Perry Creek Winery

Flying High

Perry Creek Winery

Dieter Juergens is perfectly comfortable with the randomness of life, probably because he has been able to steer it in his favor. Talkative, funny, energetic, and warm, his handshake turns easily into a hug. He began a banking career in his native Berlin and continued in the United States, relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area. After his retirement from banking, he formed a truss manufacturing company in Sacramento during the building boom of the 1990s. Commuting two hours a day between his Bay Area home and the Sacramento business, he spent many nights at Motel 6 and decided to buy a small property where he could build a weekend house. The “small” property morphed into 70 acres in El Dorado County above Sacramento after his enthusiastic real estate agent informed him that he could hire a vineyard management company to plant grapes that would generate income. It all made sense, right?

The property was located in Fair Play, which became an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2001, part of a federal classification system that recognizes unique grape growing areas throughout the U.S. Between 2000 and 3000 feet above sea level, the Fair Play appellation has the highest average elevation in California. The town began as a gold mining camp and eventually attracted as many as 20.000 people during the Gold Rush era. In fact, its name was the result of a fist-fight between the two founders of the town and a by-stander who insisted on “fair play.” Today, its mountainous beauty, country roads, pristine air, and 31 wineries are attracting visitors, and charming accommodations and fine restaurants are there to welcome them.

So the vineyard was duly planted on the property, covering the top of a hill that jutted up from a forest, nine acres of Zinfandel, nine acres of Syrah, followed by five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, five acres of Petite Sirah, and a little Viognier. After three years, the vines produced grapes, after four years even more. What now? Dieter points out the obvious, that he was not a farmer and knew little about the activity. He assumed that grape buyers would appear at his door. But when they didn’t, he bought 64 of the finest barrels and contracted with someone to make wine from the fruit that was magically proliferating on his vines. Perry Creek was the largest winery in the area, so he asked if it had space to store his barrels in the winery’s temperature controlled warehouse. It did, but the Perry Creek winemaker informed Dieter that the space might not be available the following year.

A world traveler, former owner Michael Chazen had been developing Perry Creek vineyards and winery since 1989 and was ready to get out of town after 15 years in tiny Fair Play, no matter how beautiful the area. He had been trying to sell the winery for several years. Dieter Juergens made Mike’s month. In September of 2006, Dieter purchased 42 acres of the 165-acre estate, including the winery, tasting room, and 12 acres of planted vineyards. Together with the 30 planted acres at his original property, Fair Play Farms, Dieter Juergens became firmly embedded in the wine business. He may not have been a farmer earlier, but he surely was now. At Perry Creek, he became the shepherd of Merlot, Syrah, and Barbera, together with a little Muscat, Marsanne, and Roussane.

Dieter and Austrian winemaker Stefan Tscheppe appear to work together extremely well, and their meeting was as fortuitous as it was random. Dieter was visiting a cousin in Los Angeles, who owned an apartment house. When Dieter explained that he was developing a wine business, the cousin insisted on introducing his tenant, who was also in the business. Stefan Tscheppe, then currently employed by a wine importer, was a sixth generation winemaker from Austria, whose family was in the restaurant and hotel business as well. By the end of that first meeting, Stefan was on his way to Fair Play.

Stefan emphasizes that their winemaking is mostly vineyard driven. In other words, they focus on producing extraordinary fruit with sustainable methods that are very close to organic. They reduce yields when they prune to insure fruit quality. At harvest, they pick more often, returning to the same vineyard three and four times, picking the fruit only when it ripens to perfection. At the point that the fruit enters the cellar, very little manipulation is required to produce fine wine. Stefan says that they purchase different types of oak barrels and match them carefully to the grape variety. Although both he and Dieter are Europeans, they insist on making fully California style wines because, they say, California is one of the best winegrowing regions in the world with a wonderful climate and diverse soils in different areas. Their wines are ripe, but the alcohol is fully integrated with the fruit flavors that have layers of complexity.

