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A farmer at Albet I Noya carries a basket of grapes across their vineyard

Winemaker Seth Hunt

Situated in the Sierra Foothills of California, the Skinner Vineyards boasts a rich history dating back to the wild days of the Gold Rush. They’ve come a long way since their roots in 1861— the winery was reestablished in 2007 by the proud 6th generation descendants of the Skinner family and today they are celebrated for their chemical free, small-lot wines of value and intrigue. Flirty reds featuring atypical varieties, quaffable whites and a marked commitment to sustainability make them clear standouts in one of California’s largest AVA’s.

This month we had the pleasure of an exclusive interview with Seth Hunt— a valley native who left behind a career in production agriculture to pursue his passion for the vine. As winemaker for Skinner, he nurtures small lot, mountain grown fruit through native fermentations that capture stunning expressions of the El Dorado sub-AVA. Capitalizing on his specialized knowledge of enology, Seth takes us deep into the technical side of Skinner’s terroir, the highs and lows of their 2023 vintage (so far), and his favorite pairings for their newly released Native Blanc…

Q: With so many varied offerings, which of Skinner’s wines do you consider to be its hallmark and why?

A: The most unique wine we make is the Native Red [we’ll get to it’s counterpoint, Native Blanc, later]. The wine typically begins with a native yeast co fermentation of Petit Bouschet (Skinner’s own proprietary clone) and Trousseau Noir. We build on the wine with Carignan, Counoise, Cinsault, Mission and Mourvedre. These wines are rare and what makes Skinner exciting as a winemaker. For the wine drinker, I think it’s very interesting to see these varieties in one glass! It is an early to bottle wine, refreshing and distinctive to Skinner.

Q: We love that Skinner Vineyards is able to harness harmony from blends across multiple ranches and vineyards. And we know that while many nearby regions rely on coastal fog to keep their grapes cool, the El Dorado AVA relies mostly on its elevation. Considering its unique elevation, can you describe some of the attributes of the varied terroirs that make Skinner, Skinner?

A: Elevation, slope and soils are factors in defining terroir:

  • Stoney Creek (2,650 ft elevation) sits on a ridge top made from granite. Stoney’s slopes are dramatic, creating specific weather conditions – good drainage, winds, varying sun exposures, the UV from the sun is high which helps bring on maturity.

  • Green Valley (1,300 ft elevation) creates its own microclimate, actually colder than Stoney. Green Valley is a red clay soil, water percolation is slower, these grapes can hang on the vine longer, often benefiting color extraction in the winery. The whites are brilliant from the red soil. We often finish stoney and then pick Green Valley.

  • Wing Ranch is the newest edition to the estate lineup. Wing is contiguous with Green Valley making for one of the most picturesque vineyards in California. Wing is planted on the hill side, before the valley floor. The soil is consistent with Green Valley, the exception is that one can find large rocks of iron. We find the chemistry to be different from Green, it made blood red wines in its first vintage, a spectacle in the winery for sure. These vines are just coming into the winery, it is very exciting to see the taming of this previous wild terrain. 
Q: Has Skinner always used native yeasts for fermentation? Are there any significant challenges to using native yeasts when co-fermenting grapes?

A: Skinner has indeed always employed a form of native yeast.  The winery was inoculated with a strain of William Selyem yeast upon completion of construction. Since then, no yeast has been added to fermentations. It is very unique not to pitch yeast, and nerve racking. In the winery, we can’t use heavy dosage of sulfur in front of fermentation to “clean the slate”. The benefit is that we capture a larger profile of yeast and their contributions.

Although other strains are likely to die out as alcohol production begins, they can add to wine complexity. Non pitch wineries should seek to acquire grapes  grown to near perfection, punctures, bird damage, bear damage all increase the likelihood of acetic acid production which correlates to higher levels of Volatile Acidity in wine.  

Q: Can you describe how the 2023 vintage is going so far? 

A: The 2023 vintage is setting up for an all time great. With heavy rains last winter and a prolonged Spring, the 23’ vintage is likely to reset the vine to more traditional harvest dates. Since 2020, Skinner has been harvesting one to two weeks earlier than normal. Challenges of a late spring are irregularity of flowering and higher mildew pressure. While Skinner is combating these issues, I think we are seeing maturity at a more consistent and predictable pace. Steady fruit maturity is very important for chemistry analytics and harvest expectations. There is no second chance in winemaking.

Q: Are there any specific plots of vines or grapes that you’re looking forward to the most from 2023?

A: The Wing ranch is a newer vineyard, the few small lots from last year were very intriguing and brought a different profile to the Skinner cellar. Last year’s fruit made intensely colored wines and attracted buyers very early, selling out lots before bottling. I’m curious to see how the fruit performs in its second harvest. The Grenache Blanc is my personal litmus test. It has been Skinner’s highest achiever, and when done correctly, the potential on a national scale is enormous.

A farmer at Albet I Noya carries a basket of grapes across their vineyard
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced this vintage (so far, circa late July)?

A: The late spring and heavy rains have increased humidity in canopy allowing mildew spores to proliferate.  Leaf pulling and timely sulfur sprays are make or break this year. 

Q: Outside of solar panels and grey water irrigation, what sort of regenerative farming practices does Skinner employ?

A: Mountain farming tends to be a little more involved than valley floor farming. We need to implement methods to lessen water [and] rain runoff, often meaning weed encouragement and management. The main goal is to keep the vine healthy and happy. In doing so, harvest and gallonage management is more predictable.   

Q: We were very excited to recently receive Skinner Vineyards’ Native Blanc! Can you share any of your favorite pairings with this Viognier-Vermentino blend?

A: The Native Blanc is robust with terpenes and fresh acidity.  I’m always in favor of sheep and goat cheese, dried fruits and nuts and foods that need a fresh squeeze of lemon or lime– i.e. tacos, pad thai.

While Skinner Vineyards has a strong legacy in the Sierra Foothills, it’s also clear that they’re producing remarkably modern wines that harness the potential for all that the El Dorado AVA has to offer. And although we clearly have much to look forward to in the coming 2023 vintage, why wait? Strike gold with any of Skinner Vineyards’ current releases, and join us in raising a glass to Seth. Cheers!

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