Steppin’ Out – Palissandro Vineyard and Winery “La Dolce Vita”

PalissandroA couple of weeks ago I received a call inviting me to a “Release Party and Grape Stomp” and Palissandro Winery in Fair Play. Although I have been following and writing about the wine industry in El Dorado County since the early 1970s, I had never heard of this winery, so I did a bit of research on their very professional webpage.

Palissandro Vineyards and Winery is the dream of Shaun and Jeannine Blaylock. When Jeannine was a little girl, her Grandfather, who had come to the United States from Catania, Sicily when he was 17 years old, made wine for the family.

He purchased zinfandel grapes from the hills of Milpitas and did a custom crush each year at a local winery. Two to three barrels were made annually for personal consumption and to share with family and friends.

He taught Jeannine’s father how to make wine and Jeannine has fond memories of the family working together during the fall crush.

Jumping forward a few decades, after years in the corporate world the Blaylocks decided they wanted a simpler lifestyle, so in January of 2009 they flew to Idaho to explore cattle ranches. But, Jeannine found Idaho too void for a native California girl.

In the spring of that same year, after helping Robert Van der Vijver prune his Barbara grapes, Van der Vijver informed the Blaylocks that the acreage adjacent to his vineyard and winery was available and they bought it.

The Blaylocks, with the help of Van de Vijver, spent many days deciding what style of wine they wanted to produce. After many samples, they picked the wine style of Northern Italy. These wines lend themselves to being fruit forward, having a full mouth feel and minimal tannins so they would finish softly.

Again with the help of Van der Vijver they purchased local grapes and made their first wines in the fall of 2009, literally by hand.

Since both the Blaylocks loved roses and planted many rose bushes on the property, they thought “Rosewood” might be a nice name for the winery. Their friends thought it sounded too commercial and that they should look for a more Italian name to match their wines. After going through name after name, Jeannine put rosewood into their English to Italian translator and up popped “Palissandro.” They had found the name.

Although they are presently relying on grapes from local growers, they have planted a number of varietals in their own vineyard. These include nebbiolo, a red grape that is used to produce Barolo and Barbaresco from Italy’s Piedmont region; montipulciano, another red grape and the primary grape of the world famous wines known as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo; pinot grigo, a grape used to make Italy’s most popular white wine that hails from the northeast region of Veneto and Friuli in Northern Italy; barbera, a red grape that grows fantastically well in the higher part of the Sierra Foothills and the most famous Italian wine grape of all, sangiovese.

“I make my wines the old fashioned way,” said Shaun Blaylock when I asked him about the numerous containers of fermenting wine around the winery building. “Except for the pinot grigio, none of my wines is touched by stainless steel and everything is done by hand.

“I have 130 barrels arriving shortly, some new, some that have been used for one year and some that are neutral. There is a lot of wine ready to go into them.”

“We don’t just buy grapes from other growers,” added son Brandon Blaylock, “we are very involved in how they are grown and handled before they are picked.”

The “Release Party and Grape Stomp” took place next to their winery, outside in our wonderful October weather. The food, which was “Oktoberfest” in character, was prepared by them, delicious and paired nicely with their wines. Although open to the public for a nominal cost, it was just one of the many spectacular events they hold for their wine club membership.

Presently their wines that are available in the tasting room, all of which I found are very nice, include 2012 Pinot Grigio, 2011 Rosa, non-vintage Vino Da Tavola (Wine of the Table), 2010 Barbera, 2010 Felice (a Super-Tuscan blend), the newly released 2010 Sangiovese and their non-vintage Vino Dolce (a port style wine). It is a small winery, so the amount of wine is limited.

Palissandro is real family winery with both Shaun and Jeannine, along with son Brandon and daughter Lauren, very involved in the business. It is located at 7449 Fairplay Road (between Van der Vijver and Granite Springs wineries). Their very friendly tasting room is open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For more information call (530) 620-2063 or visit their webpage at

Steppin’ Out – C. G. DiArie joins with Zachary Jack (ZJ) Specialty Foods

cg logoOn Labor Day Weekend, C. G. DiArie Winery opened their tasting room and wine garden in the same building with Zachary Jack (ZJ) Specialty Foods, which is located in  the old Zachary Jacques Restaurant, about three miles east of Diamond Springs at 1821 Pleasant Valley Road. This partnership is a perfect blending of food, wine and businesses.

If you are not familiar with C. G. DiArie, for the past 12 years the winery has been in the Mt. Aukum area of El Dorado County, later adding a tasting room in Amador County, and now one in El Dorado County.

