Skinner: The Road to El Dorado

The folks at Holly’s Hill had given us many recommendations for tasting in Fair Play, but one name stuck with us: Skinner. Dick gave us fantastic, precise directions. And thank goodness for that; it’s easy to get lost in Fair Play. Deliciously, deliciously lost.

Lunch in Fair Play: Bocconato

These directions took us past a restaurant called Bocconato, at which we had one of the best meals of our life. Seriously, it was one of those kinds of meals that makes me want to force everyone driving within 100 miles of the place to eat there, especially since the restaurant will be closing down on December 31.

Bocconato is part of the Slow Food movement, so it’s not the kind of restaurant that you go to expecting to be in and out in 15 minutes. There’s no menu. They have different courses written on the chalkboard (salad, pasta, entree, etc.); you tell them which courses you want and what foods you don’t eat, and they surprise you with a fantastic meal. I had the best lasagna of my life – I had no idea they could make noodles that thin! – and Mike had chicken cacciatore that he said tasted like the way you always imagine chicken will taste but it never actually does (except, apparently, here).

Unfortunately, many of the people who came in seemed to be confused by the concept and annoyed by the leisurely pace; I think this could have been overcome by setting their expectations the moment they walked in the door and explaining the concept. If Mike hadn’t spotted the Slow Food sticker in the window, I might have been frustrated as well; instead, I knew what to expect and now I want to go back — which has become our refrain for the Sierra Foothills.


Just a short drive away, we turned off for Skinner. As we drove up the road, nature slowly unveiled breathtaking views.

Skinner Vineyards
This is just the kind-of-scenic bit.

The Skinner website’s Tasting Room page says they have “the most breath-taking tasting room in all of the Sierra Foothills.” That’s no lie.

Skinner Vineyards
That mountain in the distance? That's Holly's Hill!

A Skinner ancestor started a winery here in 1861. The Skinner family has placed historic items around the winery, featuring informative plaques that explain the items. As a history buff, I was thrilled.

Skinner Vineyards
Breathtaking views + history = my kind of place.

This tasting room absolutely wins the “Most Picturesque” award of the year. The views were astounding and the building itself was also gorgeous.

Skinner Vineyards
The tasting room, thoroughly modern, references architectural elements that existed in the original building.


Okay, so the visuals were exquisite. Could the wines possibly live up to the views?

Skinner: The Wines

2009 Stony Creek Viognier (Fair Play):  It smelled of clementine blossoms and had a flavor like evaporating flowers. Really interesting! Mike tasted grass, pear and wood and found it complex with a warm finish.

2008 Seven Generations (El Dorado):  This blend of roussanne, marsanne and viognier had a scent with notes of honey, grapefruit and pears. The flavor was very complex, with elements of both nougat and citrus pith.

2008 Eighteen Sixty-One (El Dorado):  This blend, named after the year the winery was founded, uses grenache, mourvedre and syrah. It smelled like a winter evening gathered around a Christmas tree in front of the fireplace. When I tasted it, I got a hit that reminded me of the acid flavors in kiwi and pineapple, and also a strong hint of plum.

2007 Syrah (El Dorado): I tasted acid at the beginning, blueberries in the middle and a hint of unsweetened chocolate at the finish. Mike enjoyed a perfume quality in the aroma and though the finish had a nice spiciness.

2007 Stoney Creek Vineyard Syrah (Fair Play): It smelled like vanilla that had been sitting in oak. Mike thought the aroma had a berry component as well. The flavor had those elements as well, plus pepper, tannins and toast.

As we drove into the sunset our day ended with the happiness of enjoying some great wines in a stunning location. Our only regret was that we didn’t have another day or two to spend. We’ve already added El Dorado and the surrounding country to our short list of places to visit again soon.

Holly’s Hill Vineyards: The Road to El Dorado

We were sure that we would look back on Miraflores Winery as the high point of our day. We were positive no other winery could come close to touching what Miraflores did.

