The Best Grenache Ever Made
In advance of our announcement of the Top Grenache and Other Favorite Grenaches from the Sierra Foothills on Sunday, I'd like to pay homage to the best Grenache ever made. In fact, it is probably my favorite wine I've ever tasted.
The wine is the 2014 Skinner Estate Grenache. While all of the Grenache wines that come out of Skinner Vineyard and Winery are outstanding, especially the ones from the previous team of winemaker Chris Pittenger (now the winemaker at Limerick Lane in Sonoma and owner/winemaker at Gros Ventre Cellars) and Mark Fowler (now the Estate Winemaker at Andis Winery in Amador), there was something about the 2014 Estate Grenache that was indescribably special.
I had the pleasure of working harvest at Skinner under Chris and Mark and seeing first hand their attention to detail, their delicate handling of the grapes, Grenache in particular, their knowledge, and perhaps most importantly their phenomenal palates. I was also lucky enough to be working there when the 2014 Estate Grenache was released.
The wine was bottled by the time I started working at Skinner, so I didn't get the experience of tasting it through any of its processing or aging. My only experience with it prior to its release would be Mark dropping a "wait until you try the 2014" on me from time to time. Chris rarely makes such comments. He's more of a "I love all of my children" kind of winemaker. Even so, there was a special glimmer that would shine from his eyes whenever the 2014 came up.
I finally got my first taste at the wine club release party on September 17, 2017, a day that is forever etched in my memory. I started the day as I always did on release day, memorizing the tech sheet for the wines being released so I could share the information with the club members whether they wanted to hear it or not. In case you are interested, the 2014 Estate Grenache was from Skinner's Stoney Creek Vineyard at 2700 feet on decomposed granite soils and was from two clones, the John Alban A2 and the French ENTAV 513. The wine was aged 18 months in 300 liter French oak hogsheads, 33% new oak, and as always, there was spontaneous fermentation with native yeast, minimal intervention and racking, and no fining or filtering. I didn't have to look any of that up. I told you the day was etched in my memory.
I was always excited to taste the new releases, Chris's and Mark's wines were never disappointing, but there was actually no extra anticipation for trying this wine. In fact, the 2014 Estate Mourvèdre that was being released on the same day was the one with the buzz around it. The Mourvèdre was the highest rated wine ever in the history of the winery and was the flag bearer for Wine & Spirits write-up announcing Skinner as one of the Top 100 wineries in the world. The first thing that was a little out of the ordinary on this release day was the instruction from manager Stephanie Simunovich (now Singer) to be careful on the size of pours of the Estate Grenache and "no second pours." That was unlike Stephanie.
The time came to start opening and quality controlling the wines. First the 2016 Grenache Blanc. Delicious. Then the 2015 Grenache El Dorado (a blend of estate and sourced Grenache from around the county). Not bad, I thought to myself, maybe even a little better than the previous El Dorado versions. Then the vaunted Estate Mourvedre. Wow, what a complex powerhouse. And then it was time for the Estate Grenache. Little did I know how much my world was about to be rocked.
The wine was very lightly colored, pale even. It wasn't unusual for Skinner Grenache to be light in color, but this was a bit extreme. Chris never used another grape to blend in color to a wine. That's something winemakers that care about ignorant judges' scores at state fairs do. Chris doesn't care about that. Chris cares about Chris's palate. As soon as my nose went into the glass and took in a breath, I heard angels singing; angels singing an opera; angels singing an opera with accompaniment played on period instruments and with Bolshoi dancers flitting and fleeting across the stage. On the tongue it was no less mesmerizing and haunting in its delicate complexities. In one sip, I knew this was special and something I needed to spend some time with, but I had a job to do and wine to pour. I watched club member reactions as they tasted the wine. Some got it; most didn't. Everyone commented on the color, and some wondered if there was a processing problem. I assured them the wine was as intended. Later that night at home, I was able to pour myself a proper glass with some dregs Stephanie let me sneak home with. Most wines taste better at the winery than when you try them later, for some reason, but not this wine. At home, this wine only grew in stature.
The next day, I pinched some pennies and went to the winery and bought a bottle. The Skinner Estate wines weren't cheap, even with a generous employee discount, but I wanted a proper bottle for a special guest that was going to be visiting later that night. My guest was an assistant winemaker at Domaine Gauby in the Roussillan in the South of France. He worked under and worshipped Gerard Gauby, one of the great masters of the Grenache grape. I had to let him try this wine. I didn't tell my friend anything other than I wanted him to try this newly released Grenache from Skinner. He took one sip and started to cry. It wasn't a little cry, it was a big cry. He called it the most emotional wine he had ever tasted, and maybe the best.
Much to my chagrin, I soon found out why we were told to be so tight with our pours and why even buying a single bottle required prying it out of Stephanie's tight clutches. Restaurant Benu, a 3-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco, had bought the entire lot. After one taste, Benu's Master Somm, Yoon Ha, bought every bottle available. Benu paired the wine on their fixed menu with squab, and I can't tell you how much I've dreamed about that combination. I've been told that the paired dish was a regular on the menu until the wine ran out, which is apparently rare for them (I don't have first-hand knowledge).
Aside from some single-bottle allotments for club members and a couple of cases for the Skinner library, there was no more. Poof. Gone. Virtually just a figment. Over the next few months, I was craftily able to beg, borrow, and steal my way to procuring four more bottles. I've opened three of them on various occasions over the last six years. With each new bottle, I expected to be disappointed, but no, it was better every time, and its legend in my mind grew even larger. I never ceased to be amazed by the pale color, and it became a ritual for me to thank the wine gods for that color with each new opening. What a shame it would have been if a mere 2 or 3 percent of, say, Syrah had been blended in. All of those beautiful subtleties would have been lost forever.
Sierra Foothills Grenache, like the amazing old vine Grenaches from Australia (Australia's best wines, if you ask me) are all about these subtle, haunting flavors. They aren't at all like Old World Grenache wines from the South of France or the Priorat in Spain. The Skinner 2014 Estate Grenache is the standard against which I will always and forever judge Foothills Grenache, even if that standard exists only in memory.
The bottle pictured here is my last bottle. For all I know it may be one of the last bottles in existence. It is the first wine I grabbed when we evacuated for the Caldor Fire. It is my most prized wine possession, and I wouldn't take $10,000 for it, even though I'd probably have a hard time getting $30 for it at auction. I'll open it sometime. When, I don't know, but probably soon since it isn't the kind of wine that is going to improve too much from here and will soon start its steady decline. Maybe it will be a special occasion, or maybe it will just be when I'm home and want to hear an opera in my mind.
What happened with later Skinner vintages, you might ask. Well, the following year's Grenache grapes didn't live up to Chris's high standards and he decided to not even classify a Grenache Estate wine. All of the estate grapes went into the 2015 El Dorado version, which you may remember from above was quite good. The 2016 is very good, and well worth trying, but it is no 2014. 2017, the first harvest I worked at Skinner, was a difficult harvest with late extreme heat and disjointed ripening that made sugar levels hard to control. We did what we could, but yeah. Then after that, Chris and Mark left, and Skinner went in a different stylistic direction. So, while the wines are still great, it is safe to say there will never be another 2014 Skinner Estate Grenache. Alas.