Skinner Vineyards & Winery at Rhone Rangers

cardWith no fewer than seven key players named “Skinner”, Skinner Vineyards & Winery is indeed a family business. Add to that the fact that the founders are fifth generation direct descendants of the founder of one of Amador County’s first wineries – the site of which is a mile or so from the present winery – and you’ve got a story that your PR department would never tire of telling.
When not building Skinner’s reputation for quality Rhone varietals at reasonable prices, winemaker Chris Pittinger is busy creating a solid and loyal fan base for his own limited production Pinot Noir – Gros Ventre – crafting five wines from four sources, including the highly prized Cerise Vineyard in the Anderson Valley.Chris
I caught up with Chris and one of those Skinner guys at the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting, held for the first time at the Craneway Pavilion at Ford Point in Richmond.
2012 Skinner Picpoul Blanc Estate – two barrels produced – the balance of the fruit goes into a white blend.
The aromas suggest crisp, mineral driven rather than fruit driven, but the texture of the wine in the mouth is surprisingly soft, broad and ‘oily’, more reminiscent, perhaps, of a Marsanne. (The wine sees only stainless steel, but does go through malolactic fermentation.) The flavors are more mineral than fruit driven, however, leaving my palate – well…a bit confused – not my favorite iteration of this variety. I would love to taste this wine in a different vintage.
2012 Skinner Grenache Blanc – certainly fruit driven aromatics – more in the yellow nectarine and not-quite-ripe apricot range – bright with some crispness up front – the flavors follow the aromas with an additional hit of wet stones – the flavors linger on the palate – quite clean with a nice follow. Well done.
2012 Skinner Grenache – 100% Grenache –
Light garnet color in the glass – most decidedly Old World Grenache aromas – shows hints of elusive tar/asphalt/loamy/earthy notes that are quite fascinating. (Can you tell I ran into TomHill while dictating notes on this wine?) The flavors and texture are more mouth filling than the colors and aromas might suggest – there’s a richness and concentration of flavors – all Grenache – that spread out across the palate. It is bright in character as one might expect from this variety. There is still some tannic astringency that will settle down with a little time, but a lovely expression of the varietal.
2012 Skinner Mourvedre – dark and deep colors in the glass – again, quite Rhone in aromatic character – dark and brooding, but fairly expressive – medium to full bodied in the mouth with rich plumy flavors and a touch of animale – moderate but smooth tannins suggest the best is yet to come – this wine has a lot of personality. Nice.
2011 Skinner “1861” – 44% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 28% Mourvedre – a touch of funk in the nose that blows off pretty quickly – a pretty friendly entry – medium to full bodied with pleasant compote of dark purple and black fruits – smooth tannins add structure and grip with enough hints of earth and other “place driven” elements to provide more interest. This is a very enjoyable, but not special GSM blend.
2010 Skinner Syrah – 98% Syrah, cofermented with 2% Viognier – rich and dark color in the glass – rather rich, concentrated and ripe aromatics that give way to earthy, loam and mushroom characteristics – the aromas suggest a ripe, perhaps over ripe wine, but not so in the mouth – there is no sense of late picking in the flavors – very pretty, almost a perfect stylistic marriage of northern and southern Rhone. Truly enjoyable to drink – still a couple of years away from optimal drinkability for my palate, but you could easily give this a little air and time and drink it tonight – a very, very pretty wine.
I learned just enough about these folks to want to learn more – and I will. They are on my “A list” of Sierra Foothill wineries to visit and I encourage you to get to know them and their wines.


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Tasting Notes: Hawkes Wine current releases


What to do? I find myself on the Plaza in beautiful downtown Sonoma with an empty hour until my next appointment. Of course, there is no shortage of tasting rooms in the neighborhood, so I simply choose a winery with which I am not familiar – the rest was easy.

Stephen and Jacob Hawkes are father and son growers and vintners in the Alexander Valley. Stephen purchased the first property in 1971 – he and his wife, Paula, have been farming and living on that property since. Two other Alexander Valley ranches have been added over the years. Jacob – self proclaimed ne’er-do-well son – in an embarrassingly common second generation winery family theme, has found that walking the vineyards and making wines suits him just fine, thank you.

You can taste the rest of the story at their charming tasting room just off the Sonoma Plaza.

2013 Home Chardonnay Home Alexander Valley – 560 cases produced  Alcohol 14%  $30  No ML  5 months in neutral French oak
The aromas open with ripe pineapple but quickly segue to diffuse citrus and minerals with the illusion of vanillin – smooth entry with flavors of…well, chardonnay… and a rather genuine expression at that. A focused minerality joins the party, leading to a crisp and clean finish. Lovely.

