Skinner Vineyards & Winery Puts the “Aah” in Syrah—and in So Much More

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aBased on a recommendation, I found myself driving along windy roads through the Sierra Foothills with my friend Cathy in search of a winery called Skinner Vineyards & Winery in California’s El Dorado County. We weren’t sure what to expect (neither of us had been to the Fair Play AVA). But, sometimes the unknown makes the journey worth taking.

Our jaws dropped as we rounded that final bend toward the hilltop estate. At 2,600 feet, the view of the Sierra Foothills was breathtaking—so much that we took our time getting to the tasting room, oohing an aahing our way around the landscaped grounds. Three-thousand square feet of outdoor terraces provide room for tasting and seating, along with a wood-fire pizza oven and three fireplaces. A spring wagon and a wine press, both from the 1860s, add rustic charm. skinner vineyards_lawn seating

We arrived on a Monday and were the only guests there. The quietness was Zen-like, and the sound of water trickling from a decorative pond gave me pause. So I relaxed in one of the cushy chairs on the upper outdoor deck, where I pondered life while gazing at the nearly dormant old Grenache vine adjacent to the pond.

The Skinner property captivates your visual senses, and even calms your soul, but, it is the wine that is oh so satisfying—think, velvety tannins.

Skinner pond and stairs

From the upper patio, visitors may relax by the pond/tiny stream or descend the wooden stairs to the lower grounds.

Skinner specializes in varietals patterned after Rhone wines. Three wines in particular got my attention, with the 2012 Dry Diggings forever etched on my mind. This wine is always a Syrah-based blend: the 2012 is 33 percent Syrah, with Grenache, Mourvédre, Petite Sirah and Counoise (Counoise is a black-skinned grape that adds a peppery note and good acidity to a red blend). This full-bodied wine fills the senses with aromas of meat, plum, and blackberry with hints of tar, anise, black pepper and dried flowers. The palate has bright acidity.

Unlike the Diggings Syrah-based blend, the Eighteen Sixty-One blend is Grenache-driven. The 2012 vintage—which includes Mourvédre, Counoise, Syrah and Viognier—has aromas of raspberry and dark cherry. Notes of clove, nutmeg and vanilla dance on top of earthy notes of forest floor, dried herbs and pipe tobacco. A touch of minerality and fresh acidity complement the finish.

From left to right: 2012 Eighteen Sixty-One, 2012 Estate Grenache, and 2012 Dry Diggings (photo by Cynthia Bournellis

Left to right: 2012 Eighteen Sixty-One, 2012 Estate Grenache, 2012 Dry Diggings (photo by Cynthia Bournellis

The Estate Grenache is one of the five varietals planted at the original J. Skinner Winery in the 1860s. The 2012 vintage is 100 percent Grenache produced from three different clones, which result in a complex wine with deep character. This Grenache wants to be seen and heard: ruby-red with aromas of dark cherry, raspberry and sage. The palate is similar but with rich flavors of plum, surrounded by modest tannin and good acidity—all leading to a lingering finish of mineral and holiday spice. This is my type of Grenache: bold and chewy.

Skinner Vineyards & Winery

All other photos courtesy of Cathy Bentley

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Branciforte Creek Vineyard: Complex, Elegant Pinot Noir—from the Vineyard to the Glass

Me behind the tasting bar at SCMV_fall 2013_cropped_aThe Early Days
There’s a vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains that dates back to the mid-1800s. It is known today as Branciforte Creek Vineyard, and is part of one of the oldest continuously operated grape-growing regions in California—a 300-acre site originally called Rancho San Andres, in what is now the Vine Hill District, above the city of Scott’s Valley.*

The region was established in 1863. According to a manuscript written by Robert Jarvis Sr., as told to him by his late father George Millen Jarvis, George bought cuttings from France and planted them in his vineyard. Around 1865 George’s brother, John Jarvis, arrived from Oregon and bought a ranch across Blackman Gulch to the east of Vine Hill and developed a vineyard. He built a road to connect with Branciforte Road. That road is Jarvis Road. (By 1868, the Jarvis brothers’ plantings comprised 90 percent of the 300 acres.)

Jarvis Vineyard during the 1908s. (Photo by Jeff Emery)

Jarvis Vineyard during the 1980s. (Photo by Jeff Emery)

Branciforte Creek Vineyard is located on Jarvis Road, just one mile from Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard’s historic Estate, formerly called “Jarvis Vineyard.”