Chaim and Elishiva Gur-Arieh are the winery owners. Chaim, who has a PhD in food science and a palate to match, is the winemaker, producing some of the finest and very best balanced wines around. Elishiva is a world class artist who manages a lot of the day to day winery business and also knows great wine. They are two of the most delightful people you will ever meet.

Elisheva and Chaim are both came to the United States from Israel, many years ago. Elisheva was a student of Anthropology, but went on to pursue a career in Fine Art. She attended the California College of Arts and Crafts and is a nationally exhibiting artist. Her paintings have been exhibited in Chicago, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, San Francisco, and San Diego.

Chaim received his Masters and Ph.D. in Food Science with minors in Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry from the University of Illinois. Subsequently, he joined the Quaker Oats Company where he developed the technology for the breakfast cereal, “Cap’n Crunch”®. Later, at the Del Monte Corporation, he developed  an array of products, including puddings-in-a-cup, shelf stable yogurts and other shelf stable dairy products.

A 12,000 square foot, state of the art facility, the winery is perched on a hillside of their 209 acre estate and is sized for a maximum production of 15,000 cases annually.

Inside the winery Chaim has installed new equipment that allows the wine to be fermented with a “Submerged Cap Fermentation” method. Chaim designed this equipment which he believes  allows him to more carefully manage the wine during fermentation, achieving maximum extraction while avoiding the breaking of the seeds or over extraction. After fermentation, the wine is stored in French and American oak barrels for up to two years, prior to blending and bottling.

The mission of Chaim and Elisheva is to make excellent and distinctive wines by using the best quality grapes, combining artistic flair, sound science, innovation and creativity during the entire process of wine making from the vineyard through the cellar and into the bottle.

Their goal is to enhance the pleasure of wine consumption by being in harmony with the land  and paying close attention to the vineyard while being committed to research and development, both in the vineyard and in the winery.

Lynette Evans, who with her husband and chef, John Evans, own both ZJ Specialty Foods and the highly acclaimed ZacJack Bistro in Cameron Park. They are delighted to have C. G. DiArie Winery join them.

I wrote about ZJ Specialty Foods a few weeks ago, pointing that they specialize in gourmet foods, such as pastas, pasta sauces, chutneys, curries, oils, pickled items, and preserves.

They also have nuts for cooking and/or eating, trail mixes, dried fruit, crackers and more, things perfect to take along on a picnic or a visit to the local wineries.

In addition to the canned and packaged goodies, there are freshly baked breads, and in the cooler section cheeses and patés, salads and desserts, along with what I think is really great, gourmet meals you can take home and easily prepare.

Since C. G. DiArie joined them, they have added several varieties of made to order gourmet sandwiches, along with house made charcuterie and cheese boards and quite a selection of plates. These include Nieman Ranch short ribs and vegetable ragout, White Marble porchetta, peporonata, olives and a baguette, slow cooked duck leg and thigh with a seasonal salad and slow cooked Dixon lamb shank with Summer squash ragout.

Stop by just to taste the wines of C. G. DiArie, some of the best wines in El Dorado County. Or, better yet, pair your wine with an appetizer or meal featuring the gourmet foods prepared by Chef John Evans.

Wine is available to taste, by the glass and by the bottle. Ask to try the Summer Breeze, a red blend made to be enjoyed chilled.

ZJ Speciality Foods is open Wednesday and Thursday from 11 until 6, Friday and Saturday from 11 until 7 and on Sunday from 11 until 5. Phone 530-626-8045.

C. G. DiArie tasting room and wine garden is open from 11 until 5, Friday through Sunday. Phone 530-622-4100.

Stop by and check out both C. G. DiArie and ZJ Speciality Foods.

Skinner Winery: New Vines from Family Roots

It was 1842 and James Skinner, his wife Jessie and his oldest son, James Jr., stepped off a boat into the United States.

Thirty years old at the time, Skinner had been born in the Scottish town of Kettle in the county of Fife. His education had been interrupted when he was 11, so that he could help his family and he worked with his father in the weaving and carpentry trades. Reduced to a part-time, night school education, he finally became an engineer and worked as such in Glasgow for six years before leaving Scotland.

For 10 years after arriving in America, Skinner worked for a silk cloth manufacturing company in Massachusetts.


Heading west

In 1852 he took his family and headed west to California, where he mined at Foster’s Bar, near Coloma.

Apparently he was quite adept in his mining skills, because in just four years he had enough money to acquire a large claim on land in Green Valley, also known as White Oak Township, just north of today’s Cameron Park.

After building a home for his family on the property, in 1861 he set about planting a vineyard, one that soon became the largest in the county.

James Skinner was not in the business of raising market grapes, it was his intent to use the grapes to make wine, brandy and vinegar and he had a perfect location to build his winery and distillery — adjacent to today’s Green Valley Road.