2010 Merlot Alexander Valley Red Winery Vineyard – 220 cases produced  Alcohol 14.1%  $35  18 months in 25% new French oak
Subdued aromas of red berries with a nuance of French licorice – in the mouth, the flavors are subdued as well, but what comes through is a sense of balance, elegance and moderate, but smooth tannins, suggesting at least a five year wait for the optimal drinking window – but likely well worth the wait.

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – approx 50% Pyramid Vineyard, 25% Red Winery Vineyard, 25% Stone Vineyard – 1100 cases produced  Alcohol 14.4%  $50  18 months in 30% new French oak
Reluctant aromas of red stone fruit and berries with a hint of red currant – tight in the mouth with flavors that follow the aromas – added interest from subtle mineral notes – still years away from optimal enjoyment, but balanced, elegant and clean.

2010 Pyramid Cabernet Sauvignon – single vineyard, single clone (clone 8) – 300 cases produced  Alcohol 14.2%  $65  24 months in 30% new French oak
Quite shy in the nose, but offers red stone fruit aromas over subtle flinty aromatics – again, tight in the mouth, revealing more structure than flavor – but that is not to say one cannot draw conclusions.

These red wines have character, flavor and balance. They are not, however, intended for immediate enjoyment – lay these down – I believe your patience will be well rewarded.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – Inaugural vintage  Red Winery Vineyard  94% Cabernet Sauvignon 6% Merlot  20 months in 25% new French oak 25% new American oak 50% neutral oak  900 cases produced  Alcohol 13.8%  $100
Very pretty and expressive aromas of red/purple berries and plums with the beginnings of secondary notes of leather and smoke – the wine is focused and pretty on the palate with mouth coating flavors that follow the nose – still a few years away from peak for my palate, but enjoyable now for those who enjoy a bit of grip.

At one time, I considered the Alexander Valley a perennial under achiever, remarkable for mostly old vine Zinfandel. Only occasionally did Cabernet of note appear – usually Simi or Laurel Glen or Rod Strong (back when he was making the wines himself).

But that was then and this is now – Hawkes is a winery to put on your radar if you seek clear, balanced and elegant expressions of Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon (and a very fine non ML Chardonnay). Good stuff.


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TN: 2010 J.Wolf Cellars Zinfandel Russian River Valley

TN: 2010 J. Wolf Cellars Zinfandel Russian River Valley                                              3 barrels produced – 15% alc
Sourced from the vineyard of a well regarded grower, this dark ruby wine shows accessible aromas of ripe Zinberry with overtones of sweet vanillin – in the mouth, the wine is lush and sweet with a hint of briar, easily offering proof of its Russian River origins. Nicely balanced with a touch of grip on the back end, the finish is clean and lingering. I would consider this an early drinker and serve it at cellar temperature – I suspect that as the wine gains age and the ample fruit begins to fall off a bit, the alcohol will become more noticeable. But that’s not really a problem because the wine drinks so well right now. A fine first effort from this new producer and still available.

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Women Winemakers II

With the Napa Valley Vintners’ Premiere Napa Valley showing signs of becoming a wintertime zoo to compliment the summertime Auction, I’m satisfied to attend the ancillary events that precede the weekend’s madness. One such tasting was the Women Winemakers Tasting, the fourth annual by my reckoning and again held at Bardessono in Yountville.

(As an aside, Victor Scargle, whose Napa Valley creds include Julia’s Kitchen, Go Fish! and CIA at Greystone, is now executive chef at Lucy, Bardessono’s dining venue. I’ve heard nothing but good things and I hope the relationship flourishes.)

The tasting was held on a small outdoor patio and given the unseasonably warm weather, it made for a fine choice. I started right off the bat with a quick stroll around the tables, tasting the available Sauvignon Blanc on the way.

The Honig family and their winemaker, Kristin Belair, craft consistently fine Sauvignon Blanc as well as under the radar and underappreciated Cabernet. The 2012 Honig Sauvignon Blanc  Napa Valley contains tiny additions of Semillon and Muscat and continues to impress with both quality and price. The 2012 offers pleasing aromas of herbs and grass, wonderful flavors and a lively crispness on the palate. This wine always delivers and represents a terrific value, especially when found at discount.