Fast-Forward to 1988: A New Generation of Farmers
As noted, Branciforte Creek Vineyard sits on a site that had produced grapes continuously since 1863. However, it had become fallow over time but was reclaimed in the late 1980s by Dave “Woody” Wood and his wife Jennifer.

The Pinot Noir that had been produced by Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard impressed Woody so much that he decided to breathe life back into this once fallow land. So, he broke ground in 1988, planting both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on St. George rootstock, a hefty rootstock that does well in this vineyard’s sandy soil, which has very little nutrients. Later, Woody grafted the Chardonnay to Pinot Noir. From this vineyard, Jeff Emery co-produced his first vintage of Branciforte Creek Pinot in 1991, when at the time he was assistant winemaker to then Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard owner-winemaker Ken Burnap.

A vineyard worker serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

A vineyard worker serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
(Photo by Ken Swegles)

Farming, however, was not in Woody’s blood, so from 1992 to 2002 he contracted the tending of the vines to local winemaker David Bruce and Bruce’s then vineyard manager Greg Stokes. Emery didn’t make wine again from that vineyard until 2003—after he purchased Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (the name, equipment, and inventory) from Burnap, who retired.

In 2007, Emery took over the viticulture activities at Branciforte Creek Vineyard. When it was first planted, the vineyard was established on a vertical trellis system for cordon pruning but was changed over to cane pruning to ensure better fruit set, as Pinot Noir tends to be apical-dominant—the shoots grow upward to get more light, and thus undergo photosynthesis. Emery explains the advantage of cane-pruned vines: “Cane pruning lets you leave behind a cane each year with one to two bud spurs for the next year. So you get all the fruit off this one cane.”

Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The vine rows run east and west and thus get the morning sun, which moves over the vines during the day, finally setting on the west side of the vineyard, welcoming the cool nights. The downhill side of the vineyard (which is 750 feet in elevation) faces somewhat south and experiences more shading, which varies throughout the summer. Emery calls this section the “banana belt” because it gets warm but not scathingly hot, and the fog comes in but doesn’t linger forever. “In a normal summer, there’s a seven- to ten-day cycle where there’s a good balance of sun and fog,” says Emery.

This balance is perfect for the vines, which need the cooler nights to maintain their acid. Since acid slowly goes away as fruit ripens—day after day, week after week—Emery is careful, not to “burn out acid,” as he puts it, in disproportion to sugar development by ensuring that the grapes are not overripe at harvest time. “I don’t like a strawberry soda pop [type of] Pinot,” he adds.

Early morning at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Early morning at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

A No-Fuss Approach to Viticulture
Emery and his crew farm Branciforte Creek Vineyard somewhat modestly. Vineyard maintenance consists of mechanical weed control (mower and weed eater). Herbicides are not used—instead, native vegetation is left to grow during the season, and a good amount of wild mustard provides the vines enough nitrogen.

Powdery mildew, a fungus indicative to the Santa Cruz Mountains, is more common and is controlled via the spraying of sulfur early in the season. Fortunately, 2014 was good weatherwise—not much mildew was present, so spraying was minimal. Emery stays on top of mildew control, given his long history of working vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “The text book interval is overkill,” he says. “A lot of it [viticulture] just comes down to budget.”

Eutypa is another disease that sometimes affects the vines. Caused by the fungus Eutypa Lata, Eutypa produces cankers that appear typically on one arm of the vine, moving toward the roots and ultimately killing the plant. As a result, some replanting has taken place.

Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir vine succumbs to a gopher. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir vine succumbs to a gopher. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

The vineyard is pretty much spared when it comes to bacterial disease. For example, Pierce’s Disease is not an issue, since the property is not located near a riparian zone.
Pests of the vertebrate kind include birds, which eat the berries but are not a major threat since netting is used. Gophers, however, are more of a nuisance, but their numbers are small.

There are some issues with insects such as mealy bugs, which the ants eat because they live off of the honey dew that the bugs secrete. To combat mealy bugs, the crew applies natural orange oil to the vines, which suffocates the critters.

A Vineyard that Delivers, Time and Time Again
Branciforte Creek is unique in its ability to bear fruit that produces a wine whose character is consistently exceptional year-over-year, with interesting complexity. One exceptional vintage was 2007. “It has lots of spicy and floral complexities,” says Emery, comparing it to 2004, which he says was a much hotter year, resulting in a more fruit-forward wine without as many savory complexities.

