The Fair Play sub-region is an AVA that was established in 2001. Wineries in Fair Play are beginning to produce some of the most impressive examples of Foothills wines.
The terroir is distinctive. Decomposed granite soils, layered with clay and loam, give rise to sometimes rich, often mineral-driven grapes that can be highly concentrated when yields are controlled. The summers and early falls can be extremely hot, but cool air from the Sierras drops down overnight to help maintain acidity in the grapes and lengthen the growing season. The North, Middle, and South Forks of the Cosumnes River and Perry Creek run through the region producing numerous aspects and microclimates that provide many growing options and that can lead to complex blends.
Fair Play was originally a gold mining town located at the intersections of Perry Creek Rd and Idlewild Rd, just a quarter mile north of E16 Winery’s tasting room. The town was surrounded by numerous gold mines, the largest of which was the Slug Gulch mine not far from Bumgarner Winery. The old mines are now on private property (do not try to explore).
Highway E-16 (known here as Mount Aukum Road) runs north-south through the region connecting four east-west spurs. Most of the top-quality wineries are located along or near the Fairplay Rd and Perry Creek Rd loop. Just south, Omo Ranch Rd extends from E-16 to the east end of Fair Play Rd and is dotted with wineries with some exciting new ownership. Further south is Cedar Creek Rd with many high-quality vineyards and the ever-interesting Cedar Creek Ranch Winery tucked away. At the northern end of the region is Grizzly Flat Road (not shown on map), home to several small wineries, including Saluti Cellars, a beautiful setting for tasting, and La Clarine Farm which makes some highly-regarded natural wines but unfortunately does not have a tasting room.
Mediterranean grape varieties dominate here, but others are showing great promise. Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah are particularly at home in the abundant sunshine. Some Zinfandels rival the more famous versions from the Shenandoah Valley. High quality versions of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties are on the rise. One of the big stars of the region is Petite Sirah, and some of the single varietal versions are as good as any on the planet. Unfortunately, because of its color and structure, it is sometimes overly blended into the wines of the region where its strong flavors and coarse tannins can dominate the wine. Fortunately, the modern trend is moving away from this, and beautiful examples of more subtle wines are now the shining stars of this up-and-coming region.
A note on the name: the correct town name is Fair Play (two words). According to deep-rooted locals, the name was given to distinguish the mining town from the nearby town of Hangtown (now Placerville), which was not reputed to be a place where fairness was not evenly doled out. Unfortunately at some point, the state named the main road through Fair Play as Fairplay Road (one word), and there has since been much confusion over the correct spelling. So... you now muct turn onto Fairplay Road to drive through the town of Fair Play and to visit wineries in the Fair Play AVA.
Jonathan Lachs and Susan Marks met at UC Davis studying enology, worked as winemakers in Napa and the Central Coast, and then in 1995 discovered Fair Play and its granitic soils and decided this is where they would set up their winery. Cedarville’s prized, organically grown grapes are used both in their estate wines and sold to elite producers such as Turley, Skinner, and La Clarine Farms.
Cedarville has no employees, opting instead to be entirely hands-on in both the vineyard and the cellar. Grapes are hand-harvested, carefully sorted, and processed in very small lots with minimal adjustments. The beauty of the grapes and the deft touch of a skilled and experienced winemaker result in wines that are truly reflective of the region. Cedarville bottles single-varietal wines that highlight the subtle and distinctive nature of the grape varieties in the Fair Play terroir, including the Foothills Wino Syrah of the Year, and two blends with enormous complexity.
Cedarville tasting are by appointment only, so you will need to plan ahead. The upside, though, is that you are likely to have Jonathan himself guide you through the vineyard and the tasting lineup.
6320 Marestail Road
Somerset, CA 95684
Hours: by appointment only
The name Gwinllan comes from the ancient Welsh word for vineyard and is an homage to the homeland of Gordon and Chris Pack who hail from England and Wales. After trying their hands at growing grapes in the South of England (before climate change and before such a thing was so chic), the Packs decided they wanted to find a more hospitable climate in which to start their winery. After tasting some Fair Play wines and discovering the beauty of the region, they purchased a perfectly situated 80-acre property in 2005. A cave was carved into the ground, acres of various vines were planted, and now truly world-class wines are flowing, and they are getting better every year as the vines mature.