I then moved across the courtyard to greet Amy Aiken. Amy AikenBoth she and her Conspire Sauvignon Blanc have become favorites over the last few years. The wine is typically equal parts Sauvignon Blanc and Musqué clone, which adds aromatic interest and complexity in the flavors. The 2012 is no exception and is simply dazzling in the mouth, leading with flavors of white stone fruits and pale melons. Sauvignon Blanc is often considered to be a “before dinner” or first course wine. Conspire, however, has the personality and substance to pair with a wide variety of foods and can be featured with the right main course.

Sara Fowler, winemaker at Peju Winery, offered their 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, which showed focused flavors in a sophisticated and slightly more austere style, conjuring visions of oysters and crawfish.

Then, quickly on to Julie Johnson from Tres Sabores, pouring her 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, newly bottled after five months sur lie. The wine is sourced from the Farina Vineyard, which lies on the Northwestern slope of Sonoma Mountain at an elevation of about 600 feet.Tres Sabores

It opens with wonderful floral aromatics that resolve to the grassy and herbal end of this varietal’s spectrum. The flavors follow the aromatics with a brisk texture that I suspect will smooth a bit as the wine gains some time in bottle.

These four wines amply illustrate the diversity of stylistic expressions this variety enjoys – each immensely enjoyable.

Julie Johnson’s 2013 Rose of Zinfandel has an addition of 15% Petite Sirah – it shows a pale salmon color and offers aromas of peach and light berry. In the mouth the wine is absolutely lovely – crisp and refreshing – the flavors follow the aromas and this will be a wine to seek out for early spring enjoyment.

The first red wine of the day was the Arns 2001Syrah from Sandi Belcher. The fruit comes from Pritchard Hill – production some 60 – 70 cases. Sandy says the wine has “longevity”. It is dense and dark in the glass, the aromatics definitely Northern Rhone in style. Despite over a decade in the bottle, the wine remains a bit enigmatic on the palate. Rich and tannic, yet balanced and elegant, I think this Syrah is at least five years from reaching its full potential – likely longer. It has wonderful concentration and personality.

SandiThe 2010 Arns Cabernet Sauvignon Estate had been opened and decanted. While Arns Estate remains one of my personal favorite Napa Cabs, this wine was not in a particularly giving mood today. The aromas were quite restrained, showing (after considerable coaxing) rather uncharacteristic strawberry and red cherry highlights, overlying deep currant and black plum. Relatively little is offered on the palate, as well. For me, one of the most appealing features of these bottlings is the focused core of pure fruit around which the palate impression is built. I can only conclude – especially in this vintage – that the wine just happens to be in a not very flattering place in its evolution. Patience – no doubt – will be more than amply rewarded, as other vintages have proven.

Corison was pouring its Premiere Napa Valley auction lot, consisting of 2012 wines from all four vineyards that Cathy sources for her Cabernet Sauvignon – the only time this has occurred. It has a deep and dense color in the glass – quite restrained aromatically – in the mouth the wine is young, to be sure – I suspect the final blend has been only recently been decided upon – the components of this blend are in an awkward stage right now and the wine offers very little either aromatically or in the mouth, other than a certain harmony that I find very pleasing. Based on my previous experience with Cathy’s wines I firmly believe this will evolve into something special.

2010 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon  Napa Valley – this is the second 2010 Cabernet today that has left me aromatically underwhelmed. Perhaps the wines are just a little tight right now and simply need a little time to develop. The wine is sweet and pleasing in the mouth, although a bit tight and shut down. I think this is not at all unusual for a Corison Cabernet as they typically take several years to integrate and come around. Knowledgeable buyers understand this winery’s consistency and I believe will base their purchases on the quality of the vintage rather than how the wine shows in its youth. I’m just sayin’…

And to my delight, a sample of the 2010 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon  Kronos Vineyard – as yet unreleased – was poured. The wine has a rich and dense color – again, quite restrained aromatically. On the palate, the wine shows tremendous promise – the depth of fruit and concentration of flavors is apparent – very delicious, but it needs time and then more time. This was a very impressive lineup of wines from Cathy Corison.

And back to Amy Aiken, who, in addition to schooling distributors on the wonders of the iphone, was pouring the 2009 Meander Cabernet Sauvignon  Napa Valley, blended from half Lewelling and half Morisoli fruit. The aromas are quite lovely – not surprising, meander_label_wines _pagegiven the Morisoli component – the flavors are terrific, the texture is beautiful, the balance is impeccable – this is a first class Napa Valley Cabernet. With these fruit sources in the hands of Amy Aiken, I would expect nothing less – a simply beautiful wine.

