In the spirit of Fair Play
California's wine trade hasn't been immune from the nation's lingering recession witness the deep discounts on high-end wines but sales nevertheless have remained surprisingly strong.
What's more, people still see enough hope in the industry to continue to open wineries.
Just take a drive into the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. Around any bend, you are apt to be startled by the flapping and snapping of bright banners heralding the debut of another winery.
So it was earlier this spring as we wound our way through southwestern El Dorado County. As we approached Fair Play, a newly paved drive and a sign with a winery name we didn't recognize caught our eye.
We moseyed up the hill, past a handsome new steel-and-stone winery and on to its neighboring tasting room. The arrangement reminded me of one of the Mother Lode's old gold mines, with a large stamp mill looming over the site and a tiny assay office off to one side.
The pay dirt being exploited here, however, is rows of vines rather than veins of quartz, though a seam of Gold Rush history runs through the property.
The sign high on the winery says "Skinner Native Wine & Brandy." This is a slight alteration of the sign "J. Skinner Native Wine & Brandy" that hung on the winery of one James Skinner in western El Dorado County starting in the 1860s.
James Skinner was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in California's gold fields in 1852. He found enough nuggets and flakes mining at Foster's Bar to buy some land with a cabin in the vicinity of Rescue, cultivate a vineyard and make brandy and wine.
Now, a century and a half later, his great-great-great grandson, Mike Skinner, is reviving the family's winemaking heritage. Skinner and his wife, Carey, are growing grapes on two El Dorado plots, one hard by the original family settlement at Rescue, the other at Fair Play.
They've planted a legacy block of the grape initially responsible for winemaking along the West Coast, the mission, and hope to eventually erect a still and resume the production of brandy. At the outset, however, they and their winemaker, Chris Pittenger, are focusing on varietals and blends inspired by the traditions of France's Rhône Valley.
When we stopped by the new tasting room, it was in only its third day of operation. The Skinners were just leaving to return to their home in Southern California, where Mike Skinner is the founder and president of the commercial insurance provider M.G. Skinner & Associates of Los Angeles. Carey Skinner is vice president and brokerage manager of Sotheby's International Realty in Pacific Palisades and Malibu.
Pittenger, whose winemaking career has included stints in Napa Valley (Robert Biale) and Sonoma County (Williams Selyem, Marcassin), escorted us through a tasting of the winery's first releases. They included an unusually aromatic and complex grenache, a layered and supple mourvèdre, and two juicy and spicy syrahs, all made with El Dorado County fruit.
To my palate, however, the standouts were two proprietary blends, including a tropical and persistent white made with roussanne, marsanne and viognier called Seven Generations in tribute to the long line of Skinners in California.
The slightly more profound of the two, however, was the Skinner Vineyards & Winery 2008 El Dorado "Eighteen Sixty-One," a bright, smoky and leathery mix of grenache (40 percent), mourvedre (35 percent) and syrah (25 percent). Medium-bodied, highly scented and deeply juicy, the wine is as sturdy and haunting as one of the Gold Country's vintage head frames.
The grapes that went into the wine were sourced from five vineyards scattered throughout El Dorado County, including one of their own vineyards for the syrah. Pittenger credits the grenache for the wine's bright red-fruit character, the mourvèdre for its earthy and herbal notes, and the syrah for its structure, darker fruit tones and note of rich game.
The name "Eighteen Sixty-One" recognizes the year James Skinner is believed to have planted his first vines.