Danny Fay & The Hill of Tara


New Winery Honors a Rich Irish Past

Twenty-seven miles northwest of Dublin, a few shouts east of Kilmesssan, and not too far from Skryne, sits a raised platform of earth with a peak altitude of 509 feet above sea level, a commanding view over the distant lands of County Meath, and a mythic standing in the history of Ireland. It is called the Hill of Tara, and there may be no place else in that Emerald Isle as hallowed, history-rich and virtually sacred as Tara.

Spread across its crown are storied monuments, prehistoric ruins, and legends deep as time. Among the visible remnants of its long history — documented at least to 3,500 B.C. — are the Mound of the Hostages, the Stone of Destiny, and Mound of the Cow. The words themselves seem draped in brogue, and the legends they represent address the full sweep of Ireland’s storied past.

The Stone of Destiny (Lia Fail) is said to be the coronation stone for Irish kings, one of whom, Nial of the Nine Hostages, is said to have held protective hostages there, from Britain and all the provinces of Ireland.

So significant is Tara that its reach extends across the Atlantic. Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With The Wind, was related to an Irish immigrant named Phillip Fitzgerald and the name she gave the fictional plantation in her epic novel was Tara. But it doesn’t stop there.

Hill of Tara wine label, Danny Fay
The wine’s label features a rendering of Mound of the Hostages.

There is now a wine label in the Sonoma Valley called Hill of Tara on which there is an artist’s rendering of that very Mound of Hostages. And lest you of Irish descent (aren’t most of us, at least emotionally) take umbrage at the misappropriation of so hallowed a name, you need to know that the label was founded by British-born, Sonoma-raised winemaker Danny Fay whose not-so-distant family once held title to the actual Hill of Tara.

And the name is now attached to a very stout, deeply-punted Bordeaux bottle filled with, among other things, two successive vintages (2015 and 2016) of truly exceptional cabernet sauvignon from the prestigious MoonRidge Vineyard, 2,300 feet up Moon Montain.

Production is still miniscule — only two French oak barrels of the 2015 cab were made, three barrels for 2016, which pencils out to about 70 cases.

Besides Moon Mountain, Fay is husbanding a quantity of cabernet franc from the Cabak vineyard, up the mountainside from Glen Ellen.

All Hill of Tara wines are organic with a good dose of biodynamic practices as well.

And all the production is done by Fay and his two partners—his wife, Katie, and his brother in law, Matt Simpson, who married Danny’s sister Colette. All three have day jobs with other wineries, so the vineyards they farm — and they do all the farm work — get attention early or late in the day, resulting in double shifts to get it all done.

Fay got his wine chops, following a viticulture degree from Cal Poly, working for biodynamic guru Mike Benziger in Glen Ellen, and subsequently did the global winery tour while attending the Ecole de Management’s Wine MBA program in Bordeaux. 

He launched Envolve Winery with two childhood friends, sold it in 2015 when he and Katie decided to start the Hill of Tara.

Simpson is a Sonoma Valley native, has a business degree and priceless on-the-job training at Enterprise Vineyards, owned by the prince of organic growers, Phil Coturri.

Katie Fay grew up in Ojai, earned a B.S. in Wine Business Strategies at Sonoma State University, and has a day job at Lambert Ridge, after marketing stints at Kosta Browne, Chateau Montelena and Three Sticks. She and Danny have a trip planned to Ireland this year, prominently including Hill of Tara.

The historic landmark helped inspire Danny to continue his family’s farming tradition and reconnect with the Tara mystique. He says the Hill of Tara relationship is a precious one, although one distant relative with Hill of Tara connections of her own challenged his claim to onetime family ownership. “She called me a fraud,” he says with a laugh. “So I did the genealogical research and sketched a family tree that showed she was a more distant cousin than I was. We’re friendly now and she wants my wine in her pub.” 

The Hill of Tara team has a long-term vision involving slow and steady steps. Each wine is barrel-aged for at least 20 months, and then bottle-aged for at least 20 more months before release. “We believe,” says Fay, “our patience will be rewarded.

The growth plan is intentionally flat, increasing production by just one barrel a year, always putting quality over quantity. “We’re not trying to replicate the same good wine year-to-year, regardless of differences in climate and other variables. We want to allow the wine to reflect the vintage, the terroir, the unique characteristics of each year.”

The next release of their Moon Mountain cab will be on March 17, which just happens to be St. Patrick’s Day. That is not a coincidence.

You can taste Hill of Tara two ways: Have dinner at the Glen Ellen Star and order a bottle; or sign up online for an allocation. It may take you a year to get some, but as Danny Fay says,
“Your patience will be rewarded.”   

Hill of Tara wines can be reached at hilloftarawines.com.

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