DISCOVERING OUR LEGACY
The legacy of Skinner Vineyards and its wine goes back more than a century and a half, but the story starts on a sunny summer day in 2006.
Kevin and Kathy Skinner are young, outdoorsy people and were heading home to Santa Cruz from Lake Tahoe. Kathy is a teacher and has a thing for maps. On an old dog-eared road atlas, she saw something – a spot on the map called Skinners, CA in the low foothills next to a town called Rescue.
They detoured to Rescue, stopped at a small shopping center, and asked folks in stores about the name. Many people knew the history: A Scottish miner named James Skinner had done well during the Gold Rush, bought land, planted vineyards, and started a winery and distillery at that very spot.
They pointed Kevin and Kathy to ground with markers on a knoll looking over the area. The plot was a century-old cemetery called Skinner Ranch Cemetery. Kevin called his dad, Mike, sent pictures, and asked, “Are we related?”
Mike had no idea, but was instantly drawn to the mystery. He contacted the Pioneer Cemetery Commission, and it turns out that they did! They sent him a family tree:
It started with James Skinner, then came his first son, James Jr. The second James also had a first son named James. The third James named his first son Frank Edward Skinner. Mike knew that name. Frank Edward Skinner was Mike’s grandfather. The original James who settled the lush spot and planted one of California’s first commercial vineyards was Mike’s great, great, great grandfather.
“I suddenly had a big family history and a huge legacy to live up to….I was the first son of the first son of the first son of the first son of the first son of the first son!” Mike says. “I still get goosebumps when I tell the story.”
Passion doesn’t begin to describe Mike’s excitement about the history and the land. By the end of 2006, Mike and his wife, Carey, had bought property in “Skinners” and started planting their own vineyards. In 2007, they acquired more vineyards and land also in El Dorado County on a ridge top on the steep green hills around Fair Play. They began building the latest stage of the family legacy: the now acclaimed Skinner Vineyards & Winery.
OUR GOLD RUSH ROOTS
James Skinner grew up in Scotland, became an engineer, and in 1842 brought his wife, Jessie, and oldest son, James Jr., to Massachusetts. Like many American immigrants, he made his way west during the Gold Rush.
And, like many miners, he started near Coloma, where gold was discovered, then moved up the streams and rivers of the low Sierra foothills. Unlike many gold miners, James did well enough to buy land and create Skinner Ranch in what is now the town of Rescue. In the 1860s, it was named Skinners, California, and remains an unincorporated township that still appears on most maps.
The ranch had livestock and crops and ran along a well-traveled road that became the Pony Express Trail (now Green Valley Road). In 1861, James began making good use of his transportation hotspot – he planted vineyards and founded the J. Skinner Native Wine and Brandy Co.
It was one of the first commercial vineyards in California and by 1883, one of the largest. It had a huge stone cellar that could store 15,000 gallons of wine (more than 6,000 cases). James, the engineer, also built a multi-story, cutting-edge distillery with a boiler room powered by a six-horsepower engine. J. Skinner Winery operated into the early 20th century. He was also a benefactor of his community, supporting his neighbors and donating land for public use, including the plots where the current Rescue fire station and post office now stand.
James planted the popular grapes of the time that grew well in his region – including Mission, Zinfandel, and several grapes of southern France such as Grenache, Carignane and the now-obscure Petit Bouschet (the only remaining clone in the world is the Skinner Clone). All of those legacy grapes varieties are again planted on the land of our modern Skinner Vineyards & Winery, and the focus of winemaking now, just as it was for J. Skinner Native Wine and Brandy Co., are the grapes of southern France known as Rhones.
BUILDING ON OUR HERITAGE
When Mike and Carey Skinner dived into creating Skinner Vineyards & Winery, they knew one certain thing – they wanted to make James Skinner proud. Part of that was to plant the grapes that were the legacy of that land, the prized varieties of southern France, including Grenache, Syrah, Viognier and more.
“We didn’t make the wines we had known and loved, like Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay,” Mike said. “We wanted to grow the grapes that were part of our legacy. We love the wines they make, and they belong here.”
The next step was to find the very best vineyard manager and the very best winemaker, and to trust their winemaker on everything from the winery design, to the barrels and tanks, to, of course, the vineyards.
When they connected with the talented Chris Pittenger, already a rising star in Sonoma, it was an ideal match of personality, vision and commitment to great wine and to this place. Just as exciting, Chris believed those southern France varieties were perfect for these mountain soils and the nuanced microclimates of our foothills.
“There we have it,” Mike says. “Two winemakers, 150 years apart, felt exactly the same about what would grow well here.”
The result has been national acclaim for Skinner wines, for the way they capture the depth of the flavors and fruit of the region and for a special elegance and gracefulness. Among other honors, Wine Business Monthly, a leading journal of the wine industry, recently listed Skinner Vineyards as one of America’s “Hot Brands,” and Wine Spectator recently featured Skinner as one “Four to Watch”.
The winery and tasting room on the hilltop in Fair Play is also part of Mike and Carey’s commitment to their history. The warm tasting room and large stone deck have soaring views of across the foothills and up to the peaks of the Sierra, and the architecture is reminiscent of what James built in the 1800s – whith 21st century polish. There’s a large stone cellar, and the tasting room uses reclaimed wood, battens and boards and has a casual airiness that mixes country charm with a contemporary foothill feel.
They also bought James Skinner’s century-old stone cellar, and in the rolling vineyards around old Skinners CA, they planted what Mike and Carey call the Legacy Grapes – James’ original varieties, including Mission, Zinfandel, Trousseau, Grenache, Carignane and the Skinner clone of Petit Bouschet, all headed for modern and refined winemaking.
“From what we’ve learned about James Skinner,” says Mike, “he was a very forward-thinking guy. We really believe he’d like what we’ve done with the heritage he left us.”