Dieter says that the first wine that caught his attention was a 1969 Chateauneuf du Pape from the Rhone Region of France, interestingly made from the same blend of grape varieties that grow so successfully in Sierra Foothill regions, including El Dorado County, namely the red grapes Grenache, Sarah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and the whites Rousanne and Marsanne. Now he drinks mostly his own Perry Creek wines and says that if he drinks others, they must be even better than his own. Since only big wineries export their wines to foreign markets, he rarely drinks European wines because he says that it’s difficult to find the best smaller production European wines here just as it is difficult to find good California wines outside of the U.S. He just returned from Mexico and says that in Baja California, the northernmost state of Mexico, tiny wineries are making extraordinary wines. But the productions are so small that even in Mexico City, a resident wouldn’t find them just as most Fair Play wines sell at winery tasting rooms or no farther than an hour away in Sacramento.

Dieter now looks forward to releasing Perry Creek’s first Cabernet Sauvignon for its Altitude series from the Fair Play Farms vineyard. They can make an excellent Cabernet, he says, and don’t need to charge $85 a bottle like Napa wineries do.

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Perry Creek – 2007 Syrah El Dorado County

Winemaker Stefan Tscheppe’s Notes

Our Perry Creek estate-grown grapes benefit from high elevation vineyards and rich, well-drained soils. Aged in hand selected American oak barrels, the 2007 Syrah shows blackberries, black olive, tobacco, and soft vanilla aromas and flavors, with chocolate in the rich and earthy finish (alcohol 14.9%, brix 25, pH 3.5, total acidity 0.58 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Despite its 2,400 elevation, Fair Play has a bright and steady sun that produced this ripe Syrah from the Perry Creek estate vineyard. The bouquet is full and follows through to the palate with a lingering finish. At 14.9% alcohol, the wine supports the hefty flavors of roasted beef, pot roast, and spicy bean and lentil dishes.

Perry Creek – 2007 Viognier El Dorado County

Winemaker Stefan Tscheppe’s Notes

Our Perry Creek estate-grown Viognier was mostly fermented in stainless steel tanks to preserve the freshness and liveliness of the fruit, while partial fermentation and aging in selected, small French oak barrels contributes to the intense mouthfeel. Note crisp apricot, citrus, and orange peel in the nose that carries over to beautiful spices and juicy fruit on the palate (alcohol 14.2%, brix 24.8, pH 3.4, total acidity 0.65 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Viognier is prized for its intense aromas, so stop and smell the flowers in the glass. The San Francisco Chronicle rated this wine the “Best Vognier in the Foothills.” I don’t normally quote press awards, but the S.F. Chronicle has an excellent reputation among winemakers for its analyses. It employs expert tasters and isn’t swayed by advertising revenues, maybe because it gets very little from wineries. Stefan is justly proud of this wine, which is 95% Viognier and 5% Marsanne. Serve chilled.

Winemaker Series

Perry Creek – 2006 Altitude 2401 Zinfandel Fair Play, Eldorado County

Winemaker Stefan Tscheppe’s Notes

The grapes for this Zinfandel were harvested from our Fair Play Farms vineyard, one of the premium vineyards in the Sierra Foothills, planted 10 years ago. Our premium Zinfandel was fermented and aged in French and American oak barrels, preserving the luxurious fruit flavors of this great vintage. Exotic papaya and guava play with lively acidity and rich berry, spice, and chocolate flavors while the wine ends with exotic spices and cherries in the long and smooth finish (alcohol 15%, brix 26.5, pH 3.6, total acidity 0.65 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Perry Creek makes three different wines from the Fair Play Farms vineyard, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Sirah, the same grapes that the miners first planted in the area during the California Gold Rush that began in 1849. Here in Fair Play at an elevation of 2,400 feet, the wines are ripe but also elegant and refined, a quality that is typical of wines from high-elevation vineyards. Serve at cool room temperature.

