High Tech & History at New Foothills Winery

Skinner Vineyards salutes heritage with vintage design and green innovation

by Jon Tourney
Stoney Creek Vineyard
The new Skinner Winery blends green technology with antique-style architecture; Syrah vines are in the foreground.

Fair Play, Calif.Skinner Vineyards officially opened its new tasting room and "green" technology winery in the Fair Play AVA of California’s Sierra Foothills last weekend. Mike and Carey Skinner purchased the 67-acre property in 2007. Ranging in elevation from 2,300 to 2,750 feet, the property, known as Stoney Creek vineyard, includes original blocks of Syrah and Viognier planted by the previous owner in 2000. The vineyard now has 20 acres planted with Rhône varieties that also include Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Counoise, Petite Sirah, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc.

The winery project culminates a quest to revive the Skinner family legacy in El Dorado County, which dates to the Gold Rush, when Mike's great-great-great grandfather James Skinner arrived in search of gold. James purchased property in western El Dorado County near Rescue along the Pony Express Trail in the 1850s. He planted grapevines, and by 1861 started one of the first commercial wineries in the area, known as J Skinner Native Wine and Brandy. The winery and Skinner Ranch operated until the early 1900s.

A century later, Mike, Carey and their son Ryan began researching the family history, which led them to the original ranch near Rescue where they purchased 25 acres. To date, the Skinners have planted 13 acres with Rhône varieties and Zinfandel at this 1,400-foot- elevation site, now known as White Oak Flat vineyard.

Mike Skinner is founder and president of M.G. Skinner & Associates, a commercial property insurance provider based in Los Angeles. Carey Skinner is VP and brokerage manager of Sotheby's International Realty in Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Ryan Skinner is VP at M.G Skinner & Associates, and has actively been involved in developing and managing the winery and vineyard, along with his brother Brendan, who handles the financial aspects of Skinner Vineyards.

Developing the winery

The Skinners originally considered building a winery at the Rescue property, but decided Fair Play offered a better opportunity to be part of the local wine community along an established wine tasting route.

Winemaker Chris Pittenger produced the first three vintages of Skinner wines at a custom-crush facility in Sonoma County. He utilized past experience—including 9,000-case Robert Biale Vineyards, Napa; Kim Crawford Wines, in New Zealand; Torbreck Wines, Australia; 14,000-case Williams-Selyem Winery and 500-case Marcassin Vineyard, both in Sonoma County.

The Skinners and Pittenger worked with Hall & Bartley Architecture and Planning of Santa Rosa, Calif., to design the new winery, using old photographs and sketches of James Skinner's original ranch and winery structures. Mike Skinner said, "Our goal was to incorporate old features and building styles from the 1860s winery with our current needs and technology; Andy Hall did a great job of taking our vision and putting it on paper."

The exterior of the winery's west side includes elements of the historic stone wine cellar; and wooden battens and boards are part of the entire building's exterior design. Signage on the west side of the winery is also a nod to the historic winery name, reading "Skinner Native Wine & Brandy."

A separate tasting room building was built about 100 yards up the hill from the winery. From here, the view from an outdoor deck and patio spans the Fair Play AVA to the north and east, with the crest of the Sierra Nevada Range in the distance. The two-story tasting room includes an upstairs tasting bar and a lower level bottle cellar with space for small group tastings. The building also has a batten and board wood exterior, with a stone fireplace and historic Skinner Ranch photos inside. An antique spring wagon horse-drawn carriage from James Skinner's era sits outside.

Solar-powered "green" winery

The 12,000-square-foot winery building was completed just in time for the 2010 crush, with a permitted production capacity of 10,000 cases per year. Pittenger said, "Our goal was to have a green winery; it was designed and built to be smart operationally and environmentally, with sustainable features and practices." The metal building was constructed with nearly 80% recycled steel. Effective placement of energy-efficient windows provides day-lighted interior space. Walls and ceilings are well insulated, with high R-values to reduce energy use and maintain stable temperatures for wine production.