 2010 Barrett & Barrett Cabernet Sauvignon  Calistoga – sourced from the family vineyard planted in 1989. Just a bit shy in the nose with a hint of barrel funk that blows off with a little time – wow, the wine has beautiful flavors with a velvety mouthfeel – this has all of the necessary components to be a top flight Cabernet. Good stuff and it has the makings of becoming a real collector’s wine – if it is not already.

2010 La Sirena Cabernet Sauvignon  Napa Valley – the aromas are wonderfully rich and dense – the flavors are rich and full, yet beautifully balanced – the texture is marvelous. This is Heidi Barrett at her best.

Next is Bridget Raymond and Courtesan Wines. The first pour is from her Premiere Napa Valley Auction Lot No. 194 – 60% Cabernet Sauvignon 20% Merlot  20% Cabernet Franc  – 30% Stagecoach Vineyard  30% Oakville (Bridget does not easily reveal her fruit sources) – she describes the wine as having a bit of “suppleness”. Beautifully rich color in the glass. Bridget, no doubt, has many gifts as a winemaker, but what impresses me most is her ability to coax exceptional textures from her wines. This wine has structure and backbone, but it wears silk robes on the palate and is an extraordinary textural experience. The wine is achingly pleasurable and absolutely beautiful.Bridget

2010 Red Mask Reserve – a blend of Beckstoffer To Kalon, Stagecoach and Oakville fruit – once again, the aromas and flavors are all there, but with some time and swirling, the wine develops an ethereal texture that is simply captivating.

I must say that following my first story on this particular tasting three years ago, I returned the following year and tasted Bridget’s wines. At that time it was my feeling that the wines I tasted on that second occasion did not quite capture the magic of my first encounter. Today, I ascribe that difference to vintage variations because today’s experience is simply dazzling – the wines show not only flavor, structure, and aromatic interest, but also a textural beauty that is very special.

2008 Omerta  Reserve – mostly St. Helena fruit with a small inclusion of To Kalon press juice. Not as breathtaking as the Auction lot – and that is not a criticism by any means – the wine is an 08 and has a busload of fruit. I suspect this wine is a bit “closed down” now – it has harmonious flavors and impeccable balance – it is delicious from start to finish, but just doesn’t quite have the opulence it once possessed.

2010 Omerta  Reserve – Bridget is again tight lipped about her technical information, but tells me this wine could have been labeled as “Cabernet Sauvignon”, rather than by its proprietary name, so it consists of at least 75% Cab. Holding true to my experience with 2010 wines today, the aromatics are quite shy, but show hints of French licorice and background spice. The fruit really punches through in the mouth, showing youthful and exuberant cherry, red raspberry and red currant flavors.

I daresay it is only a matter of time before Bridget’s exceptional talent gains a wider following. I remember wondering after tasting her wines three years ago if what she had achieved was an accident of circumstance, but that is most decidedly not the case. These are special wines from a rather special lady – I hope to be speaking with her more very soon.

Then on to Elaine St. Clair from St. Clair Brown Winery. A journeyman winemaker with particular skills and experience with sparkling wines, she has left Black Stallion, part of the Delicato Wine portfolio, and has her own winery near downtown Napa. This ambitious project includes both wine and beer production, a tasting room with small plates to pair with the beverages and a restaurant with on site gardens to provide ingredients for the kitchen.

St. Clair Brown Zinfandel – lovely varietal aromas – sweet and pretty in the mouth with a light grip – fruit filled, tasty, food friendly I’d warrant, illustrating where the new (old) direction of Zinfandel is headed – this is a very, very nice wine.

We’ll soon be spending more time with St. Clair Brown and will report in depth on their wines and their new urban winery.

This tasting has become an event I very much look forward to each year – it brings together exceptionally talented women and their wines yet offers a certain intimacy and charm that is immensely appealing.

No doubt I’ll be back next year.


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Return to the Keyboard

After a hiatus of nearly two years – mostly due to energy being diverted to other projects – I’m returning to the keyboard and hope to soon regale you with more tales of things vinous.

I hope you will feel the same.


