Dunne on Wine

Seeking wine out of the way? – try Fair Play

Mark and Yvette Albright of Sacramento on the deck of Skinner Vineyards and Winery, overlooking the Fair Play appellation.
Mark and Yvette Albright of Sacramento on the deck of Skinner Vineyards and Winery, overlooking the Fair Play appellation. Special to The Bee

In Nevada, cherries are pretty easy to come by, especially in casinos. Wine grapes? Don’t bet on it.

Nevada is one of few states to not have a single American Viticultural Area, the term federal officials use to designate a wine region.

So what’s a Nevadan with an interest in wine to do? Head west, naturally.

The drive into California from Gardnerville, Carson City, Reno and thereabouts may be long, but it’s scenic as wine enthusiasts cross the Sierra and plunge to the wine enclaves of Placer, Amador and other foothill counties buckling up from the valley floor.

Nevadans seem to have a particular affinity for wineries in and about the El Dorado County area of Fair Play, an American Viticultural Area since 2001.

There, Shaun and Jeannine Blaylock of Palissandro Vineyard and Winery figure 45 percent of their tasting-room traffic and wine-club membership is made up of Nevadans.

Randy Rossi of Saluti Cellars puts his estimate at 25 percent. John and Barbara MacCready of Sierra Vista Vineyards and Winery calculate that Nevadans account for around 15 percent of their business.

Josh Bendick doesn’t think Nevadans make up more than 5 percent of the traffic at Holly’s Hill Vineyards, but adds, “There’s definitely a lot of Nevada plates in the parking lot.”

What do Nevadans find so alluring about Fair Play? To get a grasp on the area’s appeal, I spent two days this fall meandering about its hollows and hills.

As California wine regions go, Fair Play and neighboring Pleasant Valley form a wine destination remote, rustic and uncommonly relaxed. Traffic in tasting rooms and on roads is uncongested. Winery principals are apt to be pouring tastes, or otherwise working on the premises. Most winery tasting rooms don’t even open until 11 a.m., and then only on and about weekends.

Yet in variety and quality the wines of Fair Play and Pleasant Valley show that the region’s vintners are as attuned to progressive grape growing and winemaking as any in the state. Unless a wine enthusiast is partial to cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, more often disappointing than gratifying when made in the foothills, a day or two exploring Fair Play and Pleasant Valley almost certainly will unearth a few surprising nuggets. (While Fair Play is an official viticultural area, Pleasant Valley’s vintners have yet to petition federal authorities for similar recognition.)

No one varietal or style of wine is most closely identified with the area. That’s in part because it’s a jumble of soils, inclines, exposures and elevations, making it amenable to a wide range of grape varieties.

Fair Play is small, its soils largely granite based, its vineyards generally between 2,000 feet and 3,000 feet elevation, accounting for its motto: “Wines with Altitude.”

Pleasant Valley has fewer wineries, but its vineyards, rooted more in volcanic soil, are higher and cooler. Secondly, despite a history of grape growing and winemaking that dates to the Gold Rush, viticulture and enology in the area stagnated in the wake of played out goldfields, the rise of more popular crops and the the scourge of Prohibition. (In a tip to the area’s early wine history, the MacCreadys of Sierra Vista have introduced a second label, Tiger Lily, after a winery founded in the vicinity in 1871.)

Only in the 1960s did farmers start to take another look at the area as potential vine land, and their tentative success, coupled with the growing popularity of California wine generally, laid the foundation for today’s approximately 400 acres cultivated to wine grapes and nearly 40 wineries in Fair Play and Pleasant Valley.

Sacramentans can tour the area starting in the north via Highway 50, Diamond Springs and Pleasant Valley Road, or from the south via Highway 16, Shenandoah Valley and River Pines. Either way is about an hour drive from Sacramento.

Be prepared for narrow and winding roads, and take seriously the warning of “suicidal deer,” as I found when coming upon a doe and two fawns crossing Perry Creek Road just beyond that road sign.

Accommodations and dining options are few and scattered, but visitors can order sandwiches online or by phone from the deli at Holiday Market in Pleasant Valley and take them to the picnic tables of Pioneer Park just down Mount Aukum Road, which also has a disc golf course, ball fields, a playground and a horse arena.

Other than that, vintners talk highly of the burgers and barbecue at Bones Roadhouse in Pleasant Valley. For fine dining at the end of a day of tasting, there’s Gold Vine Grill at Somerset or Taste in Plymouth just beyond Fair Play’s southern boundary.

Picknickers also are welcome at wineries, several of which encourage visitors to linger for panoramic views of the Sierra, bocce-ball courts, pizza ovens and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Tourists who want to revive their withered palates with a glass of beer will find brews on tap at the wineries Gold Mountain and Palissandro. Sax player and winemaker Ruggero Mastroserio frequently assembles a combo for jam sessions just outside the tasting room of his eponymous winery.

Fair Play may be remote and isolated, but it doesn’t lack for several of the amenities that wine pilgrims like.

As to the wines of Fair Play and Pleasant Valley, they range in quality and value from agreeable to spectacular. The MacCreadys of Sierra Vista were the first in the region to explore the potential of grape varieties historically associated with France’s Rhone Valley, such as syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, viognier and roussanne.

Their success encouraged others to play along, and today Fair Play and Pleasant Valley are recognized widely for first-rate Rhone-style wines from such producers as La Clarine Farm, Sierra Vista, Holly’s Hill, Cedarville, Miraflores and Skinner.

Zinfandel, the grape and wine historically most linked to the Sierra foothills, isn’t being shunted aside, however. Vintage after vintage, Marco Cappelli of Miraflores turns out an exceptionally refined yet forthright version, while Sierra Vista and Shadow Ranch also release steady interpretations.

Maybe Nevadans are drawn to Fair Play and Pleasant Valley for the gambling spirit of so many of its vintners. Many have gleefully embraced long-ignored grape varieties such as teroldego, pinotage, carmenere, charbono and fiano, usually with more success than not.

John Smith of the brands Obscurity and Oakstone (now owned by Steve and Liz Ryan) revived prospects for the old California workhorse alicante bouschet.

Cappelli at Miraflores has revived an even older California style of wine, Angelica, and is about to release his take on the state’s original wine grape, mission. And the Gordon Pack family of Gwinllan Estate is showing that even the dry and warm foothills can yield a lean, stoney and bracing riesling.

While the Sierra foothills lacks a positive track record for consistently growing well cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay, the occasional exception can be found. John MacCready, for one, has refined two styles of chardonnay, one surprisingly rich and layered despite its total absence of exposure to oak barrels, one classically Californian for its time in wood. Other notable chardonnays are being produced by MV Winery and Narrow Gate. And cabernet sauvignons of freshness and poise were found at Sierra Vista and MV Winery.

Fair Play and Pleasant Valley, in short, offer wine enthusiasts a veritable roulette wheel of grape varieties and wine styles. In giving it a spin, Sacramentans have an advantage over Nevadans by their proximity to the region. Better yet, as fall segues into winter, odds are that Sacramentans won’t have to strap on tire chains to visit the area.

Mike Dunne is The Bee’s former restaurant critic, wine columnist and food editor. In retirement, he continues to contribute a wine column to The Bee’s Wednesday edition.