Dunne on Wine

Fair Play in El Dorado County is a wine secret ‘on the cusp of discovery’

From left, half the group to own and operate Sentivo Vineyards & Winery in El Dorado County, in their tasting room - Paul Devitt, Michele London and Scott London.
From left, half the group to own and operate Sentivo Vineyards & Winery in El Dorado County, in their tasting room - Paul Devitt, Michele London and Scott London. Mike Dunne

Let’s take a spin up Fair Play way in southwest El Dorado County to see what has been developing on the wine scene:

E16 Winery/Firefall

Pedigree: E16 and Firefall are the brands of Robert Jones, whose grandfather decades ago grew grapes and made home wine in California’s Central Valley. The farming life, however, didn’t appeal to young Robert. “All I wanted was to get off that dirt farm,” he recalls. “I ran as far as I could.”

Jones ended up in the South, then Silicon Valley, making his livelihood in electronics manufacturing. But in 1988 he got a hankering to return to farming and began to scout the Sierra foothills for a vineyard site. The next year he bought a plot at Fair Play, and in 1991 started to put in vines for what now is Baby Rattlesnake Vineyard, 16 acres cultivated principally to the Rhone Valley varieties syrah, viognier and grenache blanc, and the Italian variety barbera.

Why here: When Jones began to ponder grape growing, he was totally unfamiliar with Fair Play, but he was fond of Rhone Valley wines and started to ask local vintners, particularly Scott Harvey in adjoining Amador County and John MacCready of nearby Pleasant Valley, where he should plant syrah.

Their counsel led him to relatively high-elevation Fair Play and its soils of decomposed granite. The clincher was that a plot of available land was next to Frank Herbert Vineyards, one of the more historic and highly regarded vineyards in the foothills. Jones bought the property without ever seeing it. In fall 2016, he acquired the former Winery by the Creek at Fair Play and remodeled it into E16 Winery, the name inspired by motorcycle-friendly Route E16 in the area.

Focus: Jones and his winemaker, Daniel Moore, founding winemaker of the Russian River Valley estates Martinelli and Lynmar, make the E16 and Firefall wines at Balletto Vineyards of Santa Rosa. The brand E16 is devoted largely to pinot noir and chardonnay from several appellations esteemed for the varietals, including Santa Lucia Highlands and Anderson Valley. Firefall is principally for Rhone-inspired varietal wines and blends made with El Dorado grapes.

“We strive to be renowned for simple, elegant wines with finesse and balance,” Jones says. “We want to showcase the terroir of the fruit. We believe Fair Play has some of the choicest syrahs in California.”

Don’t miss: The supple and savory Firefall 2014 El Dorado Baby Rattlesnake Vineyard Syrah ($32), the sweetly fruity and exquisitely balanced E16 2014 Santa Lucia Highlands Upper Bench Pinot Noir ($42), and the aromatic and rich Firefall 2014 El Dorado Baby Rattlesnake Vineyard Grenache Blanc ($32).

The particulars: The tasting room of E16 Winery/Firefall, 8085 Perry Creek Road, Fair Play, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday; tasting fee $10 per person in front area, $15 per person in the cave, which is by appointment only; 530-620-6200.

Sentivo Vineyards & Winery

Pedigree: About a decade ago, three related couples with diverse occupational backgrounds but a shared passion for exploring wine found themselves gravitating toward Fair Play. During an outing there in 2010, one of the couples learned of a small vineyard for sale and persuaded the others to buy it, undaunted that none of the six persons was experienced with growing grapes or making wine.

“I know all the pitfalls of family businesses, but we all have strengths in something, so our business structure is that we each do what we do best,” says Daniela Devitt, whose day job is director of the division of training and workforce development for the California Employees Association.

The other five principals in Sentivo – Italian for “I felt” – are her husband Paul Devitt, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; their daughter Sara Fuelling and her husband Zack Fuelling, who recently moved from El Dorado Hills to the Big Island of Hawaii to pursue their careers in property management; and her sister Michele London and her husband Scott London of Los Angeles, where she has an accounting business and he is COO of a technology company. (The Devitts and the Fuellings also own The Cellar Wine Bar in Folsom’s historic district.)

Why here: “As we went around wine tasting, we were really struck by how wonderful the wines were in Fair Play,” Daniela Devitt says. “That made us look at the growth potential for the area. The soils are unique here, making the wines different. Napa is buying a lot of our grapes. Fair Play is on the cusp of being discovered. We’re still this little secret.”

Focus: The family’s 5-acre vineyard is planted to syrah and petite sirah, and they are focusing on Rhone-inspired styles, particularly bold red wines. Their initial plan was to farm the parcel and sell the grapes, but the allure of making wine quickly captivated them. Their first wines were made from the difficult 2011 vintage. Today, they press grapes on-site but finish the wines under the direction of winemaker Jonathan Pack at his family’s neighboring Gwinllan Estate Vineyard and Winery.

Don’t miss: The silken and strawberry-accented Sentivo 2013 El Dorado Grenache ($32), the forward and spicy Sentivo 2012 El Dorado Mista ($36), a blend of zinfandel, petite sirah and syrah, and the inky, bacony and layered Sentivo 2013 El Dorado Reserve Syrah ($56).

The particulars: The tasting room of Sentivo Vineyards & Winery, 7460 Fairplay Road, Somerset, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday; tasting fee $5 per person.

Skyhawk Lane/Red Poets

Pedigree: Charlie Jobbins and his wife Renee began to make wine as a hobby at their residence along Skyhawk Lane in Topanga in 1997. Three years later, they went commercial and adopted the name Skyhawk Lane for their brand, though they had moved their winemaking to Paso Robles, largely because they admired the fruit of San Luis Obispo County.

They subsequently adopted the name Red Poets for blended wines, retaining Skyhawk Lane for varietal wines. In addition to making wine, Jobbins continued his day job involving asset management, initially for Merrill Lynch, then for his own firm, which he sold in 2016 to focus on winemaking. In 2010 the family moved to South Lake Tahoe in large part so their youngsters, Sarah and Alec, could pursue their passion for ski racing, eventually competing as Junior Olympians.

Why here: Tired of the commute from South Lake Tahoe to Paso Robles, and aware of the rising stature of Fair Play for grapes and wines, Jobbins bought a ranch in the area in 2016 and began to plant albarino, grenache, zinfandel, syrah and petite sirah.

“The micro-climate in Fair Play is very similar to the west side of Paso Robles,” Jobbins says. He expects the winery the couple is designing to be completed by 2020. “Then we will move our winemaking equipment up from Paso Robles, and Fair Play will be our new winemaking home ... commutable from South Lake Tahoe,” Jobbins says.

Focus: The current Skyhawk Lane and Red Poets portfolios run to wines of San Luis Obispo County, with the family’s Fair Play plot not likely to start producing commercial crops for another couple of years. For now, Jobbins relishes the challenge of creating unorthodox yet harmonious blends.

Don’t miss: The balanced, persistent and multifaceted Red Poets 2007 Paso Robles Euphony ($30), an aromatic and earthy blend of syrah, petite sirah and zinfandel, and the Red Poets 2007 Paso Robles Sestina ($30), a dark and aromatic blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.

The particulars: The tasting room for Skyhawk Lane/Red Poets has been along Mount Aukum Road at Somerset, which is where Jobbins was manning a lonely outpost when I stopped by not long ago. The spot has been so lonely that Jobbins recently closed the room and is relocating to 3550 Camino Road on Apple Hill just east of Placerville. He expects to open that tasting room in late February or early March.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.