It was ten years ago that we first began making an annual trip to this wonderful wine country in the Sierra Foothills. Much has changed in that time, with many more wineries having been established in recent years, and very noticeable improvement in the quality of wines from this region.
Our base for our visit to the Sierra Foothills is the town of Sutter Creek. We consider it to be the best little town in the Gold Country of the Sierra Foothills. The town is quaint with many small shops, restaurants and other attractions. We make our home at the Hanford House Inn in Sutter Creek where owners Robert and Athena Gordon are very gracious hosts. On our annual trek to these parts, we always spend one full day exploring the wineries in the Fair Play AVA. It is about a 35-minute drive to Fair Play. The Fair Play AVA located in El Dorado County has the unique geographic feature of having the highest average elevation of any of the AVA’s in California. The average elevation is 2500 feet. Here are three wineries we enjoyed immensely in our visit the past week.
Cedarville is always at the top of our list of wineries to visit. Owners Jonathan and Susan are a terrific winemaking team and they put their hearts and souls into making some fantastic wines. The emphasis is on Rhone wines, and in my opinion all their wines deliver high quality at a very reasonable price point. The wines are very balanced and layered, with many delicate characteristics. The winery is open by appointment, so call ahead before visiting. We tasted through the lineup of wines and once again were totally impressed with the overall quality. I must declare that their current release of the 2009 Syrah is the best they have made, and we have tried all their Syrah vintages. The other Rhone wines in their lineup include an organically grown Viognier, a Grenache, and a Petite Sirah. They also make a dazzling Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. All wines are estate grown except for the Petite Sirah. Their Grenache has become somewhat of a cult wine and sells out quickly once released and announced through their mailings.
The Skinner tasting room opened a year ago and is bringing in lots of visitors for two important reasons. The view and setting are beautiful and the wines are excellent, recently receiving accolades from the San Francisco Chronicle wine tasting judges and other wine critics. It appears the winery has spared no expense in putting together a state-of-the-art winery and a wonderful tasting room setting for visitors. Bring your lunch and sit below to enjoy the serenity of this location. Even on cold days the area is sheltered and there are heat lamps to warm the soul. We very much enjoyed the Grenache Blanc, the Seven Generations (a blend of five Rhone varietals), and the Syrah Stony Creek Vineyard.
The Palissandro Winery just opened a couple of weeks ago and the unusual aspect of it is the emphasis on Italian varietals, something that is not being done at any other winery in Fair Play. Down in the Amador region we see Barbera and Sangiovese, but not in Fair Play. Owner Shaun Baylock is carrying this step well beyond, experimenting with planting several other Italian varietals in his estate vineyards. This includes the famed Nebbiolo grape that produces the Barolo and Barbaresco wines of the Italian Piedmont region. Shaun estimates it will take perhaps as long as ten years to see the potential of this grape. The other Italian grapes planted are Corvina, Pinot Grigio, Grignolino, and Montepulciano. The winery is a work in progress but the tasting room is open to guests on the weekends and by appointment during the week. Shaun has hired good friend and nearby winemaker Robert Van der Vijver to make his wines. Shaun is there every step of the way to lend a hand and make recommendations. In our tasting we thought all the four Italian varietals were excellent wines. We thought the Sangiovese was the best and very much similar in style to wines we’d tasted in Italy this past fall. Pallisandro produces one non-Italian wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, but we felt it was not characteristic of the Cabs we love. I think sticking to the Italian varietals will be a great niche for this winery. We will have to visit again and watch this 700-case winery progress.