We command the entire hilltop with all its slope aspects: mainly north, south, west and just enough east slope to have carved an acre for our Pinot Noir. Yes, Pinot Noir which needs less heat units than most of our well-suited grapes and gets just what it needs from our east-facing slope which is in the shade by late afternoon on a summer’s eve. The hilltop not only serves to create different microclimates based on slope direction towards or away from the sun but its topographical relief. By that I mean I utilize the fact that cold air is heavier than warm air and settles to the lowest ground and with it sometimes in late spring damaging frosts. So to make maximum use of this phenonimum I planted the vines with the earliest leafing out characteristics at the top of the hill and the reverse progression downward.
Some varieties are placed to take advantage of their slope aspect while other varieties like Syrah I've planted in four sites to seek variation in flavor profiles and therefore build complexity into the resulting wine.
Our Farming Methods
Life isn’t so perfect that nothing else is needed from off farm. Sometimes the mineral makeup of the soil may be lacking some element(s) which needs to be brought in and properly applied like in our case Phosphorus in the powdered form of phosphate rock mined as nearby as Idaho or calcium mined within the Sierra Foothills. Harvest after harvest is a form of mining nutrients from your soil and they have to be replaced one way or another. But with a living biologically active soil these minerals can be added successfully in their raw forms saving lots of manufacturing energy too.
Old fashion ‘Organic Farming’ was stereo-typed as what you don't do but modern Organic Agriculture is all about what you do do and how well you understand and work with your soil on your farm. Healthy vines start with healthy soil.
Folks ask if we get less yields than other vineyards. Well the answer is that we do the best we can with the water we have available. Water is the determining factor for us and yield. In average or better rainfall years (40 inches) we produce all the yield we want. But in drought years our well pumping capacity is not endless enough to provide all that the rainfall may not have delivered but we try with drip irrigation. We're flavor farmers not tonnage farmers so quality is number one and quantity is always modest by design.
Back in 1986 when there were 4 wineries in Fair Play, I started to write an application to establish Fair Play as a Federally registered AVA (American Viticultural Area) just like Napa Valley, Sierra Foothills and others. What moved me back then was how tightly we shared so many attributes of what is supposed to make up an appellation (or AVA as we called it in the USA) compared to the Napa Valley, the North Coast, the Sierra Foothills. Don’t get me wrong; on a macro scale these regions identify large differences between each other and share similarities within their respective borders. But these are macro similarities like large scale geography and political identity. But within their borders more diversity exists in soils, climates, elevation, etc. than similarities. But Fair Play AVA epitomizes what an Appellation (AVA) can (and from my perspective) and should be – a wine region that shares more similarities than differences.
But myself and the few other wineries at that early time decided we needed first to show solidarity to our ‘mother appellations’ the El Dorado AVA and the Sierra Foothill AVA. I use the term ‘mother appellations’ to show the hierarchy of this system of AVAs. Fair Play AVA is a part of El Dorado AVA which is a part of the broader Sierra Foothill AVA which of course is a part of California, USA, North America, Planet Earth – you get the point.
By 1999, 4 wineries had grown to 8 wineries with another 6 looming on the horizon just within the proposed Fair Play AVA. The rest of the Sierra Foothills was growing too as was the wine industry all over. On a per square mile or per capita, Fair Play was leading the pack in increasing number of wineries by far. So that same feeling reawakened to put Fair Play on the AVA map. And at the prompting of then new winery owner Charles Mitchell and the support of the Fair Play Winery Association I resurfaced my application for review and rewrote and prepared a new application for submittal.
During our 90 days of public comment in the Federal Register, a petition was filed by Elliott Graham, who today is owner of Busby Cellars, to include his neighborhood immediately adjacent to our proposed boundaries. Upon review it became obvious that the geology, soils, geography, climate and history were the same and most convincingly was the historical kinship that this neighborhood just north and east of Somerset shared with the rest of the Fair Play AVA. So that boundary adjustment, having been made, led to the approval of the Fair Play AVA by 2000.
The Fair Play AVA is truly the best example of an appellation with the most attributes in common. But let us not forget that we are part of the El Dorado wine country, we are just east and higher up than our neighboring Shenandoah Valley which we share so much kinship with too, and part of that macro AVA (appellation) called the Sierra Foothills in which we some proudly farm.