Russ Winton: Wine List

Try these less-known wineries

California has about 3,800 wineries. Most are small and family-operated. The majority of these wineries are not in Napa or Sonoma. Many are a bit off the beaten path and that’s a good thing. Tasting fees are reasonable, crowds are small, the tasting host is often the owner or winemaker and the vibe is laid-back. The Navigator and I enjoy visiting these underappreciated wine regions for just those reasons. Here are two that score very high in our book.

San Luis Obispo

San Luis Obispo wine country consists of two American Viticultural Areas: the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley. More than 23 varietals are grown here including outstanding pinot noirs and chardonnays. Rhone grapes like syrah, grenache and viognier also thrive here. The SLO Wine Country Association consists of 28 members, all within an average of 5 miles from the ocean, which provides a natural cooling environment and a long growing season.

On our last trip, we enjoyed the chardonnay from Sextant, the albariño from Tangent, the zinfandels from Saucelito Canyon, the sparkling wines from Laetitia and the pinot noir from Peleton. Peleton is one of five tasting rooms on the Avila Beach Wine Trail. It’s one of the prettiest wine walks in the state. Don’t miss the red blends at the Phantom Rivers tasting room in downtown Arroyo Grande and make sure you try Ember, the most interesting new restaurant in the region. Put the SLO wine country on your “to do” list today.

Fair Play, El Dorado County

There are about 70 wineries in El Dorado County. The busiest are those near Highway 50 on the way to Lake Tahoe. In Amador County to the south, wineries in the Shenandoah Valley are always busy. However, between these two hot spots, tucked away in southern El Dorado County, is the tiny community of Fair Play. Here, friendly, family-owned wineries at elevations between 2,000 and 3,000 feet produce world-class Rhone-style wines. No need to visit France – Fair Play is much closer.

Try the zinfandel from Mastroserio Winery. Buy a bottle for your picnic and the winemaker may come outside and serenade you with his saxophone. The Rhone varietals from Skinner Vineyards are outstanding. The grenache and grenache blanc made the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100 wines list this year. The rosé and the GSM blend were also delicious.

Put Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards on your list for Friday night pizza. Make a point to try the 2012 Syrah which received a 92 and the 2012 Hawk Creek Zinfandel a 91 from the Wine Enthusiast magazine. Both are excellent and alone are worth the drive up to Fair Play. Cheers!

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