We were so, so very wrong.

We headed up a long, winding road, driving past horse farms and people walking enormous dogs that looked like they could be used as steeds if anyone saddled them. (Side note: why hasn’t anyone ever bred dogs up to be a riding animal? Is it the tendency toward hip displaysia, or the tendency toward face-licking that isn’t shared by horses?) Pavement turned to gravel, the fresh air filled with the scent of trees, and Mike looked around and said, “What is this, Wine Tasting State Park?”

The Wine Tasting State Park picnic area. Ants optional (we left ours at home).Â

Folks who we thought were tasting room staff were chatting outside the door. (Later, we figured out they were Holly’s Hill fans, complete with logowear.) We raved over the view, and one said, “If you think that’s good, come out back!”

Holly's Hill Vineyard
If it were any more picturesque, they'd make a jigsaw puzzle out of it.

Breathtaking setting: check.

We eventually sidled up to the tasting room bar next to an incredibly friendly Holly’s Hill fan named Gayle Brown. There’s a lot of choices on the Holly’s Hill tasting menu. Mike dubbed Gayle our “wine sherpa” as she led us through all her favorites. It didn’t trim down the choices by much; if Holly’s Hill makes a wine that is less than excellent we sure didn’t experience it.

Holly's Hill Vineyard
Mike, winemaker Josh Bendick, awesome tasting room associate Dick Tipton, and me

This is not to say that we didn’t also receive guidance from the tasting room associate. Dick Tipton was friendly, knowledgeable and very willing to share his opinions. He was laid back and unintimidating, exactly the kind of tasting associate I like.

Photobombing Holly's Hill Vineyard
They don't charge extra for the photobombing.

Dick wasn’t the only one willing to share an opinion. This wasn’t one of those tasting rooms where everyone keeps to themselves. We mentioned we were going to Napa and the entire room chimed in with their recommendations, both for the best tasting rooms and the most pretentious. We told Dick and Gayle the name of the winery we were planning to visit in Fair Play and I thought they and a few of the other patrons were going to throw themselves bodily in our paths in order to get us to change our minds. Their recommendations put us on the right path.

But, you may ask, how were the wines?

The Wines

2010 Viognier (El Dorado): This smelled like delicious buckwheat honey poured over tangerines. On the tongue, it burst into effervescent, crisp peach flavors. Yum!

2009 Patriarche (El Dorado): Winemakers Carrie and Josh Bendick created this blend with 60% Mourvedre, 23% Syrah, 14% Grenache Noir and 3% Counoise. (I really want to know how they figure out the percentages to that degree, and despite the fact that Josh Benedick was standing three feet from me I never did ask. Dang it!) It had a scent of woodsmoke barbecue and a delicate woodsmoke and unsweetened chocolate flavor. “This is unreasonably good,” I said on my second sip.

2009 Petite Patriarche (El Dorado): This changes the proportions used in the Patriarche and uses just a taste of Petite Sirah to round out the flavors. At first sniff, it smelled musky and meaty, but every time I inhaled, the scents changed, sometimes fruity, sometimes smoky. On the palate, it was very fruit forward with just a hint of oak.

2009 Mourvedre Classique (El Dorado): It had a fruity plummy scent and just the right soft kind of tannins on the palate. “It’s like a cozy fruity fleece blanket around my tongue,” I wrote. It’s the kind of wine that’s made for cold winter nights snuggled up at a snow lodge in Tahoe. Clearly, Mike and I will have to get it the next time he goes skiing. It can keep me company in the lodge.

2009 Estate Mourvedre (El Dorado): This was also fruit forward but I tasted more alcohol. (That doesn’t mean there was more alcohol, but I did notice it more.) It’s a really good wine, but the Mourvedre Classique still holds the number one place in my imaginary Tahoe ski lodge.