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)

This depth of complexity, says Emery, has everything to do with the Pommard clone—in which the vineyard is planted—and the site, which he insists trumps the viticulture. “This clone is very distinct when it comes to white pepper, savory spice and a floral, perfume character.”

The soil too greatly influences the wine. The upper block of the vineyard (which is 800 feet in elevation) is basically a sandbox, in which pests such as Phylloxera—a tiny aphid-like insect—cannot live. In a cooler climate such as the Santa Cruz Mountains, the soil benefits the vineyard by draining well and retaining heat. Because of this, the vines can produce a highly aromatic wine. One sniff of the Branciforte Creek wine is all it takes to understand this aspect of the terroir. However, this block requires irrigating two to three times more than the lower section where the soil consists of sandy loam and clay. The combined soil types here impart a muscular character to this Pinot Noir—this is not a wimpy wine.

A Sense of “Place” in Your Glass
To describe Branciforte Creek Vineyard as nothing more than just 4 acres of Pinot Noir would be, well, an insult. There’s a Zen-like quality to the place that can be experienced during early morning harvest when the fog lingers over the vineyard, caressing the vines. Dew clings to the grape clusters, puffs of dust rise gently with each step through the rows, the air is brisk and the silence is hauntingly beautiful.

B40Creek labelThe wine too will haunt you, as its garrigue permeates your soul. Redwood, bay leaf, sage, thyme and fennel surround more delicate, deep round notes of lavender, perfume, dark cherry and rhubarb. Savory spice, dried leaves and damp earth dance among these layers, which are enveloped in noticeable acidity. (For more on the wine, read The Composition and the Creek: Listen, Sip and, by All Means, Weep)

This vineyard has low yields—due in part to the nature of the Pommard clone—and represents what Emery says is “the best of ‘old school’ Pinot Noir, before all of those cola- cherry-focused ‘modern’ clones became so popular.”

Branciforte Creek Vineyard is one that shows off the best attributes of what the Santa Cruz Mountains offers in terms of complexity in Pinot Noir. Adds Emery: “An excellent combination of clone and site, this vineyard celebrates the non-fruity elements in Pinot that make it a fascinating variety.”

* “Late Harvest: Wine History of the Santa Cruz Mountains,” The Late Harvest Project, Michael, et al., Santa Cruz, Calif., 1983.

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Who Wouldn’t Like Dried Grass

Forgive me followers but it has been five months since my last post. Much has happened during this time. Most important was the passing of Roxy, my kitty girlfriend and companion of 21 years. Roxy passed away during the Thanksgiving holiday. We were together a long time and the silence in my home and in my life was unbearable—so much so that I didn’t have the desire to write. And while I still mourn her, my creative juices have once again begun to flow.Roxy pic for Dr Hamilton

Roxy is on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge frolicking, no doubt, with her feline brothers Rusty and Vincent. And while she is not here physically, she is spiritually. It is through her spirit that I will keep her column Roxy’s Pick going, bringing you her favorite wine and wine-related topics—speaking in her sassy voice that is unique only to her.

So to my sweet kitty girl I just want to say, thank you for being my best friend, my girlfriend, my little girl of 21 years. You gave me much love, joy, and laughter. You taught me patience, forgiveness, trust, and unconditional love. I love you Roxy, and I raise a toast to you!

Roxy had just completed writing her next Pick when her little body decided that it was time for a catnap—a final catnap. So here it is. I hope you enjoy it. She would want you to.

Featured Image -- 1291My senses peaked when I caught a whiff of dried grass that wafted from the 2012 Grechetto Grecante. From Arnaldo-Caprai, this 100 percent Grechetto is delicious. A white wine produced from grapes grown in the Colli Martani DOC in the Italian region of Umbria, the 2012 Grechetto hits you with intense floral notes, stone fruit, and melon. And, did I mention dried grass? One of my favs, that pungent aroma, which brings back memories of my kittyhood, is surrounded by subtle minerality. Great to sip on or pair with seafood, veal, or poultry dishes, this wine with its bright yellow and green tinge is a must-have—if not with a main meal grecante INTERA 2012then as an aperitif, while laying in the tall grass of course.

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Bald Mountain Vineyard: The Ultimate Sandbox

roxypicklogoHigh atop the Santa Cruz Mountains there’s a vineyard that thrives in nothing but near-100-percent sandy soil. That vineyard is Bald Mountain, and is owned and farmed by Jim Beauregard of Beauregard Vineyards.

