On our way from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe this summer we ventured off Route 50 and drove south into the Fair Play AVA of El Dorado County. At elevations of 2,000-3,000 feet in the Sierra Foothills, Fair Play has the highest average elevation of any appellation in California. The area is distinguished by coniferous forests and soils of decomposed granite, and with high elevation comes sloping vineyards, broad daytime-nighttime (“diurnal”) temperature swings, and intense sunlight (it’s closer to the sun, after all) — all factors that result in distinctive, mineral-driven wines from pure mountain fruit. Zinfandel is the most commonly variety grown in Fair Play, by acreage, but Rhone and Italian varieties have a growing presence.
Our destination was Skinner Vineyards, a family-owned winery that specializes in Rhone varieties and has deep roots in California winemaking history. Owners Mike and Carey Skinner built the winery in 2010 to advance the legacy of their ancestor James Skinner, whose J. Skinner Winery was among the largest and most popular wineries in California in the mid-late 19th Century. While the Skinners designed their tasting room to evoke the rusticity of the original winery (based on old photographs and ruins), the winery itself is thoroughly modern — solar-powered and sustainable — with but a sign on the front that tips its hat to the past (“Skinner Native Wine and Brandy”). This is the realm of winemaker Chris Pittenger, who hand crafts Rhone varietal wines and blends from fruit grown on the estate and off-site vineyards in El Dorado County.
Chris allows his fruit to speak for itself; he vinifies it in small lots, does not fine or filter, and utilizes oak in moderation — methods designed to retain purity, promote intensity, and convey a sense of place in the finished wine. Skinner’s 2010 Petite Sirah exemplifies the wisdom of his approach. The wine is firm and expressive, beginning with aromas that bring to mind black pepper, Asian spice, graphite, and cedar, followed by flavors that suggest blackberry, roasted red bell pepper, kalamata olive, bitters, and lime zest, with tinges of woodsmoke and pine forest undulating throughout. Chris aged the wine in French oak for 23 months, and blended the Petite Sirah with 8% Viognier in the spirit of the Northern Rhone. This wine bears little resemblance to the ripe, round, fruit-driven Petite Sirahs that hail from the valley floor; it is, rather, something admirably different — a wine of considerable finesse and restraint that bears witness to the unique attributes of Fair Play and El Dorado County.
Availability: Skinner produces around 3,000 cases of wine, all told, each vintage, and in 2010 produced only 150 cases of this Petite Sirah. You can find it and peruse Skinner’s other bottlings by visiting them virtually at www.skinnervineyards.com. And if you find yourself in El Dorado County — perhaps en route to Lake Tahoe, as we were — we encourage you to visit Skinner’s tasting room and enjoy their wines and breathtaking views over the Sierra Foothills.