2010 Estate Counoise: It’s a good thing that Mike and I both took notes; I was so busy ecstatically writing about this one that I didn’t get the name down! It smelled like deep caramel and unsweetened chocolate and tasted like caramelized A-1 sauce and steak (yes, you carnivores, I still remember what that tastes like). “So very good!” I wrote in my notes, with a triple underline.

2009 Late Harvest Roussane (El Dorado): The nose was caramelized saffron. The flavor was sweet and light, simple without being boring, and it had a rich viscosity that left it clinging to the palate.

Mourvedre-Syrah: This was a beautiful port-style dessert wine. It had a hint of saffron on the nose and a stewed plum flavor that was sweet without being too sweet.

At the end of our tasting, Gayle gave us a bottle of the Mourvedre Classique I’d swooned over! We had to commemorate the moment. We collared the photobomber and made him take a shot of all of us.

Holly's Hill Vineyard
Mike, Gayle and myself. Thanks, Gayle!


Miraflores Winery: The Road to El Dorado

My coworker Jenna has been recommending the Sierra Foothills non-stop since we started this project. We just hadn’t managed to make it out there, and I thought there was no way it could be as great as Jenna said.

I hereby renounce any doubts I had. Jenna, you were right. Ah, the Sierra Foothills, where the views are amazing, the wine is spectacular and the tastings are free! I had began to feel jaded about the wine tasting experience and less interested in wine, but this trip reminded me why we started this project in the first place – as an excuse to drink great wines and visit beautiful places we otherwise might not go.

Sure, "beautiful" works.

I’d mentioned that our trip to the Southern California wineries was not very thoroughly planned.  This trip was even more spontaneous; we didn’t even decide we were going to Placerville until about 24 hours before we arrived at our hotel room. We’d actually intended to go to Mendocino after our Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco, but a three hour windy drive in the dark sounded less than optimal. We looked for a wine region that was a little closer to San Francisco and a whole lot cheaper than Napa, and poof, there the Sierra Foothills were!

How We Found Miraflores Winery

Where to start our tastings? Fortunately, The Wine Travelers have a post called “Placerville Wineries – Three not to be missed.” We figured we’d start with some of those and rely on recommendations from the people we met to get us through the rest of our trip.

Joe glowed about Miraflores Winery in his post, saying that “we found the wines here to match any wines we have tasted in all of California. Yes, that includes the Napa Valley.” It couldn’t be that good, could it?

Our Visit to Miraflores

Well, we haven’t been to Napa yet (that’s going to be our grand finale in mid-December), but we can safely say that Joe was not lying. Every aspect of Miraflores, from the stellar wine to the great tasting room staff to the incredible decor and ambiance were all top-notch.

Miraflores Winery
Vampires would hate this tasting room.

Miraflores Winery: The Experience

The tasting room setting is beautiful. It’s perched on a hill but backed by even larger hills, some full of grapevines, others still thickly wooded. There’s an air of serenity and calm that is just wonderful.

These birds let us get right up to them!

Though the tasting room is a new build, it incorporates salvaged materials and antiques from all over the world, which give a sense of tradition and permanence. Massive wood beams that were once part of the Port of San Francisco run from wall to wall.

I think these beams exceed code requirements.

The sink is an old stone horse watering trough from France. (As in a watering trough made from stone, not a trough for stone horses.) The rusted iron doors are from the gold rush period in Placerville. Architecture journalists, write this one up!

I'm guessing that's custom.

Though there were no purse hooks at the tasting bar, there was a conveniently located shelf below the bar itself, which worked just as well. The shelf also held plenty of materials to guide us to other tasting rooms.

Julie, our tasting room associate, was fantastic. She was cheerful, positive and had a thorough knowledge of the wine at hand. (She also reminded me of Christine Baranski.)

Julie and Angie of Miraflores Winery
Julie, our awesome tasting room associate, and Angie, who is also an awesome tasting room associate (but not ours).

