Tuesday, April 19, 2011

150 Years Later, Prospecting Resumes

Winemaker Chris Pittenger, at Skinner tasting room
For the first time in a century and a half, two members of the Skinner family are gambling that the rolling Sierra foothills just east of Sacramento will yield riches.

The first two were James and Jessie Skinner, Scots who arrived in El Dorado County in 1852, drawn by the Gold Rush.

The latest couple is Mike and Carey Skinner, who have returned to El Dorado County to see if its soils will be as rewarding for them as they were for James Skinner, who was Mike Skinner's great-great-great grandfather.

James Skinner found enough gold in mining at Foster's Bar that he was able to buy some land and a cabin in the vicinity of what is now Cameron Park. As paydirt in the region played out, James and Jessie and their six children cultivated a vineyard and built a winery, one of the earlier significant players in El Dorado County's wine history. Their son George gradually took over the operation but eventually the business withered. Traces of the Skinner winery still can be found today at Cameron Park, though the site of his vineyard now is occupied by the community's airstrip.

Their winemaking legacy is being cultivated anew, however, by Mike and Carey Skinner, who divide their time between Southern California and Rescue in El Dorado County. He's the founder and president of the commercial insurance provider M.G. Skinner & Associates of Los Angeles; she's vice president and brokerage manager of Sotheby's International Realty in Pacific Palisades and Malibu.

Skinner winery flanked by tasting room
In returning to the family's winemaking heritage, they've established vineyards at Rescue and in Fair Play, where they've also built their Skinner Vineyards & Winery. The winery is a large and modern steel-and-stone structure topped with a sign that approximates the sign on James Skinner's barn in the 1860s, "J. Skinner Native Wine & Brandy."

The modern Skinners aren't yet distilling brandy, though they eventually hope to. And while their Fair Play vineyard includes a block of oldtime mission grapes, which they intend to use for a contemporary version of the original California dessert wine, angelica, they believe that the future esteem of the foothills as a fine-wine region rests largely on such Rhone Valley grape varieties as viognier, roussanne, mourvedre, grenache and syrah, and that's what they've planted primarily.

To oversee winemaking they've hired Chris Pittenger, a newcomer to the foothills whose background includes stints with several prestigous producers in varied settings, including New Zealand (Kim Crawford), Australia (Torbreck), Sonoma County (Williams Selyem, Marcassin) and Napa Valley (Robert Biale).

Sunday, when we happened upon the winery and its neighboring tasting room, built of stone and the reclaimed beams of an old railroad trestle, the place was just in its third day of being open to the public. The structures occupy an open knoll 2700 feet up the foothills, providing tasters with a view that stretches from Mt. Diablo to Pyramid Peak, at least on a clear day.

Pittenger's initial lineup under the Skinner brand almost certainly will generate buzz for both their force and finesse. Though the viognier tasted tired, everything else in the opening portfolio was bright and vibrant, including a couple of authoritative syrahs, a luscious mourvedre and an unusually complex yet lilting grenache. The standouts were proprietary blends, a profound and prolonged mix of roussanne, marsanne and viognier called Seven Generations (in recognition of seven generations of Skinners in the U.S.), and a juicy, smoky and leathery mix of grenache, mourvedre and syrah called Eighteen Sixty-One (in recognition of the year that James Skinner is believed to have planted his first vines).

Already, Skinner wines are being stocked by the Sacramento restaurants The Firehouse, The Kitchen, Grange and Ella, as well as the retail shop WineSmith in Placerville.

The winery's grand opening won't be until May 22, but in the meantime the tasting room is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. It's at 8054 Fair Play Road in Fair Play.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary of some fine Sierra Foothill legacy-oriented winery owners and their determination to continue the heritage! They will be the subject of a chapter in the forthcoming book, Mountain High Wines: The Sierra and Its Foothills. Hurray to you for bringing the word to the public early!
    Barbara Keck, wine columnist, The Tahoe Weekly newspaper