SECRET PLACES -- Fair Play is the Area 51 of the wine world

by Placerville Newswire / Jun 29, 2019 / comments

[Jon Hendrickson, That Old Man Who Lives Alone with a Cat]

I wrote this piece in, I think, late summer of 2013, inspired by not so subtly eavesdropping on a conversation among Fair Play winery owners about the challenges of marketing wines made in a place most people have never heard of.  .


Three noted Fair Play winery owners* were huddled in a cozy meeting area in the dimly lit backroom of a pub on Placerville’s main street in early August.  There they did what they do best besides making really, really good wine.  And that is to talk about wine and the business of wine.  Making wine is an art and a passion and these guys do what they do because they love doing it.  If you can’t make a living at it, though, the charm of being a winemaker is a transitory one.  The wine business is hard work and there’s a lot of competition for customers, the people who pay the bills.  And, let’s face it, Fair Play doesn’t come quickly to mind in most of the rest of the world.  Even if someone were interested enough to hop in the car for a quick three hour drive to get here, it’s easy to get distracted along the way.  Livermore, Lodi, Clarksburg/Courtland, Amador, Apple Hill, Pleasant Valley and other wine areas have plenty to offer, too.  This is especially true for casual tourists who see one wine area as pretty much the same as the next one farther up the road. 

But Fair Play is not just another wine area and wines made here are far from the same as you can get anywhere else.  In terms of growing climate and soils, this very compact area has at least as much variety as is found anywhere in California.  At around 2,300 feet, the average elevation of the Fair Play appellation is the highest in California.  There are as many or more distinct grape varieties grown here as are found in any other region.  More than 50 distinct grape varieties are grown in El Dorado County and most of them can be found either growing in Fair Play or in Fair Play wines.  All this affords the more serious wine consumer with an opportunity to partake of an extreme variety of wines and wine styles almost as conveniently as strolling down Main Street.  While Fair Play is about as far as you can get from anywhere and still be someplace, getting from one winery to another is no big trick once you’re here.  A further bonus for the connoisseur is that you will more likely than not be talking about the finer points of whatever you are sampling with the person who made it, or owns the winery, or both.  You can appreciate almost anything even more with personal insight into the mind of the person who made it. 

Fair Play wines are pretty uniformly phenomenal, especially when considered from a value standpoint.  The Sierra Foothills appellation, generally, is known for blazing new trails in winemaking styles, particularly with proprietary blends which depart from European traditions.  And Fair Play is taking such innovation to new levels.  Many of the blends are some of the most interestingly complex wines you can find anywhere, and at very reasonable prices.  Almost every winery here has at least one such dazzler that will make you wonder why there isn’t more buzz about them everywhere.  And for those who love varietal wines, there are plenty of choices.  There are all kinds of Zinfandel that will blow your socks off.  The Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petite Sirah grown here make wines that are different from, but every bit as drinkable and interesting as those found in Napa.  Less well known, but equally appealing, varietals abound here as well:  Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Fiano, Malbec, Marsanne, Rousanne, among many others.  Apparently the quality of the wines is not just my subjective opinion.  Acre for acre, Fair Play wineries win way more than their share of awards in statewide and regional competitions.  Several wineries have garnered recent double gold, gold, best in class, best of show and best in state awards.

With all this going for it, why does Fair Play get so little recognition?  Coming from North Dakota, lack of recognition is a subject close to my heart, and for which I have a lot of empathy.  That’s why I found our winemakers’ ruminating these ideas over their wine and beer so interesting.  It’s also what a lot of smart people are trying to figure out because the answer to the question is how the uniqueness and goodness of Fair Play wines are going to find a larger audience and bring to Fair Play the benefits of that recognition. 

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to our three winemaking friends, decisions made in the dimly lit back rooms of our nation’s capital were about to add a new perspective to their discussion.  In response to a Federal Freedom of Information Act request filed by the George Washington University National Security Archive in 2005, the CIA recently released another version of its report documenting the history of the CIA’s involvement in high altitude overhead surveillance.  This time, however, the name of a particular facility near Groom Lake in Nevada was not redacted and, for the very first time, the existence of a place called Area 51 officially became a matter of public record.  