We’d said we weren’t going to buy any wines this day, but we walked out with several. I’m experiencing the opposite of buyer’s remorse, however; I’m regretting only the fact that we didn’t take home more.

The Wines

2010 Sierra Foothills Chardonnay: The scent made me think of vanilla blossoms (I don’t know if vanilla plants actually flower, but if they did, they’d smell like this). The flavor was crisp, with notes of tangerine pith. It’s the sort of wine that would be excellent for a summer day on the porch. For those at home keeping score, this wine is Appellation #34.

2010 Sierra Foothills Pinot Grigio: It smelled of honeysuckle and berries. The taste reminded me of very dry, very good mead. I find many Pinot Grigios too acidic; this wine did not fall into that trap.

2009 Sierra Foothills Barbera: The scent reminded me of a historic library; it was oaky, leathery and cozy and made me want to curl up with a weighty tome in a leather chair by the fire. The flavor ended on a strong sour raspberry-cherry note.

2006 El Dorado Zinfandel: This had a rich flavor with just enough oak to provide structure and the sort of smoothness that comes with age. (And ding! We just hit appellation #35.)

2007 El Dorado Zinfandel: There was a commonality that ran through the two Zinfandels that wasn’t just because they were from the same grape. At the same time, this Zin was very distinct from its older sibling, from the chocolatey fruity scent to the tart astringent taste.

2005 El Dorado Syrah: I noticed that pastilles aroma I often comment about, a sort of light dusted powdered sugar scent lingering over everything. The fruit was intense, with wood running through it in a way that didn’t quite work for me; it felt more like having wood chips in the middle of my wine than having an oak backbone holding up the fruit.

2006 El Dorado Syrah: I liked this a lot more than the ’05. It was still very astringent, but the wood tones played more nicely with the fruit.

2009 El Dorado Estate Methode Ancienne: This is a wine with a fascinating story. Every year, Miraflores invites their friends to physically foot-stomp the grapes for these wines. Wild local yeast is used in the fermentation process. This smelled of wooded blackberries. Mike found notes of cocoa and raisin in the aroma, while the flavor added elements of wood smoke, cedar and pepper. Just a slight tinge of Meyer lemon added to the mystery.

2006 El Dorado Petite Syrah: The scent for this wine was incredibly rich and deep. Mike got a hint of yeast on the nose. In the flavor he got hints of pepper floating over restrained fruit, with a nicely balance tannic finish.

2009 El Dorado Petite Syrah: This had an additional cherry note to the scent. I tasted more fruit in this than I did in the ’06. Mike’s super-sniffer was reminded of cake batter, plus a faint hint of coffee. The flavor put him in mind of plums, mellow but with just a touch of brightness. The finish was warmth, grape peel and soft tannins.

2008 Muscat Canelli: It smelled of honeysuckle and apple blossoms, a crispness rather than a sickly-sweetness. It walked a fine line, sweet enough to have with a fruit plate but dry enough to be perfect with a spicy Indian meal. I keep returning to this wine in my mind, even days later; it was one of my two favorites of the day. (And yet somehow, we did not go home with it. I can’t figure out how that happened.)

Principe NV Port:  Many ports just hammer you over the head with one-note sweetness. This one, on the other hand, had many layers. I tasted caramelized plums, sweet cherries and nougat at the finish.

2008 Botricelli: I’m a sucker for a good Sauternes. This is not a Sauternes, as it’s not from the Bordeaux region of France; however, it uses the combination of Semillon grapes and botrytis to create a flavor that holds its own against the best of the noted French dessert wine. It tasted like the Platonic ideal of what a Semillon should taste like. Julie gave us a small chunk of bleu cheese to try with the wine, and it transformed the flavor of the Botricelli, adding rich caramel notes.

In summary: my socks, they were blown clean off. By the end of our tasting, Mike and I were already plotting our next trip to Placerville just so we could visit Miraflores.

But would the rest of our tastings live up to this experience? Stay tuned…