Located a few miles from the winery’s tasting room in Bonny Doon, California, Bald Mountain Vineyard was planted by Jim in 1990. Today, the Estate vineyard consists of 33 acres of Chardonnay and 7 acres of Pinot Noir. The 40-acre site sits at an elevation of 920 to 1,050 feet on a southwest-facing slope in the Ben Lomond Mountain Appellation, a tiny AVA in the Santa Cruz Mountains region that sports a cool climate. It is this climate—which is influenced by the Monterey Bay and white sandy soil of the AVA—that enables the grapes to achieve optimum phenolic ripeness, resulting in balanced, flavorful wines with noticeable minerals and racy acidity.


Ryan Beauregard (left) and Jim Beauregard (right). (photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

On a recent group outing, hosted by winemaker Ryan Beauregard and his father Jim, I (and a number of other cool cats) was treated to glass after glass of the 2012 Chardonnay from this vineyard, while walking among the vines, learning about the site. The soils here, known as the Zayante Series, contain more than 90 percent sand particles, and thus drain rapidly. These soils are mainly unsuitable for most crops, but a conversion of this habitat some time ago made it possible for the planting of vineyards, which can tolerate the well-drained soils.

Chardonnay block

Bald Mountain Chardonnay block. (photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

While most vineyards are planted with vines that have been grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstock, the vines at Bald Mountain were not—they were planted on their own roots. You see, phylloxera—that pesky root louse responsible for the Great French Wine Blight of the mid-19th century—does not do well in sandy soil.

Speaking of which, I have a bit of arthritis and thus welcomed the rather warm October day while stretched out on the vineyard floor, basking in the warmth of this unique sand. On occasion, however, I had to dodge Bacchus, the family German Shepherd, who tirelessly tried to coax me into playing fetch. Seriously…fetch? Did he not notice the difference in our species?

Bacchus 2

Bacchus resting in the sandy soil of Bald Mountain Vineyard. (photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

To see a map of the Ben Lomond AVA, click here.

Beauregard Vineyards tasting room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Their address is 10 Pine Flat Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, 831-425-7777,

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Coterie Cellars: Where the Wines Are Inspired by the Vineyards

Kyle with his wines pic 2

Kyle Loudon, Coterie Cellars winemaker, takes a queue from Mother Nature when making his small-lot Rhône and Pinot Noir wines. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)

As a contributing writer to, I sat down with husband-and-wife team Kyle and Shala Loudon, owners of Coterie Cellars, to talk about the passion and inspiration behind their Rhône and Pinot Noir Varietals.

Copyright © Wines & Vines

Read more at:

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The Hawk that Led Me to the Crow

There are times in one’s life when wine tasting just has to wait. Take today, for example. I was on my way out the door to attend a wine-tasting event when the phone rang. I let the machine answer to see who it was. When I heard my dad’s voice, I picked up the receiver in the event that it was an emergency.


George, the hawk spotter. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis, 2014)

An emergency it turned out to be. “Hey Cindy,” my dad said excitedly. “You’ve got to come over and see what I have in the backyard underneath your Pippin tree!” He’d come across an injured hawk and wanted me to come rescue it. He knew I used to volunteer at a local wildlife rehab center and figured I’d take the hawk there—if I could catch him.

I grabbed my cat carrier, some gardening gloves and a towel and raced over to my parent’s house. There it was, a red-tailed hawk in all of its feathered beauty, just beneath my Pippin tree like my dad said. My father, who’s 90 keep in mind, said he tried to catch the hawk but couldn’t because it kept skirting away.

I tentatively approached the bird of prey, but it stumbled backward, flapping its wings. It obviously was in some sort of distress, but its wings did not seem broken. And, its legs looked fine. Just as I was about to throw a towel over the hawk, it flew up and rest upon the top of the fence. I tried to coax it down so that it wouldn’t go over the fence and into the neighbor’s backyard where a couple of dogs lived. The hawk allowed me to get close enough to touch it, but before I could grab the bird, it flew on top of my father’s shed, and from there launched into a tall pine tree in an adjacent backyard.


