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Feature Article

Zinman is Perry Creek's most popular wine.

Perry Creek's popular ZinMan Zinfandel will remain at the top of the winery's roster as Rhone varietals get more emphasis.

Fair Play (AVA)

Perry Creek Adjusts Focus:
New Owners Change Winery's Direction

I think you will see with the premium wines a slant toward producing more complex wines; wines with the fruit and flavors that we have always produced but with added dimension and structure.
~ Nancy Steel, Perry Creek winemaker

by Jean Deitz Sexton
March 9, 2007

Perry Creek Vineyards, in the Sierra Foothills’ Fair Play appellation, has earned a reputation over the past decade or so for honestly made Zinfandels, courtesy of their veteran winemaker, Nancy Steel. Her signature ZinMan wine, integrating El Dorado earthiness with Amador County spice, has a passionate, loyal following.

Last year, Perry Creek owner Michael Chazen, a retired menswear garment executive, decided it was time to play more and travel. In September, 2006, he sold the 15-year-old Perry Creek winery to Michele Wilms and Dieter Juergens. Wilms, an American of German descent, and Juergens, a German citizen, already owned Fair Play Farms, 29 acres of vineyards in the Fair Play AVA. Their vineyards include nine acres each of Syrah and Zinfandel, five each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah and one acre of Viognier. With the acquisition of Perry Creek, they added another 11 acres of vines to their holdings.

Wilms was raised in San Francisco and previously owned a catering and special events business. She plans to use her experience to create new retail sales and hospitality opportunities for Perry Creek. Juergens has been involved in construction and residential development in Sacramento, and prior to that, worked in the banking industry in San Francisco.

I spoke with Perry Creek winemaker Nancy Steel, who is staying on as winemaker, about the new ownership and what it means for Perry Creek’s wine portfolio.

Jean Deitz Sexton (JDS): Since they already owned 29 acres of Fair Play vineyards, why did Wilms and Juergens choose to buy Perry Creek rather than build their own winery?

Nancy Steel (NS): Rather than start a winery in the region from the ground up, Michele and Dieter chose to purchase
Nancy Steel
Perry Creek’s winemaker,
Nancy Steel
Perry Creek because of its modern facilities and production capabilities. Perry Creek had good wines which they could expand upon, a winemaker that was established and a facility that suited their plans.

JDS: What can you tell us about plans for Perry Creek under the new owners?

NS: The new owners’ vision is to focus on distinctive varietals that reflect the region’s character and to identify Perry Creek as one of the premium wineries in the Sierra foothills. We will be focusing on high-end Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, wines that we consider to be perfect matches with the region’s soils and microclimates. Our winemaking team feels these varietals will further define the appellation as well as the new direction of the winery.

JDS: How does this differ from the focus of Perry Creek in the past?

NS: The original 11 acres of Perry Creek vineyards were primarily planted with Viognier, Syrah and Merlot. We also have Marsanne and Rousanne. We will be embarking on a five-year replanting program.

JDS: How much will the existing Perry Creek vineyards change?

NS: The plan is still evolving. We may keep some Syrah and a bit of Merlot. Perry Creek Merlot Michele and Dieter do believe in Rhone varietals. More Viognier is a possibility and possibly some Grenache.

JDS: Can you explain how you will integrate the new owners’ vineyards with your original Perry Creek vineyards?

NS: As plans evolve, we will be phasing in wines from Michele and Dieter’s vineyards and phasing out some of the Perry Creek wines. Michele and Dieter’s first commercial vintage is 2005. These wines were moved to Perry Creek for aging in November, 2005. Consumers will see a 2005 Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Chardonnay and a 2006 Viognier on the shelves and in restaurants, in 2007. The first wines will be released beginning in May with our Petite Sirah and Zinfandel from Fair Play Farms.

From the Perry Creek vineyard we have also bottled a Syrah and a Cellar Select Syrah, a Merlot and a Chardonnay to take us through the transition. We have released our 2005 Viognier.

JDS: What about ZinMan?

NS: Our popular ZinMan Zinfandel at $14 to $16 will continue. It’ s always been an upfront, drinkable, good value wine, not one to put down for 30 years.

JDS: Tell us more about this new focus on Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.

NS: We are going to expand the top tier range with grapes sourced from Michele and Dieter’s Fair Play Farms vineyards. Previously, Perry Creek had a Cellar Select tier and that will be phased out and replaced with the new high end tier . However, the price range should stay pretty consistent, at about $26 to $28 a bottle.

JDS: Let’s explore the Fair Play appellation and how these grapes thrive in this particular climate.

NS: For all three varietals, the climate here is key to their success. The higher elevations bring greater temperature variations. Our best vineyards are situated on ridge tops to allow for excellent air drainage. The soils throughout our vineyards are composed of decomposed granite. These coarse sandy loams allow deep rooting depths and superior water drainage. Because of our higher elevations and mountain geography, we average 35-40 inches of rain per year.

JDS: Let’s talk about each of the three varietals, first Zinfandel.

NS: Zinfandel is an historic grape in this area, planted by early settlers, and has proven to produce unique and quality wines. Zinfandel in Fair Play is a classic. The higher elevations, the geography, the soils, and the weather patterns - these all combine to produce unique Zinfandel. Our signature Zin flavors are a dark, zippy fruit and an earthiness that adds character to the fruit flavors. Also, the good acids we get are an important component of our Zins.
Perry Creek’s vineyards
Perry Creek’s vineyards in the Fair Play AVA of the Sierra Foothills.
The ZinMan, made from El Dorado fruit, is classic Sierra Foothills combining all these elements and we blend in some Amador County Zin which contributes a peppery spice character with distinct briary notes.

JDS: Great, let’s explore Petite Sirah.

NS: Petite Sirah is a niche wine but currently growing in interest and stature. We feel we can produce some top quality Petite’s in our mountain climate and because Petite isn’t grown and produced in large quantities, we can gain recognition for Petite in the Fair Play area. However, Petite Sirah has turned out to be a tricky grape to work with. In our vineyards, it has turned out to be sensitive to dehydration and crop levels, more so than other varietals. On the cooler north slopes with slower ripening, it develops its characteristics and has a very appealing peppery spice.

JDS: And last, Syrah.

NS: I have produced Syrah for 14 years now at Perry Creek and have produced many well-received and award-winning Syrahs. Syrah grows well here and showcases its tremendous fruit, body and structure in this area. I have worked with 3 distinct blocks of Syrah at Perry Creek. These are grown within throwing distance of each other. And within the biggest block (5 acres) there are 3 distinct sections. For me, Syrah shows the most variability within a given area of any other variety I wor

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