serious beard is so earnest about molding the small chocolates it's positively charming. He sits at a large wooden table, bent over slightly, dialed in entirely on the dark, little candies.
Around him, the winery tasting room buzzes merrily. It has blondish wood heavy mountain wood that fits a lodge with a winery a short tasting bar, and windows all around that let in bright February sun and an over-the-ridges view that soars for miles.
Diana Fitzpatrick, one of the owners of Fitzpatrick Winery and Lodge and chief pourer this day, is in the middle of the merriness, offering tastes from the line of surprisingly complex wines. She gets a question about the sauvignon blanc and its blend of bright lemon and creaminess.
"Let's ask the winemaker," she says. "Hey Brian, what did you do to the sauv blanc?"
The big guy with the chocolates looks up.
"That's really from the grapes," he says.
OK. That's the winemaker. So the man who makes some pretty elegant wines way out in these back roads of the Sierra foothills also hangs out in his tasting room sculpting hazelnut truffles for passing tasters. That is sooooo Fair Play.
(The sauvignon blanc, by the way, is called Eire Ban, which means Irish White. It's just $10, but Fitzpatrick makes only 150 cases, so you have to come visit to taste.)
Fair Play, up in the wooded hills of the southeast corner of El Dorado County's wine region, is one of the least-visited parts of foothill wine country. It's a last outpost before the grassy foothills head east and turn completely into the rocky, pine-covered Sierra Nevada.
It's also full of surprises. Just down the road from Fitzpatrick, at Bocconato Trattoria, there's the same kind of "How'd they get here?" story that includes another friendly guy with a serious beard. He, too, is so Fair Play.
He's Giovanni Gaudio and his résumé reads like a Jack London novel. He sledded the Alaskan wilderness, practiced Asian medicine and carried his family's Italian heritage into these hills and his small, comfortable restaurant with absolutely stirring food including pasta, made only after you order it, that's almost feathery in texture and layered with fresh tastes.
Bocconato Trattoria is at a crossroads that's the actual enclave of Fair Play (a half-dozen buildings; you get your coffee in the morning at the hardware store). This is the boonies for California wine country, so you have to ask, "What is going on up here?"
A surprising convergence
How did all these talented food and wine people get here? There are more than 20 wineries connected to the loop of Fair Play and Perry Creek roads. And why are so many so good?
Fair Play is really a district, not a town. It lies above Amador County's Shenandoah Valley and southeast of El Dorado's Pleasant Valley. And if Amador County is how Napa used to be, then Fair Play is how Amador used to be.
Here, even on that winery loop, it's as much horse country as anything. There are white fences, red barns, heavy wood buildings, hillsides covered with grass and the graceful figures of horses.
But it's also deep foothills, with stretches of heavy woods that mix tall, straight emerald-colored pines and firs, ground-level chaparral and rounded oaks, right now still gray-green from winter.
Then you turn a corner and break out into rolling vineyards, their sticks and vines still skinny and stark, and it's as surprising as it is beautiful.
And there's this question, too: Where is everybody? This is an hour and a few minutes from central Sacramento. Why are the roads so quiet?
"Lots of people never get past Amador," said Lucinda Sullivan, who with her husband runs Lucinda's Country Inn, a comfortably modern, five-room B&B.
"It's like there's a curtain at Sobon Estate" on Shenandoah Road at the east end of the Amador circuit, said Jonathan Lachs, co-owner and winemaker at Cedarville Vineyard, one of the most respected wineries in the foothills.
"It's like there's a skull and crossbones there with a sign that says 'Dead Men Pass This Way,' " said Mike Iverson, owner of Iverson Winery, another unexpectedly sophisticated wine producer, not to mention a picnic spot with a killer view.
"In Amador, people see the vineyards and know they're in wine country," he said. "Here, they have no idea what's down a road or through a gate."
Mystery's part of the fun
That's part of the charm. One gate just past the Fair Play enclave leads to Iverson's ridgetop winery. Up the way is Slug Gulch Road, which seems like it should dead end but actually connects to a handful of wineries, including Oakstone, justifiably one of the most popular spots here.
And there is Stoney Creek Road, a half-mile south of the Fair Play village. It heads past what appears to be a few small homes, then splits, with Charles B. Mitchell Winery to the left and Barclay Homestead to the right.
That homestead and B&B is, simply enough, way cool. It has a rustic tasting room for the small winery and microbrewery, six guest rooms, a lake house (looking over an adorable little "lake"), ducks walking up the road, friendly house dogs, a comfy main house, a century-plus of history as a working ranch, 67 bucolic acres, and a feeling of total escape. Plus it's less than a mile to Bocconato Trattoria.
That's the thing, too. This feels far enough away to be a great escape. A visit doesn't have to be about wine tasting.
But if it is, this is a distinctive little region, with enough altitude (2,000 to 3,000 feet) and drainage to make special wines ranging from viognier to cabernet sauvignon, says Lachs. He and his wife, Susan Marks, are both University of California, Davis, enology grads who looked for property for 10 years before buying their 20 acres here in 1995. They've been getting raves nearly since their first vintage.
"Part of the attraction for us was that the area was remote," Lachs told me. "That made it affordable, and let us be both a sustainable vineyard and a sustainable business.
"There's fantastic potential in the soil and the climate, and there's a community of wineries and people here. We think this is a special, really unique place," he said.
If there's anyone who defines the word "unique," and the independence, quirkiness and approachable ease here for visitors, it might be Charles B. Mitchell. He's the owner of the winery with his name, and of Winery by the Creek, which is, more or less, the main building in the town of Fair Play.
Mitchell is a veteran winemaker, world traveler and a charmer when he conducts his salon tastings at Winery by the Creek. He's also a seaplane pilot who drives a large black back-country-tough Toyota pickup, and he wears a beret. How do you not like this guy?
"Salon" tasting, by the way, undersells the hourlong event. It's not an overelegant, pinky-in-the-air thing; it's a seated food-and-wine tasting in the barrel room that's lighted with candles. Mitchell guides tasters, joking and talking in clear, straightforward terms about wine and food.
Rene Hamlin and her husband, Marcus Christian, were up from Sacramento and sitting at a table as Mitchell explained how a salty cheese would blend smoothly with a bright pinot grigio. And he said to make sure to look at the color of the wine, just because.
"I'd describe that as brilliant," he said.
"Isn't that subjective?" Hamlin asked with genuine curiosity.
"It is," Mitchell said. "So what?"
They both giggled.
"With wine," Mitchell said. "all you have to do is enjoy yourself."
Easy to do here. So where is everybody?