I kid her anyway. I am, after all, a resident of Los Angeles and therefore, a sophisticate (before you protest, please note the tongue placed firmly in my cheek.)
The majority of the population of her town are conservative white people, both politically and culturally, and it's still just a tiny bastion of civilization in the middle of farmland. (Look - tongue still in cheek.)
But there are some advantages to living in the agriculture capital of California: a lot of those farms are planted with one of our state's most popular crops -- GRAPES.
My sister's home is just a one or two hour drive to some of the best wine regions in the world: Napa and Sonoma, and we often try to squeeze a tasting trip into our holiday visits up there. So I was enthusiastic when Linda suggested it over Thanksgiving weekend, pointing out that Friday was my husband's birthday -- and that it would also be her first opportunity to engage in this little family tradition with her eldest daughter, who had turned 21 a couple of weeks ago.
But with the current state of the economy, Linda suggested we skip Napa and Sonoma this time around, as the tasting rooms there charge as much as $10 (or more!) to sample their offerings. She thought we might enjoy checking out one of the newer wine regions in the area: El Dorado County.
El Dorado County is located to the east of Sacramento and stretches out to Lake Tahoe (as do some of the adjacent state counties). It boasts some of the oldest vineyards in the state and is home to 50 wineries in two different appellations: El Dorado County and Fair Play.
Our visit was to the latter, which had been an appellation only since 2001. As it turns out, my sister has wine club memberships there ("Gives me an excuse to go every quarter to pick up my wine," she says) and there were some bottles waiting for them.
There are around 20 boutique (mostly family-owned) wineries in Fair Play, and as we did not arrive there until after noon, I think we fared really well by hitting five of them (that's 20% of the total in just four hours!)
Our first stop was the winery at Toogood Estate. Owner Paul Toogood (yes, that's his real name) was a successful veterinarian with a passion for wine. He started building his winery by excavating a huge cave and put the entire operation inside, including the tasting room and a unique Flintstone-style dining room. You enter the winery through a corridor lined with oaken barrels of aging wine (which were merrily decorated for the holidays with cheery Christmas lights).
This is one of the wine clubs my sister belongs to, and she had arranged for our use of the dining area. As long as we were there, we uncorked one of her wine club bottles and enjoyed it with our picnic lunch.
The tasting room at Toogood was packed that day. There must have been close to a hundred people crammed next to the wine bar, all enjoying wine with names like Foreplay, Red Mutt and Who's Your Daddy? I have to hand it to them - they have a great sense of style and humor. I just wish their wine was as much fun as their winery. The ones we sampled were not "too good" -- just OK. We did not buy any bottles to take home.
The next stop was more promising. Shadow Ranch Winery is a gem, in a restored homestead built in 1888 (on one of the state's original land grants). The young owner, Sam Patterson, comes from a winemaking family. Like many vintners in the area, he has a degree in Enology and Viticulture from UC Davis (as well as a degree in business).
Sam is assisted n the tasting room by his sister (drat! I didn't get her name!). Both originally hail from Chatsworth (here in the San Fernando Valley), and we had a lively discussion about how different it is down here.
But as pleasant as it is to hang out with the Pattersons, the real joy is the taste of their wines. Sam is good at what he does. I especially liked the Shadow Ranch Zinfandel -- which is weird, because I'm not usually a big fan of Zins. Sam explained the process he uses that results in fewer tannins in the fruit.
I wish I could remember what that was; by this time I was a little snockered. I had been pretty free about using the spill bucket over at Toogood - but I didn't want to waste a drop of the wines served at Shadow Ranch.
Unfortunately, the winery's website is being overhauled so as of this post, there isn't a lot of information there. I did find an article about them at California Wine Magazine -- and you can email Sam about the Shadow Ranch wine club at email@example.com.
We hit three more wineries that day: Single Leaf, Oakstone and Iverson -- where we spent a long time chatting with friendly owners Mike and Melodie Iverson, the hospitable tasting room hosts. The Iverson wines were really easy to drink - and Mike was happy to pour us a sample of everything he had (including vintages that were NOT on the tasting menu - yeah, we bought a few of those).
Tasting in Fair Play reminded me of our first forays into this activity -- before it became big business. The wineries were small and the owners themselves poured the wine in the tasting rooms. We didn't have to pay for the privilege of tasting, which left us more cash we could use to buy wines to take home.
It's true that the wine in Fair Play is not as fine as the product they serve in Napa and Sonoma... but it's also a lot more affordable, and you're bringing home vintages that you can drink every day. And ultimately, that makes it a lot more fun.