Feast Q&A: El Dorado’s Skinner Vineyards

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The wine industry recently descended on Sacramento for the annual Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, and a boutique winery in El Dorado County was one of the most buzzed-about companies during the convention.

Skinner Vineyards of Fair Play was one of the 10 “hot brands” listed in the annual review of the industry by Wine Business Monthly. The trade publication is among the prominent sponsors of Unified, and its yearly review is given to the 1,500 attendees of Unified’s much anticipated “state of the industry” session.

The “hot brands” feature rounds up domestic wineries with a “bold vision, a unique style and an extreme dedication to to pushing forward and going beyond what others thought was possible.” Skinner Vineyards, founded in 2006 by Mike and Carey Skinner, specializes on Rhone varietals and produces upward of 3,000 cases annually.

The wines are crafted by Chris Pittenger, whose résumé includes previous work with Marcassin and Williams Selyem, two of Northern California’s prized producers of pinot noir and chardonnay. At Skinner, wines produced by Pittenger have twice made the cut in the San Francisco Chronicle’s roundup of the year’s best wines. Here’s what Pittenger had to say about the latest accolades for Skinner and El Dorado County:

Q: You’ve worked around the world as a winemaker. How did you wind up in El Dorado County?

A: It was very serendipitous. My mom and Carey Skinner go back about 15 to 20 years or so. They’ve been following my career path through Australia and New Zealand, (the Sonoma wineries) Williams Selyem and Marcassin and what not. When I heard (the Skinners) had this great history going back to the Gold Rush, it piqued my interest. We started talking, and it evolved from there.

Q: As a winemaker, what sold you on the idea of dedicating your career to this particular winery?

A: Once I started digging around here, literally and figuratively, I was totally taken by the soils and diversity up here and really saw an untapped potential for Rhone varietals in particular. That was of great interest to me. For a lot reasons, (growing Rhone varietals) isn’t done in Sonoma and Napa. They’re not going to rip out cabernet to plant grenache. With all these different aspects and seeing how we can work in this different terroir up here, that was the real impetus.

Q: After working at the winery for a few years, what have you learned about the nuances of the land and vineyards in El Dorado County?

A: Every year is a kind of new chapter in learning and figuring out what thrives, and also how these different varietals – especially grenache and mourvèdre – really represent themselves and show a true sense of place depending on where they grow. As a case in point, the mourvèdre at the estate in Fair Play on granite soils is completely different compared to (Skinner’s) property in Rescue or Gold Hill. All those soils are so different, and they show differently (as wines).

We’re still learning so much about the microclimate and, from a (vineyard’s) block-to-block standpoint, what clones are best suited for which styles of soils and root stocks. We’re just trying to dial down and narrow things down so we can really analyze what is working. We’re just kind of scratching the surface.

Q: Skinner has received a good share of accolades, especially for a fairly young winery. What do you attribute the successes to?

A: It goes back to the Skinners and their commitment to the region and quality. From Day One, they’ve provided me with all the tools I need to make the best wines possible. We’re definitely grateful for the attention we’re receiving. It just affirms their dedication to the region of putting quality as the main driving force. It’s showing what we felt for the region, that these Rhone varietals were well suited for the soils and climate. For me, it means we’re on the right path.

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