Snowline Construction of Placerville, Calif., was the general contractor. Renewable Technologies, Sutter Creek, Calif., installed a 55 kW solar PV system was installed on the winery’s south-facing roof. The building is oriented to receive maximum sun exposure on the south and avoid direct sun on the north side, where barrel rooms are located. The solar array is expected to provide excess electricity production throughout the year, even during crush peak-load periods. Another energy-efficiency feature is use of fans and louvers to air-cool night air and reduce chiller-system use during cooler months.

A covered crush pad on the building’s east side provides ease of access and grape delivery. Equipment includes a Sharfenberger crusher/destemmer and a Sharfenberger Europress. The fermentation room has eight stainless steel tanks supplied by AAA Metal Fabrication of Portland, Ore., ranging in capacity from 2- to 4-tons, with removable lids and variable capacities. The tanks are jacketed to circulate glycol for temperature control, using TankNet Controllers. Redwood Refrigeration of Petaluma engineered and installed the refrigeration system.

Four rooms on the north side of the building are individually temperature-controlled for use as barrel rooms or case storage; each has separate access through large, insulated roll-up doors from Janus International. The winery uses exclusively French oak barrels for its Rhône program—a significant investment in François Freres barrels.

Offices and a wine lab are upstairs. Pittenger summarized: "This design is meant to be simple, functional and efficient, with wine quality as the focus. While the new equipment is great and important to wine quality, it is the basic elements--sloped floors with good drainage, hot and cold glycol, ample work space and temperature-controlled barrel rooms--that I appreciate the most.”

Vineyard management

Bryan Rahn of Coastal Viticultural Consultants, Angwin, Calif., serves as vineyard manager, he designed and planted Skinner's new vineyard blocks at both the Fair Play and Rescue sites. The Fair Play vineyard has moderately vigorous soils, and most vines are planted on 3309C or 420A rootstocks.

Cover crops help to modulate vigor while providing habitat for beneficial insects. New vines are planted with a modified VSP trellis, with cross-arms to allow shoot ends to be used for more shading. Rahn said, "We don't have a problem getting the fruit ripe here, but we want to avoid excessive fruit temperatures."

The yield target is 3 tons per acre. Sustainable practices in the vineyards include owl boxes and reduced risk chemical applications. A weather station and technologies to monitor soil moisture and evapotranspiration (ET) enable efficient irrigation. Rahn said, "I'd give the Skinners an A+ on sustainability. They're really pushing it."

Production and sales goals

The winery expects to produce just less than 2,000 cases from the 2010 vintage, with about 1,500 cases from estate vineyards. Pittenger indicated that the winery is in no hurry to reach its full production capacity of 10,000 cases. Production will expand as fruit from estate vineyards increases, but wine quality and market demand will drive overall production.

"Control in the production of wine and wine quality is paramount to me," Pittenger said. Estate vineyards are expected to produce more than the winery's needs, so grapes will also be sold to other wineries.

Current releases include a white Rhône blend of Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier; a red Rhône blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah; and varietal bottlings of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Prices range from $24 to $34 per bottle. Mike Skinner said, "Our goals are to have 75% of our sales direct from the tasting room, and 25% of sales in upscale restaurants and wine bars." Some of the wines are currently available in restaurants in the Sacramento and Lake Tahoe areas. All Skinner label production will be El Dorado County or Fair Play appellation wine. "In keeping with our heritage, we will remain true to El Dorado County, and we hope to produce estate grown wines as much as possible," Skinner said.

Fair Play Wine Festival June 4-5

Skinner Vineyards will be one of 18 wineries participating in the annual Fair Play Wine Festival June 4-5. This annual open house event, held since 1984, includes food pairings, wine specials and music at the individual wineries within the Fair Play AVA. Information and tickets are available at fairplaywine.com/festival.html.


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