Gordon and Chris have served as the winemakers since inception, but now they have some significant help. Their son Jonathan Pack went off to UC Davis Viticulture and Enology school and has returned to help run the vineyard and the cellar. Jonathan is emerging as one of the most sought-after winemaking experts in the region and is now the winemaker/consultant for many of the regions top and up-and-coming wineries.
The cave tastings are a treat. Chris and Gordon will regale you with their stories and delightful personalities while you taste through flights containing sparkling, white, rose, red, and dessert wines. All are of remarkable quality and complexity, but the sparkling wines, available in Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noir, and Rose styles, are worth the trip all by themselves.
7060 Fair Play Road
Somerset, CA 95684
Hours: Friday, Saturday, Sunday 11:00-5:00
Skinner is a story of old and new. The old is James Skinner, a Scottish immigrant pioneer who journeyed west during the Gold Rush and found gold. James leveraged his good fortune into the formation of the J. Skinner Native Wine and Brandy Company in 1861 in the town of Rescue on the western edge of El Dorado county. Fast forward to the new... and Mike and Carey Skinner’s serendipitous discovery of Mike’s ancestry and family history in 2006. The Skinners decided to re-establish the family business, and they bought vineyard land close to James’ original winery. Soon thereafter, they bought some of the most prized and beautiful land in Fair Play for their winery, tasting room, and second vineyard.
The winery itself is also a story of old and new. Early in the development, the Skinners hired upstart and highly-regarded winemaker Chris Pittenger to help design the winery, plan the vineyard, craft the wines, and develop a house style. After evaluating the climate and soils and researching the family heritage, it was decided that the varieties of the Rhone Valley and Southern France would be perfectly suited. Skinner quickly became a top-rated Rhone-style house and was named one of the Top 100 Wineries in the world by Wine & Spirits Magazine in 2017. But alas, 2017 was to be final vintage for Chris as he and his family returned to Sonoma County. And so… in with the new! The new is fresh, young winemaker Adam Smith with millennial sensibilities and a willingness to experiment with modern techniques and mix them into the established traditional styles that were in place in the Skinner cellar. Who knows what the results will be, but the early indicators are positive. The 2018 Grenache Blanc is lively, bright, and unlike most Rhone-style wines you’ll try, and a 2018 Viognier Orange Wine is intriguing and a hot seller.
No discussion of Skinner would be complete without mentioning the setting. The beautifully crafted tasting room sits atop a ridgeline that overlooks the entire Fair Play region. It would not be hyperbole to say the view is perhaps the most spectacular of all wineries in California. You can enjoy a seated, outdoor tasting while taking in the view. A great plan is to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the lower patio following your tasting.
8054 Fair Play Road
Somerset, CA 95684
Hours: Thursday-Monday 11:00-5:00
Foothills Wino Wineries to Watch
Brian and Jennifer Bumgarner have been making some of the most highly regarded wines in El Dorado County for over a decade. They now have a winery of their own in Fair Play, and exciting things are starting to happen. They also have the best hard apple cider in the region. (Also with tasting room in Apple Hill/Camino)
Chaim Gur-Arieh is a world renowned food scientist, biochemist, and tinkerer. His notable contributions to the food world include Cap’n Crunch cereal, Pudding Cups, and Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing. Needing a change and a new challenge, Chaim decided to turn his attention to winemaking. He and his wife Elisheva now make outstanding, mostly fruit-forward wines at their winery in El Dorado county and pour them at their tasting room in Amador county.
If you are looking for hands-on, small lot production in an out-of-the-way setting, Cedar Creek Ranch is the place for you. In 1997, Karen Wood discovered the ranch, planted grapes, and started making some of the best wines in the Foothiils. Viognier, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, and (recently) Cabernet Sauvignon are all that is made here with the focus being on precision rather than variety. All are outstanding. Tastings by appointment only.
A gorgeous cave in the heart of Fair Play forms the tasting room for the E16 Winery, named for the highway three miles to the west. The winery specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is sourced from the coast, but the local Syrah and Grenache Blanc are also excellent.
