El Dorado Co Wine: It’s a Thing

Come for the wine, stay for the wine

Every year around this time, the winemakers of El Dorado County host a “Passport Weekend” where they put on the dog and invite folks to come up the hill and taste wines, eat food, and, hopefully, buy lots of stuff. I have to admit, they got me to do all of it.

First, a definition of what EDC wine is. It’s wine from a few distinct areas: 1. Apple Hill and environs, 2. Fairplay, and 3. whatever that part in-between is called. Let’s call it Pleasant Valley and move on. It’s about an hour plus a few country roads from Sac, but it feels a lot further. Why? I have no idea, but every time I go to one of these events in EDC I feel like it’s a pain in the ass. I’ll admit that I’m an Amador guy. I’m up in Amador almost every other month. I love it up there and I love almost all the wineries.

I don't want to drink anything that looks like a bad holy land souvenir

El Dorado, I feel, is a bit more hit and miss. Some of the wineries have good wine, some have good views, others have nice dogs, and all of them have horrid labels (honestly, almost every El Dorado wine I can think of has a label more fit to be on a crate of Armenian mid-range auto parts than a wine). Wait, I take that back. Stickie and I stumbled upon a new enterprise in the Apple Hill area that has both good labels and good wine (and amazing cider). It’s called Bumgardner, and it’s right off Carson road. Stop there next time you’re at Apple Hill.

But this little post is going to be about the greater Fairplay region, because that’s where I went last weekend with a buddy of mine for Passport Weekend. My lovely companion was busy so I opted to bring along a pal, who I will call Scatman Crothers in order to mask his real identity save his reputation from irretrievable harm.

So, Scatman and I hit the trail early Saturday morning, both a little hungover from Friday night revelry, and neither looking forward to unceasing travels on winding foothill roads. Our tickets were waiting for us at Cantiga Wineworks, a brand with which I was wholly unfamiliar. It’s tucked away in a little town called Somerset off Grizzly Flat Rd. By the time we found it, I wasn’t in the most charitable of moods and my stomach was in dire need of some crackers. So, perhaps, I didn’t give the wine at Cantiga a fair shake. I found most of their wines fairly undrinkable and lacking in most qualities I look for in a wine, save wetness. Each pourer kept telling us that the winemaker prefers “old world” style wines which might seem a little different than what we were used to. I’m assuming that what they meant by “old world” was “drinkable only with food spiced to within an inch of life then covered with olives then smothered with lemon then set on fire and consumed so that you really don’t notice the wine much.” Like I said, charity wasn’t in my palate right away. Scatman didn’t seem to mind the wines, but he especially loved the calamari which he devoured enough of to populate an entire squiddy orphanage.

Next, we drove a few hundred yards to Busby Cellars, the only other winery within shouting distance of Cantiga. ‘Twas night and day, my friend, night and day. Relaxed, casual, and fun it was, the kind of place where merriment trumped hygiene, where dogs roamed free and wild yeast was kept as a pet. The wines were all pretty drinkable, variable from fruity to dry depending on the style and very well priced (no wine being more than $20 a bottle). I picked up a bottle of Block 7 Zinfandel for my mother who likes her wine “jammy.” She’ll like the Block 7 as it was just this side of grape jelly. It was at this point that I quickly rethought my drinking strategy. As the driver of our twosome, I would be a flaming comet of danger if I continued to try every wine offered me, so I let Scatman do the heavy lifting and only minimally tasted wines after he first gave his scat of approval. Ok kids? Be responsible. Wine tasting is still drinking, and you shouldn’t drink and drive.

Pretty, right?

Our next stop was a bit of a hike, but one well worth the effort. Shadow Ranch was new to me, and apparently new to most as it’s only been open a few years. The ‘Ranch immediately struck me as a place to remember. The wines hit me right in the glory hole (that’s right I’m taking the phrase “glory hole” back, deal with it!), the grounds were charming yet not too fussy, and the branding impeccable. Their ’09 Tempranillo was lovely and their ’08 Syrah just short of amazing.

Just down the path from Shadow Ranch lay Single Leaf Vineyards, a place I was immediately predisposed to hate. Why? Because I had a headache that’s why. Because Scatman was starting to laugh about things only in his head in a day drunk kinda way, then start mumbling about something or other that I tried to ignore then it turned out he was actually asking me a question then he got all bent out of shape that I was ignoring him. That’s why. Turns out I couldn’t help but like the place. Single Leaf is a party unto itself. First, everyone there was drinking beer, which I always take as a good sign as it speaks to a lack of pretension. Also some kind soul had been manning a smoker all night and had turned out some exemplary turkey and duck from which I sampled liberally. The revelation at Single Leaf was their selection of inexpensive table wines. Cheap, tasty, and wet they were, all the qualities I look for in a table wine (and a glory hole you’re probably thinking, well get your mind out of the gutter sleazeball!).  Huzzah for cheap wine and happy people.

A shot of Fitzpatrick's and the view below. Rather exceptional.

Our penultimate stop was at Fitzpatrick Winery. You know Fitzpatick, the guy with the beard that sells his wine and olive oil at the Sunday farmer’s market. Anyway, Fitz is known for two things up in El Dorado, having the best view in the whole county, and having some of the worst wine. I fully agree with the first and only half heartedly with the second. Yes, their wine is subpar, but their two pinks, a dry rose and a sweeter rose, are both lovely and absolutely perfect for a warm summer’s day, which is exactly what you want to spend at Fitzpatick. Honestly, the view is breathtaking, literally breathtaking. Even the most callous human could sit on Fitz’s expansive deck and soak in the valley for the better part of an afternoon without getting the slightest bit bored.

Last stop: Latcham Vineyards. Let’s keep this short. Scatman was drinking everything in sight by this point and getting into deep conversations with winemakers about the role of the media in a complete branding strategy (as a companion, his pass said media on it as well and he took full advantage of the attention). Latcham was slinging some serious Costco appetizers, and everyone in sight was about four-and-a-half sheets to the wind by this point. Memorable wine at Latcham, the Barbera which might be the best in EDC. It’s almost as good as the best offerings in Amador, but that’s another post.

So, if this sounds like a fun afternoon to you, you can still attend Passport Weekend on Saturday and Sunday (April 21 & 22). Tix are $70 for the weekend and can be bought here.

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