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A Taste of History

In 1895, Grover Cleveland was President; the first professional American football game was played in Latrobe, Pennsylvania; the first shipment of canned pineapple left Hawaii; Albert Nobel established the Nobel Prize – and Mrs. Thomas Rutherford harvested 100 tons of grapes from sixty acres of what would eventually become Andy Beckstoffer’s Vineyard Georges III.
Part of the nearly 12,000 acre Rancho Caymus land grant that was gifted to George Yount by General Vallejo in 1836, Yount subsequently gave 1040 acres to his granddaughter when she married Thomas Rutherford in 1862. Eventually, the land came to be owned by the San Francisco Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, who, at the time, was one of the largest landholders in the Napa Valley.
With the advent of Prohibition, the Church began to divest itself of vineyard land in the Valley. In 1923, a young Frenchman began to purchase land incrementally from them – four separate purchases of contiguous land for a total of 198 acres.
His name was Georges deLatour.

Andy Beckstoffer and Andre Tchelistcheff

The vineyard came to be known as Beaulieu Ranch #3 and would become the source of the Rutherford Cabernets of BV, crafted by the “Maestro”, Andre Tchelistcheff. These wines would help secure Beaulieu’s reputation in the 60s and 70s as producers of the finest in Napa Valley wines.
In 1971, a young man named Andy Beckstoffer began farming the land for BV. He became Founding Director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association in 1975 and has gone on to become renowned for bringing modern science and progressive labor practices to viticulture. In 1976, he championed what was then a controversial move to use geographic and historical indicators to describe a wine’s appellation of origin. In the Nov 19, 1987 issue of the Napa Valley Register, an article titled “Shocking idea from Grapegrowers” detailed the uproar surrounding Beckstoffer’s (then radical) proposal that all wine produced in Napa County contain at least 75% Napa County grapes.

Beckstoffer purchased the Beaulieu Ranch #3 in 1988 and renamed it Vineyard Georges III. Additional purchases of contiguous parcels brought the total acreage to 300. He has gone on to become a leading proponent of vineyard designated wines and was Founding Director of the Rutherford Dust Society in 1994. Recently, the bulk of this property and the entirety of the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard and the Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Vineyard were placed under a land conservation easement that forever prohibits non-agricultural development.
Beckstoffer Vineyards has grown to control more than 3600 acres of vineyard in Napa, Mendocino and Lake Counties. He was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintner’s Hall of Fame in 2010, becoming the first grower to be so honored.
So it was with no small sense of history that I accepted an invitation to a comparative tasting of vineyard designated wines from Vineyard Georges III, graciously hosted by Monica and David Stevens at 750 Wines in St. Helena. Producers of the wines tasted and a few fortunate members of the press were in attendance, along with Mr. Beckstoffer and Dave Stoneberg, Wine Editor of the St. Helena Star.

Andy Beckstoffer

The event began with introductions and a brief history of the property.
Andy Beckstoffer: “…So in the history of America, this property has only had four owners (George Yount, Thomas Rutherford & family, Georges deLatour & BV and Beckstoffer)…I remember when we first bought the place…Andre said ‘Diversify by clones of Cabernet – don’t go planting merlot and franc and Mondeuse and all that other stuff. This is cabernet land. Plant clones of cabernet.’…so today there are five clones of cabernet on the property…all are planted to 03916 rootstock.”

The assembled wines were poured in two flights of six wines: the first were all 2008 vintage; the second contained five 2009s and one barrel sample from 2010. They were tasted single blind and were ranked, but not scored.
The favorite from the first flight was the 2008 Myriad from owner/winemaker Mike Smith, while the favorite from the second flight was the 2009 Sojourn from proprietor Craig Haserot and winemaker Erich Bradley.

I must agree with several conclusions drawn by the assembled tasters: the vineyard does not produce “blockbuster” wines; the fruit profile is often red with black fruit highlights and for some, a hint of “loamy’ influence. This taster found a common thread of elegance and balance in these wines, with the pedigree of this piece of land clearly expressed.
One cannot taste these wines without feeling steeped in the history of this special property.

The Beckstoffer Farm Center at Georges III

In a sense, we walked in the footsteps of the giants of Napa Valley wine history: George Yount, Thomas Rutherford, Georges deLatour and Andre Tchelistcheff. And there could be no finer steward of this, and his other Heritage Vineyards, than Andy Beckstoffer.

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Tastings and Events

Woman Winemakers of the Napa Valley

Despite the best efforts of the Napa Valley Vintners, I was able, through other connections, to participate in some of the trade events surrounding the Premiere Napa Valley barrel lot auction.  This event was a small gathering of six Napa Valley woman winemakers ranging from the most accomplished to the up and coming. Continue reading

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Tasting Notes from the Ridge

It seems appropriate to me that this venture begins with comment on my most recent visit to Monte Bello Ridge. This will, no doubt, be a recurring feature on this site.

Continue reading

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