Of all the interviews we’ve done with winemakers and/or winery proprietors, the story of Skinner Vineyards and Winery in El Dorado County has to be one of the most unique we’ve come across. While wineries that have been in a family for generations are common, the Skinner story is a tale reminiscent of its Gold Rush heritage—one of curiosity, discovery, risk, and ultimately reward.
We sat down with Carey Skinner who, along with her husband Mike, founded Skinner Vineyards and Winery. Carey explains that while both of them have always had a passion for wine, it was never in their plans to actually own a winery. Carey had a successful career in real estate while Mike ran his own insurance company and they happily raised their kids in southern California.
In 2006, their eldest son Kevin and his wife Kathy were driving back from Lake Tahoe when Kathy spotted on their map a dot that said “Skinners”. Out of sheer curiosity they decided to stop. They pulled up to a nursery and the gentleman working there told them about a historical wine cellar underneath from 1861 and offered to show it to them. He then told them to go across the street behind the mall to see the Pioneer gold rush cemetery as it was full of headstones with the name ‘Skinner’. Kevin called his parents and asked if these were in fact his relatives. “Mike always wanted to know about his family history as his knowledge only went back to his grandfather in San Francisco. His parents died young and all he had from his Dad was an index card that said, ‘Coloma 1849’. After Kevin told us about the cemetery, Mike called the Docents who look after it and they provided 2 family trees—one of which had all the names of Mike’s uncles.” Says Carey.
Within 2 weeks of that call, Mike & Carey flew up to the cemetery and discovered it was Mike’s great, great, great grandfather James Skinner that was a the head of his family tree. It turns out James was a Scottish miner who had joined the Gold Rush, and eventually bought land, planted vineyards, and started both a winery and distillery near where the cemetery is today. Mike & Carey felt an overwhelming responsibility to bring this incredible legacy back into the family, “We invested heavily in the region and bought the first property here [Skinners] because we wanted to be next to the historical wine cellar. Then we bought 25 acres but we were hesitant of being a one-off winery, we wanted to be part of a wine trail. In 2007 we came up here and walked this ridge and said this is where we have to build the winery and the tasting room.” They purchased the vineyards and land in the Fair Play area of El Dorado County and officially established Skinner Vineyards & Winery.
And what a property it is. To call it picturesque is a vast understatement. The tasting room sits on the ridge with almost 360-degree views of the Sierra foothills. It is contemporary while still paying homage to its historical roots complete with reclaimed wood beams and battens. And good luck getting anyone off the tasting room deck before closing on a warm sunny day!
The elevation change from the lowest vineyards to the highest range from approximately 1310 feet to 2740 feet. The soils at higher elevation are more granitic while at the lower elevation the soil is largely made up of red clay loam. When it came to decisions about the grape growing and wine making itself, Mike & Carey once again used what history had taught them. They made a commitment that whatever James had planted in the 1800’s, is also what they would plant. The probate records showed he planted almost exclusively Rhône varietals, save for Zinfandel which is the only non- Rhône varietal the Skinners have also planted.
Despite this area being one of the earliest growing regions in California, not much of the modern viticulture practices have been employed. The Skinners’ desire to grow the best quality fruit meant appreciating the history but not being contained by its traditions. They focused on getting to know the region and understand its unique micro-climate and terroir first, then modify the farming as needed.
Stephanie Singer, Sales Manager for Skinner Vineyards (who also happens to have graduated from UC Davis with a viticulture & enology degree) explained what was happening at the property from when the Skinners first arrived in 2007 and how they farm today, “the Syrah and Viognier had been pre-planted when the Skinners purchased the property and they were planted in the traditional California Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP) trellis system where the vines run north/south so they get that east/west sun exposure. However, they noticed when farming that fruit there was quite a bit of damage from the sun in the mornings. At our higher elevations we really see this intense sunlight in the morning and then in the afternoon as our temperatures rise, the Delta breezes get pulled up the slope so we actually see cooler conditions in the afternoon. But one of the things that is fun about farming in a newer region is that you can start to be experimental and research other ways of doing things than are traditionally done. When they planted Grenache here they ended up employing a modified VSP trellis system that opens up the canopy more into a ‘V’ or ‘Y’ shape which lifts the canopy up and over the fruit. Our row orientation now runs east to west here so we’re getting the sunlight on the top of the canopy that creates doppled sunlight around the fruiting zone. This protects it during those warmer times by creating a nice shade zone while still creating great airflow and allowing access to the fruit.”
