You’ve probably seen Brian Fitzpatrick (of the big white beard) and his fermented products at the Davis Farmers Market. For years I’d admired the display of his wines, but until recently I hadn’t actually tasted any. Now I have — and I’m happy to report that they’re delicious. I’m also happy to report that they’re made from organic grapes — the way Brian has been doing it for more than three decades.
Fitzpatrick was the first winery to open in Fair Play, a town in the Sierra foothills that now hosts about 20 wineries. A graduate of UC Davis in soil and water science, Brian understood from the beginning the importance of good earth — ”Feed the soil and the soil will feed the plant.” Brian feeds his soil not by applying chemical fertilizers but by planting legumes like vetch, bell beans, field peas and clovers, which grow massive amounts of organic matter both above and below the ground and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.
Yes, Brian admits, it would be cheaper to use Roundup — fine, he says, “if your goal is a sterile strip 3 feet wide under each row of grapes without a living thing to compete with the vine.” And if you like pesticide residue in your grapes.
Several months ago, I visited some vineyards that fit this description perfectly. “It just looks dead,” I kept saying to my companions. And even though the wines from those vineyards win lots of gold and silver medals, I’ve stopped buying them because when I look at a bottle, I see those “sterile strips” and think that what I’m drinking has nothing to nourish me. Brian’s vineyards, on the other hand, teem with life.
In addition to his soil feeding practices, Brian and his wife Diana use solar power to run their wells and to provide almost 100 percent of the power for their winery, lodge, commercial kitchen and home. All this has taken time, of course — they started 35 years ago with a handmade outdoor solar-powered shower, then built a passive solar home before buying an uncleared 40 acres at the top of a hill and beginning the long, laborious, expensive process of planting, building, installing solar panels — and making it all work.
That lodge is (my partner, Rebecca, and I discovered on our first trip to the winery — just last week) a lovely, hand-hewn affair with expansive common areas and five luxuriously simple guest rooms. Our Winemakers Suite had a huge tiled bath, a gas-burning stove, thick sheets on a comfortable, beautifully appointed bed, hand-made furniture, and best of all, a 15-foot window seat from which to look out over the surrounding hills and valleys.
We even had a view of the stucco pizza oven that, every Friday afternoon, Brian fires up for the weekly Fizpatrick pizza feast. We missed it by a day, but Diana made us an amazing breakfast with eggs from the well-fed feathered ladies who occupy the hen house out by the lap pool that also serves as the area’s emergency water supply.
The Fitzpatricks feed not only their soil, hens and guests well but their tractor, too — with bio-fuel made from recycled vegetable oil. Water conservation is also a large part of the Fitzpatrick plan. One of the great advantages of grape vines, Brian says, is that, once established, they need minimal water. This year they made it to late July on just the spring rains. In drought years especially, the yields are often relatively low, but the flavors are correspondingly intense.
The vines may not need much irrigation, but they certainly need other kinds of tender, loving care — which Brian happily provides: he personally prunes almost every one of his 10,000 vines. All this means that his vineyards grow modest amounts of fruit, but “We’re flavor farmers, not tonnage farmers, so quality is number one and quantity is always modest by design.”
Brian’s clearly a person who likes to experiment. Every time I check out his line-up at the Farmers Market, it includes a wine I hadn’t seen before. I’ve now tasted most of them, any of which I’d be happy to drink with my dinner or serve to friends. But, of course, I like some more than others. I like, for example, the reds more than the whites.
One evening I poured several reds for other tasters. The “winner” probably was the ’09 Pinot Noir. (Yes, a nice Pinot made with Sierra foothill grapes!) With characteristic cherry and strawberry flavors, good spice and elegant structure, you’d think it was one of those $40 to $50 efforts from the Central Coast. At $30, it’s the most expensive of Brian’s moderately priced wines — and he only made 74 cases of it.
I tried several more reds at the winery. Lodge guests get a glass of wine in addition to a tasting, and after sampling much of the line-up, I had a really hard time deciding between the light, fruity-but-dry Grenache, the peppery Syrah and the earthy Royal Flush blend (Syrah, Cab, Sangiovese and Pinot Noir).
I settled on the Syrah (though we brought home bottles of all three), and Rebecca had the blend, both of which perfectly complemented our bread, cheese, salad and roasted tomato dinner. They even tasted delicious with the dense brownie (from Andreas Bakery in Amador City) we shared for dessert.
I can also enthusiastically recommend the Tippitonia, a Basque blend of French, Spanish and Portuguese varietals. Brian’s wife, Diana, comes from Basque folk, and her grandmother’s home in the mountains near the border of France and Spain was called Tippitonia. When Brian and Diana visited the region, they fell in love with the wine, and this bottling is their Sierra foothills tribute to Diana’s heritage.
Maybe it was just because I’d heard the story, but tasting the earthy, spicy wine made that mountain home easy to imagine. It, like the Royal Flush blend, is the wine you envision yourself sipping at a small family bistro, some version of Spanish spoken all around you, the sun bringing out the mountain smell of your little wooden table on which sit small dishes of herbed olives and salted sardines. And Tippitonia costs only $15 a bottle (Royal Flush even less), an excellent bargain.
Haven’t made that trip to Europe lately? Neither have I. Which is why I’m excited about the Italian wine tasting on Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Monticello (630 G. St). Made from organically grown grapes and unfiltered, the two whites and two reds are Rosenthal imports. Garrett Pierce will be pouring with me, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The fee is $5 plus tax.
Meanwhile, head to Farmers Market, pick up a bottle from Brian Fitzpatrick (he’s there every other Saturday) and invite some friends for a fine wine feast.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com