One of the newest Fair Play wineries, Element 79 is named for the atomic number for gold in honor of the metal that made the region famous. The tasting room is intimate and stylish with a nice vineyard view. The wines are shaping up nicely as the new owners search for their house style. This is definitely one to keep an eye on. (Don’t be confused by the neighbor’s sign that is rudely encroaching the parking lot… if you drive through the Element 79 gate, you are in the right place)
Kehret Vineyards is perched atop a 2600 mountain of granite and offers 270 degree views that span from the high Sierras to the Coastal range. Bill and Bonnie Kehret bought the winery formerly known as Mount Aukum Winery in 2018. Though beautifully situated, the winery was not in very good shape, but the Kehrets are here to change that and have recently hired winemaker Steve Leveque (of HALL and Chalk Hill fame) to push through the transformation. The goal here is to make truly world-class wines that highlight the unique Foothills terroir. From the encouraging early signs from what we’ve tasted, it is just a matter of time before they get there. We expect the quality of wines to soon equal the quality of the views from the tasting room.
La Clarine Farm
As leaders in the natural wine movement, Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel believe in minimal intervention wine making… no added yeast, no destemming, no new oak, no enzymes, no MLF inoculation, and hardly ever any sulfur. They are not looking to make safe, sound wines. They are looking for unique and interesting expressions of their terroir. Tasting La Clarine Farms wines is an adventurous experience and is always rewarding.
Tastings by appointment only.
There is perhaps no winery in the Foothills we are more eager to watch than Mellowood. Martine and Gui purchased the existing vineyard and winery in 2018. They are currently in the process of selling inventory from the previous owner (which isn’t at all bad… the 2017 Syrah is actually quite good) and preparing the way for their own wines. Gui, who lived and trained in the Languedoc in the South of France, has exciting plans for the transition. We expect something special, and we are hopeful Mellowood will lead a resurgence of the Omo Road section of Fair Play.
Part of the Goldline Brands group (along with 1850 which has a tasting room in Sutter Creek), Mediterranean offers a wide range of wines, many from some older vines, in a delightful setting. We will be watching as this relatively new winery finds it footing and the statement it wants to make.
Mon-Sun 11:00-5:00 (open later on weekends, check website for special events)
John Miller loves big reds. He harvests fully-ripe grapes and focuses on full extraction of flavors in all of his red wines, which are mostly Bordeaux and Italian varieties (the Lagrein is particularly intriguing). His production level is very small, and his wines have acquired a cult-like following. Though famous for his reds, the whites are surprisingly good as well.
Oakstone is known for its diverse selection of award-winning, single-varietal wines made in small batches. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the best in the Foothills, and the Zinfandel is a crowd-pleaser. Our favorites are some of the lesser-known varietals, like Mourvedre, Charbono, Carignane, and Alicante Bouschet.
Perry Creek is one of the largest and most established wineries in Fair Play. We are excited to watch their wines evolve under the direction of new winemaker Summer Chesshire.
Off of Grizzly Flats Road in a 250 acre canyon and several miles from the heart of Fair Play, Saluti Cellars is an oasis that is worth the trip for the beauty of the property alone. Known primarily for its Bed and Breakfast and Wedding venue, the wines are on an uptick and worthy of keeping a close watch on.
A love of wine, especially Italian wine, is the bond that united a group of families and motivated them to join forces and purchase the property that would become Sentivo Vineyards & Winery in 2010. Sentivo means “to feel” in Italian, and you truly can feel the warmth and care that has gone into the creating of the winery and the wines. The tasting room opened in 2017 and is beautiful and inviting.
There aren’t many friendlier winery dogs than Kona who will be happy to let you pet him as you taste. An outdoor firepit hosts some happy hour events, if you are lucky enough to time your visit just right. Jonathan Pack from Gwinllan consults, and it shows. The Syrah and Syrah Rosé are perhaps our favorites, the Petite Sirah is a beautiful expression of the variety, and the Grenache seems to get better with each vintage.
With a tasting room in an 1888 homestead on beautiful rolling hills in a private setting, a visit to Shadow Ranch is a peaceful experience. The wines seem to get better with each harvest and are certainly worth keeping an eye on. The Tempranillo is one of the best in the Foothills.