Stephanie goes on to tell us that the winery was also designed and built in a very deliberate way, “we positioned it so that the solar panels get the sun and when the temperature drops at night the windows of the bays open and we draw in the cold air from outside for our chillers. Each bay is individually controlled in terms of temperature and humidity. This means we can deal with grapes at different stages as needed (i.e. cold-soaking, malolactic fermentation, etc), make wine in small lots, and have control of every aspect while still being mindful of being energy efficient.”
Carey adds that the work in the winery is hands on but they’re hands off in terms of letting the grapes express themselves. “We use no additives, nothing. Mother nature gives us something different each year so we make the wine that best expresses the grape and the soil. We don’t want a recipe so that every year Skinner Grenache tastes exactly the same.”
While they’re mostly known for their Grenache, Mourvèdre, Grenache Blanc, Rosé and Syrah, they’re also interested in bringing back some of the legacy grapes such as Trousseau, Trousseau Gris, and Petit Bouschet. In fact, the only remaining clone of Petit Bouschet is at UC Davis and is called the “Skinner” clone.
The Skinner mission is also clear. They are small, organic and sustainable—and they want to stay that way. Being small has allowed them to say “no” and be very intentional on where they decide to place their wines. They partner with sommeliers and chefs that care about sustainability and farm-to-table culinary experiences and approach their marketing as more relationship-based versus transactional. They are committed to making a difference in this region and being a community leader. Carey is the past President of the winery association and from the very beginning they have used local vineyard management for their farming.
Their hard work and tireless commitment to the local community is certainly paying off. They have received numerous 90+ scores and awards for their wine and Wine & Spirits Magazine recently named them one of the Top 100 wineries of 2017. As our tasting notes below will attest, we found their wines to be beautifully balanced and of excellent quality. We have no doubt that James Skinner would be proud to know that the legacy he started over a century and a half ago has not only been resurrected, but has returned to his family where it belongs.
A blend of 45% Grenache, 25% Mouvedre, 15% Counoise and 15% Cinsault. This blend saw skin contact of 2 to 5 hours creating a lovely light copper orange colour. We gent intense flavours of melon, strawberry and citrus with a nice dry minerally streak on the finish.
Excellent (US $24 at the winery)
97% Viognier with 2% Grenache Blanc and 1% Roussanne. A floral bouquet that shows white peach, apricot and hints of citrus. There is a slight mineral note on the finish. Much leaner than many Central Coast Viogniers, this wine will appeal to traditionalists.
Very Good (US $24 at the winery)
98% Roussanne and 2% of Viognier joins the blend. This is a rich, full wine offering up plenty of melon, white peach and lemon custard. Light acidity keeps the balance just right and puts definition to the rich mouthfeel. Hints of citrus zest appear on the finish.
Excellent – US $28 at the winery (particularly good value & would stand tall against many Crozes-Hermitage at twice the price)
2015 Seven Generations
This is Skinner’s take on a Rhone blend and consists of 42% Grenache Blanc, 42% Roussanne, 10% Viognier and 6% Marsanne. Very expressive with notes of honeydew melon, hazelnuts, and an earthy finish. The medium + body is balanced by back end acidity.
Very Good/Excellent (US $26 at the winery)
2015 El Dorado Grenache
This 100% varietal is a blend from estate and nearby local vineyards. Cherry, raspberry and plums gain support from minerality and slight herbal notes. Medium body with bright acidity.
Very Good (US $30 at the winery)
2015 Estate Grenache
Similar to the El Dorado Grenache but here the dials are all turned up! Bright cherry flavours dominate and gain complexity from notes of plum, cherry liqueur with hints of dried herbs. Lovely balance, this would be the ideal partner for grilled meats and vegetables.
Excellent (US $60 at the winery)
2015 Mouvedre El Dorado
Red and blue fruits mix with savoury notes of meat and earth to create a complex flavour profile on a medium+ frame. There is a nice mineral streak on the finish.
Very Good/Excellent (US $30 at the winery)
2014 Mouvedre Estate
A wonderfully complex wine showing black cherry, rhubarb, earth and minerals with spice notes on the finish. The flavour profile is intense; this wine is serious stuff. Medium + body is balance by well-judged acidity. After a bit of air the spice notes amplify and add an exotic dimension to the wine.
Excellent (US $60 at the winery)
Fruit for this wine comes from the nearby and 100% organically farmed Cedarville Vineyard. Plenty of ripe red fruit is found on the attack and is followed by notes of baking spice with black pepper coming through on the finish. The mouthfeel is round and soft and gives this wine added charm.
Very Good/Excellent (US $60 at the winery)