Michael Conti, descended from a family of longtime grape growers in Italy, subscribes to the wine-country maxim that "it takes a lot of beer to make good wine." Trouble is, the remote Fair Play area in El Dorado County, where Conti and his wife Michelle settled 18 months ago, is short of places for vineyard workers, cellar rats, winemakers and the like to gather for a cold brew.
This spring, Conti plans to correct that by converting the recently closed Fair Play Bistro into a microbrew and small-plate pub. The restaurant is in escrow, along with the neighboring Winery by the Creek, where Conti is negotiating to bring in noted Napa Valley winemaker Phil Baxter as his consultant.
Conti is buying bistro and winery from Charles Mitchell, who almost a year ago sold him his Charles B. Mitchell Vineyards, which eventually is to become known as Conti Estate. Mitchell arrived in the Fair Play area in 1994 after a decade of being a self-described ski bum at Mammoth Lakes. At Fair Play he became recognized for innovative wine marketing and the steady growth of the winery.
Mitchell, who now lives on Bethel Island in the Delta, says he is selling the wineries because he accomplished what he set out to do 14 years ago and because his children aren't interested in pursuring the business. He's selling the bistro, he added, because it was a disappointment. "I wanted to have fine dining in a casual manner with French flair. We had duck confit and foie gras, but who ate the foie gras? I did. Frankly, I thought that people who enjoyed wine would enjoy that cuisine, but they didn’t. I was out of touch with the locals," says Mitchell. He hasn't ruled out returning to the wine trade, and is eyeing a parcel at Steamboat Slough for a possible new venture.
"I have many, many, many fond memories of my time in El Dorado. I met many wonderful people there, and I have so many memories of challenges, successes and events. I'm not the least bit disappointed with El Dorado, but I am disappointed with myself that I didn’t do it right with the restaurant," Mitchell adds.
Conti knows the restaurant business. Two years ago he sold his share of Cheeseburger Restaurants, a seven-unit group with outlets from Hawaii to Florida, and retired to the foothills. "We had $6 million in sales per unit. They were the highest volume cheeseburger-style restaurants in the United States," Conti says. But he got bored, and let the wine business lure him out of retirement, and now he's edging back into the restaurant trade.