Perry Creek – 2006 Altitude 2401 Petite Sirah Fair Play, Eldorado County

Winemaker Stefan Tscheppe’s Notes

Low vine yields concentrate both flavors and color in this special Petite Sirah. The wine spent over 15 months in our finest French oak barrels, enhancing ripe tannins while accentuating its complex flavors and amazing body. It’s deep, rich texture is followed by a seductive finish. Dark purple in color, the wine features intense ripe blackberry and plum aromas, followed by a rich, meaty mouth-feel of mint, sour cherries, and raspberry jam (alcohol 14.5%, brix 26, pH 3.54, total acidity 0.65 g/100ml).

Anna Maria’s Notes

Petite Sirah has gone almost extinct in France, its probable place of origin, where it was called Durif, but the vine has prospered here in California. Surprisingly, Petite Sirah is finding its way back to Europe because of the enthusiasm of European winemakers like Stefan, who work here in California and transport vine cuttings back home. Petite Sirah makes a big, inky wine and, in early California vineyards, was planted, harvested, and fermented together with lighter-colored Zinfandel. Today, varieties destined for the same wine are not only grown in separate vineyards but are fermented separately so that the winemaker can exercise greater control over the final blend. Eventually, Petite Sirah emerged from under the shadow of Zinfandel and developed its own following as a single varietal wine. Given the quality of the Altitude Petite Sirah, the vine has found its perfect home in Fair Play.

Menu of the Month


Searching for Spring

First Course

Shell-shaped pasta with a simple sauce from Muir Glen tomatoes
and a sprinkle of Parmigian cheese

Main Course

Braised or grilled mild Italian pork sausages with parboiled rapini rabe,
drizzled with olive oil and served with lemon wedges.


Sliced orange rounds topped with red onion circles, capers,
and chopped parsley, dressed with olive oil and salt


Apples baked with cinnamon, sugar, and raisins
and served with a dollop of fresh, whipped cream

Recipe of the Month

Simply Delicious Tomato Sauce

The classic tomato sauce for pasta has just five ingredients, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, basil, and salt. With so few ingredients, each one must be the finest. Ideally, fresh, local, organic Roma tomatoes are best, but when they’re not in season, the finest canned ones that I know are Organic Miur Glen. Fresh basil seems to be in markets all year round although it’s expensive in the winter and less flavorful, so I sometimes use dried basil or oregano. I buy olive oil from Napa Valley Olive Oil Company, a blend of five different olive types grown in California’s Central Valley. The garlic is organic and locally grown in California, and the salt is sea salt. These five ingredients cooked together for about 15 to 20 minutes make a sauce for pasta that is always remarkably delicious.

Pasta itself is even more simple, just flour and water, so its quality is highly important for best results. My standard pasta is organic, whole wheat, Bionaturae, imported from Italy, and the texture of this pasta is as smooth as white pasta but more chewy and nutritious. For special meals, I find outstanding imported pasta at a local Dean & Deluca shop. The parmegian cheese that I use is also imported and freshly grated for each meal. Simple pasta dishes have sustained Italians for centuries, at least since the Middle Ages, and people in the Arab world since approximately the Fifth Century. But even in their simplest forms, pasta dishes compel the most sophisticated palates.


1 28-ounce can of Muir Glen Organic whole peeled plum tomatoes

4 cloves of garlic, very finely chopped

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 handful julienned basil leaves

Or 1 teaspoon dried basil or oregano


Puree tomatoes in food processor.

Add garlic to olive oil in pan, large enough to hold tomatoes. When garlic just begins to sizzle over medium heat, add tomatoes and salt to taste. Stir ingredients, and when they are thoroughly integrated with one another, and the liquid is slightly reduced and thickened after about ten to 15 minutes of cooking, add fresh basil. Cook for another five minutes, and taste for salt. The sauce should be fairly salty. Spoon onto individual servings of pasta, garnish with fresh basil or parsley, and serve with parmegian cheese. Serves six.