What’s the story..? Tell us more about your journey into the world of wine and the inspiration that led you to wine making?
I’m a hopeless romantic, so even before I knew what I wanted to do with my life and career, I was certain it would be something passion-based.
I started out working as an artist and musician. I put in hours as a barista, bumming around the rock n’ roll and art scenes in Los Angeles. A rather goofy, one-eyed Frenchman owned a wine shop around the corner from my house and I started popping in to pick his brain… he got me utterly obsessed. I began devouring as much wine-based literature as possible as I couldn’t afford to buy bottles and explore with my nose and palate. So I read about it. A lot.
I decided when my punk rockin’ days were over I’d open a small wine shop somewhere. I moved to Portland, Oregon to continue my work as an artist, and shortly after decided I wanted to work in a wine cellar. I knew nothing. I knocked on the door of the fanciest looking winery I could find, Domaine Serene. Somehow, they thought it was a good idea to hire me on as an official cellar rat and later, their Cellar Master.
My bosses at the time became my mentors, helped me develop and eventually I abandoned the idea of opening a wine shop. From there worked a vintage in New Zealand, at two Oregon wineries, moved to consultancy for a time while I co-launched several ambitious projects, including my own brand Eisold-Smith Wines.
I got quite comfortable with my stylistic choices, but wanted to keep learning, growing, pushing beyond, which led me HOME to El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills (where I grew up). I wanted to raise my family here and I find the wines of this region to be constantly challenging: rustic, brilliant, bizarre. So when Skinner offered me the Director of Winemaking position I didn’t hesitate. The dream came true.
Which wine sparked your love of the grape?
There were three wines that really pushed me off the cliff: 1. Basserman-Jordan GG Riesling; 2. Zin Alley Zinfandel, Paso Robles (Frank Nerelli… first winemaker I ever talked to, he totally changed my life with that conversation); 3. Eyrie Vineyard Pinot noir, Dundee Hills, 1985 (given to me by the one-eyed Frenchman)
What makes your wines unique? What’s your wine making ethos?
I don’t try for uniqueness, because I feel it’s not up to me. My focus is on respecting the fruit that we farm with loving care. 100% native fermentation and secondary. I use SO2 sparingly. Optimal phenolic ripeness is extremely important to me… Flavour is everything!
On whites I’m very oxidative with the juice, and very reductive with fermentation, never racking off the lees, bringing effusive aromatics, lively tension and sexy mouthfeel. On reds, lots of stem inclusion as I adore the spicy aromatics and buoyant palate presence whole-cluster fermentation offers. I do very little pigeage and prefer to aerate and keep my berries whole, a hybrid sort of carbonic style. I believe in bleeding juice for concentration (saignee), long maceration periods and yeah, I love new oak… I’ll admit it!
Loving the labels! Tell us more about your style, design and brand ‘personality’...
Skinner is what I call a “legacy brand”. Classic style and aesthetic. Not trying too hard to fit in with the cool kids, but rather keep it about the family story and the haunted history that surrounds us.
What are we eating with your wines...
Lamb all day long! My cellar master just made us this mind blowing lamb stew for lunch the other day, we popped a 2011 Mourvedre that just took us to the moon.
I’ve been making a vegan soup for my girlfriend with lentils, kale, sweet potatoes and carrots, seasoned with red wine vinegar, coriander and miso. Again, the Mourvedre is a stunner alongside my soup.
Our wines are designed to be food-friendly. There’s nothing in the world I love more than food (except for my kids!), so I’m dedicated to crafting wines that marry with a wide array of dishes. Our whites are excellent with crustaceans and poultry. Our reds are versatile: whether it’s burger night or Coq au Vin or Moroccan, it doesn’t matter. They beg for a delicious meal.
Who are we with, what’s the occasion? Set the scene!
Skinner wines love the family vibe. Shared with a home-cooked meal, smiles and laughter around the table.
Who inspired or inspires you most in wine world?
-My mentor and dear friend, Drew Voit – taught me how to push beyond, how to transcend, and how to always keep it DELICIOUS.
-Cristom Winemaker Steve Doerner – makes some of the greatest wines in the world, with such consistent devotion to style, and achieves phenolic perfection in literally every bottle.
-Domaine Drouhin founder and vigneron Veronique Drouhin – shows us how to humble ourselves before this noble path, to conduct ourselves with open hearts and minds, and to strive to show kindness, patience, and love.
-Viticulturist (and my Babymama and former partner) Lauren Eisold – I’ve never known someone who loves dirt and plants as much as she. She knows every vine, it’s as if they have their own language. Such care for a vineyard taught me to show the same respect to all aspects of my work.
Best advice you’ve been given?
You can never know it all, so ask questions, ask for advice, ask for help, and listen.
What’s your proudest achievement in wine life?
My career in and of itself is my proudest achievement. I can’t believe how far I’ve come. And I become more obsessed with my work every year. I absolutely adore what I do. Specific achievements that make me smile? A few, but topping the list really is joining Skinner. The ultimate honour and a dream come true.
Most memorable wine you’ve experienced that’s not one of the Skinner range!?
There are two more recent ones: 2009 Dr Burlkin-Wolf Gaisbohl GC; 2004 Domaine Augustus Clape, Cornas
If you were a wine, what would you be?!
Syrah from the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Washington State… unapologetically robust personality, sensual, but comically austere!
What’s your advice for ordering wine in a restaurant?
If there is a reputable somm, ask for recommendations. Don’t overfill your wineglass… keep it dainty, y’all! Smell the cork, it’s your absolute first, best indicator of compromised bottle.
What are you drinking when it’s not wine?
Sparkling water and coffee!
What wines getting your attention, you 'ones to watch'? Hot tips?
-In Germany there’s a brilliant winemaker Stefan Dorst who’s got an ambitious project called Dorst und Consorten. Some of the most fabulous wines I’ve had in a long time.
-I’ve also gotten cozy with the Barossa Shiraz producer SAMI-ODI… mind-melting!
-Loving the sparkling wines from Hattingley Valley out in Hampshire. British fizz has my attention in a major way.
-My homeboy Andy Young of St-Reginald Parish/The Marigny is doing brilliant things with natural wine in Oregon. If there were such a thing as “stoner” wines, these would be them. Magically delicious!
-My other homies Scott and Jenny Schultz have a brand called Jolie-Laide out in Sonoma County and their breaking all kinds of rules and transcending expectations at every turn.
Your locals: let us in on the secret spots for wine and for food in your area?
Wines – Cedarville (Fair Play AVA); La Clarine Farm (natural wines, Fair Play AVA); Turley (Amador County); David Girard (Gold Hill, El Dorado); Madrona (white wines are stupid delicious! Apple Hill, El Dorado); Terre Rouge/Easton (Shenandoah Vly); Yorba (Amador).
Food – Farm Table (sandwiches are off the charts – Placerville); The Independent (steaks and cocktails!! – Placerville); Bones Roadhouse (dive bar BLTs, fries and stiff drinks, and occasional brawls – Pleasant Valley); Rainbow Orchard (fresh apple donuts – Apple Hill); Andre’s (bakery that could pass for straight-up Parisian – Amador City).
If there’s time outside of wine, what are you doing?
Hanging with my lovely kids, L.P. (5) and Townes (3). Playing music. Cooking. Hiking. Drinking coffee with my mom.