Red-Tailed Hawk. (Photo is in the public domain courtesy of Mark Bohn-U.S. Fish and Wildlife)

While resting on a limb, a number of adult mockingbirds began dive-bombing the hawk. I assumed that the hawk was near a nest of baby mockingbirds. The adults pecked at the hawk’s wings until it flew from the tree and out of sight. I went to the house where the tree resided and asked the homeowner if I could check her backyard. She said she had seen the hawk earlier that day and had called animal control, which came out but failed to retrieve the bird. According to the homeowner, the hawk had been in the neighborhood for a couple of days.

one-black-crow cropped

Black crow. (Photo courtesy of

We searched her yard some more but found nothing. So I walked down the street hoping to find that the hawk had landed somewhere in plain view—still nothing. As I searched, I noticed a black crow hobbling on the grass. Its left leg was broken, and it was having difficulty getting flight. I slowly approached the bird and threw the towel over it. I gently lay the crow in the cat carrier, and as I removed my hands, our eyes met. The crow’s eyes were black as coal as it stared at me, quiet as could be. I can’t imagine how frightened it must have been, not knowing what its fate would be. But, I spoke softly to the beautiful creature, reassuring him (or her) that everything would be okay and he’d be up and around in no time. Hopefully, he sensed reassurance in the soft sound of my voice. The crow lay quiet until we reached the wildlife center, where I knew he’d be in good hands.

While I may not have saved the hawk—hopefully it’s not injured and was just having an “off” morning—I did rescue another keystone species. So, all in all it was a good start to my day. I think a glass of wine is now in order.

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1940’s Hollywood Glamour Captured in a Classy Chilean Wine

roxypicklogoSometimes the traditional tags used to describe wine—tar, damp earth, lavender, blackberry and white pepper for reds; peach, passion fruit, lemongrass and wet stones for whites—just won’t do. Sometimes a good old analogy is needed to get the mind, and the palate, stirring.

I find that celebrities—human and non-human—are a great source of creative expression when describing a wine. For me that celebrity (or should I say, movie star) is American actress Lauren Bacall. And the wine: 2008 Gê (Gê is the Greek word for “earth”), from Emiliana Organic Vineyards, Colchagua Vallede, Chile.

Source: Banfi Vintners, 2014

Source: Banfi Vintners, 2014

Before I tell you what it is about this wine that evokes images of a star known for her husky voice and sultry looks, let me say that I first looked to my own kind. There are so many famous felines, including Felix the Cat, the animated cartoon character created during the silent film era; the Pink Panther—the character not the diamond—of the series of comedy films featuring Inspector Jacques Clouseau; Duchess the Cat, the elegant feline from the animated Disney movie The Aristocrats; and even the regal lioness Elsa, star of the 1961 motion picture Born Free. All embodied at least one trait that I could attribute to the wine. But, as much as I love these fine-furry friends, neither of them made the cut.

For some reason this wine screams to me “Lauren Bacall.” So I’ll go with my instincts, as I’m wired to do. Bacall is one in a million, a memorable film star who will withstand the ages. And like Bacall, the 2008 Gê is one in a million, and definitely age-worthy.

A young Lauren Bacall. Her sultry looks are mesmerizing.  (This photo is in the public domain.)

A young Lauren Bacall. Her sultry looks are mesmerizing.
(This photo is in the public domain.)

A blend of organic and biodynamic grapes—Syrah, Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon—this wine speaks volumes just like Bacall. Both are deep and mysterious yet approachable, complex yet balanced, elegant yet structured, feminine yet bold, sophisticated yet gutsy, soft-spoken in a throaty sort of way yet heard.

I adore this wine, as much as I adore Bacall. With an ample body, the 2008 Gê has a soft mouthfeel and is well proportioned. Everything you want in a wine is there: earth, spice, fruit, minerals, flowers, tannins, acid and more.

On the surface, the wine is a beauty, just like Bacall. A gorgeous deep violet color catches the eye. An alluring, sultry nose holds your attention for quite some time, despite the high percentage of alcohol (15 percent). Surprisingly, the alcohol is not obnoxious but instead is rather warm and inviting. What follows are aromas of juicy purple berries, candied dark fruit and dark red flowers, as well as hints of tobacco and graphite. The longer I breathe-in the wine’s aromas, the more mesmerized I become. It’s as if I’m being seduced by Bacall herself.

Supportive acid and silky tannin envelop flavors of blackberry, dark plum and black pepper. Hints of mineral and bitter greens complete the long, smooth finish.

Emiliana Organic Vineyards recommends cellaring the 2008 Gê for 15 years, and pairing it with venison, boar or other wild game. Sounds like a plan, being the carnivore that I am. To do the wine further justice, I’ll enjoy it while watching a classic Bacall movie, her first.

Viñedos Emiliana S.A.
WTC Building
Avenida Nueva Tajamar 481 Of. 905, South Tower
Las Condes, Santiago, Chile
Phone: +56 2 2 353 9130

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