Area 51 is a very lonely parcel of desert real estate attached to the northeast corner of an even larger lonely parcel of desert real estate in southern Nevada known as the Nevada Test Site.  This was where various and sundry horrors of the Cold War were evaluated for their effectiveness in scaring the Russians into submission.  Our government, apparently believing it prudent to scare the bejesus out of the Russians, but not so much out of its own citizens, wrapped the activities of the Nevada Test Site in a cloak of secrecy and deception.  And the most un-be-freaking-lievably highly Top Secret place on the planet was Area 51.  The site was developed to accommodate final assembly, test flight and pilot training for the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft, which was the state of the stealthy arts from the time of its first flight in 1955 until Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk in 1960.

The history of Area 51 is inextricably linked to the “Skunk Works,” a division of Lockheed Aircraft.  The Skunk Works’ specialty was quietly performing aeronautical miracles for its customers, prominently the CIA.  Its trademark was using off-the-shelf hardware in innovative ways to fulfill the missions it was given.  For forty years or more, the Skunk Works was responsible for creating some of the most cutting edge aeronautical advances in complete secrecy.  In fact, the level of secrecy surrounding the activities at what became known as “the Ranch” was so tight that when theories about alien visitation, time travel and “men in black” in relation to Area 51 inevitably sprang up, the stories being “neither confirmed nor denied” reinforced them.  The government found the stories to be helpful misdirection, making concealment of the true purposes of the Groom Lake facility even easier.  Project Blue Book, which purported to document and research UFO activity in the United States, was part of this intentional disinformation.  The government was perfectly aware of the 65% correlation between reports of UFO sightings and flights of its covert reconnaissance craft.  Thus, the mystique of Area 51 became more real than the reality and attracted even more attention for what it wasn’t than what it really was. 

The coincidence here is that Fair Play is, in fact, the Area 51 of the wine world.  Area 51 was widely known and studied and discussed even before it was publicly acknowledged to exist, not because that’s where they flew airplanes, but precisely because it was hidden and inaccessible.  While this might have been a good thing for Area 51, the Fair Play winemakers don’t think those qualities are as good for them as they were for the government.  And, even if the analogy is not the most appealing to the senses, the folks making the wine here are very much of the Skunk Works mentality, deserving of every bit of the kind of credit for their creations as the original Skunk Works.  So, it seems to me only natural to take advantage of the fact that Fair Play is kind of out of the way.  The trick is to deliver on the promise that the extra effort to discover and savor the area and its wines is worth it.  I think there are reasons to be optimistic that more amenities in the form of local lodging and dining opportunities will do nothing but help in that effort.  Lodi and Amador County have already found significant success in attracting those who are either jaded or disenchanted with their traditional forays into Napa and Sonoma.  In their search for “something different,” they have found it in Livermore, Clarksburg, Lodi, and Amador, among other places and have demonstrated a willingness to further expand their horizons.  I think Fair Play is in a good position to take advantage of adding its relatively remote location to its other marketable assets.

Large numbers of interested people over the years have sought a glimpse of Area 51 by taking that right turn near Rachel, Nevada.  Maybe even more people can be coaxed into seeing if they can find what lies “Beyond Sobon.”**

*  Their true identities are protected because (1) I didn’t interview them nor obtain permission to use their names or quote them, and (2) this essay should not be confused with actual journalism.  If you were to see them in person, however, they might be recognized by their assumed names of Jim Taff (Windwalker Winery), Kim Pratt (DK Cellars) and Ruggero Mastroserio (Mastroserio Winery).

**  Credit must be given to Jim Taff for either coining this phrase or being the first person I’m aware of to repeat it in the presence of others.

First published in "The Three Forks Times," which was a local magazine published with submissions from local authors to provide entertaining and, sometimes, useful content while supporting the Aukum Community Hall with ad revenue. It is now defunct and its online presence has passed into memory

Posted by That Old Man Who Lives Alone with a Cat at 8:58 PM