At that time what is now known as Green Valley Road was appropriately called the Folsom-Coloma Road and one of the busiest routes in the county with numerous inns and stage stops where a hungry miner or teamster could find food and a place for the night.

The first miners — those who arrived by ship or foot from Oregon and from towns along the coast of California — blazed this route to get to Mormon Bar, New York Creek, and ultimately, Coloma, only a few months after James Marshall picked up those first few flakes of gold at Coloma in January of 1848.

Because nearly all the traffic heading from Sacramento to Coloma and the mines to the north passed by the Skinner property at the corner of what is now Green Valley Road and Cameron Park Drive/Starbuck Road was one of the reasons he selected that parcel.

It was an ideal location because just a short distance to the east was a large brick store and the Wing House, a favorite of the big freighting outfits, and to the west, Frederick Engesser’s Green Valley House.

Building a winery and distillery

On the north side of Green Valley Road he erected a large, two-story winery 50 by 28 feet in size with a wine cellar capable of storing 15,000 gallons.

To the south of it, across the road, he erected his distillery which was connected with the winery and wine cellar by pipelines that passed under the road. Both of these buildings, and some accessory buildings, were constructed of local rock and brick, making them for all purposes, fireproof.

The business was successful and continued for many years. It was later operated by one of his six sons, George, after the death and burial in the family plot of James in 1885 and Jessie in 1898.

Sometime before the enactment of Prohibition, the business was abandoned, but portions of the buildings on the north side of the road would later become a nursery.

A family discovery

About 125 years after James’ death, Mike Skinner and his wife, Carey, wondered about the history of their family in California. They lived in Pacific Palisades in Southern California and Mike’s father at one time had given him a note that said only “Coloma 1849.”

“I asked him about it, but he never gave me even a hint more,” said Mike. “In 2006 our eldest son Kevin was returning from Tahoe and stopped in Coloma to ask about the name Skinner. They gave him some information and a land ownership map that showed the name Skinner, which he then passed on to me.”

Mike Skinner then contacted the El Dorado County Museum and the El Dorado County Historical Cemetery Commission.

“They sent me two family trees,” continued Mike. “The first one was a family in Placerville and I didn’t recognize any of the names. When I looked at the second one, there was my grandfather’s name and the name of his brothers. I started asking around and found more and more information on the family and especially my great-great-great grandfather and his winery in the Rescue area.

Back to the Gold Country

“We flew to El Dorado County to look around and maybe buy five acres of land in the Rescue area and plant some grapes like James did,” Mike said.

The area appealed to this generation of Skinners.

“We ended up buying 25 acres and a house,” added his wife Carey with a smile.

“From there things just started falling together,” continued Mike, “and we set out to bring Skinner wines back to the Sierra Foothills. We also decided to bring our three boys, Kevin, Ryan and Brendan into it and make it a collaboration of family.”

That first land purchased was part of the Wing ranch on the south side of Green Valley Road, and on it they planted grapes, calling it the White Oak Flat Vineyards.

The following year they purchased 67 acres of land near Stoney Creek that had once been part of the 7-Up Ranch in the Fair Play area.

It had some grapes planted on it, but the family soon added more and started building the state-of-the-art winery and tasting room on the land they call Stoney Creek Vineyard.

The grape varieties planted on the two properties include 10 Rhone varietals, along with some legacy varietals planted by James Skinner.

The new Skinner winery

The Fair Play tasting room and winery is a fantastic facility, both in beauty and utility.

The tasting room was designed using drawings of James Skinner’s buildings in Rescue.

The striking structure blends well into the countryside and consists of two stories, with the tasting bar and a large deck on the upper story and an even larger patio area below.

The view from both levels is generally to the east and includes the Skinner vineyards, other vineyards and snow-covered mountains, including Pyramid Peak in the far distance.

Inside, on the lower level, is a large, intimate dining area and a glass fronted wine cellar. The whole building is designed and equipped to use for dinners, parties and events.

The winery itself is a winemaker’s dream and probably one of  the “greenest” buildings in the county. It has on one end of it a duplicate sign of the original James Skinner winery. It proudly says, “Skinner Winery, Native Wines & Brandy.”

The winemaker

Winemaker Chris Pittenger helped design the winery based on his knowledge of and experience in the winemaking process.

“I obtained a degree in agricultural business from Cal State San Luis Obispo. After graduating, I worked in restaurants, picking up wine knowledge until I became a sommelier. I loved wine and always wanted to be part of the wine industry and make it,” said Pittenger.

“When I finally got the chance, I had to start at the bottom in the wine industry,” said Pittenger, “working in the cellar. I worked my way up and spent time working at vineyards in Australia and New Zealand, ending up in Napa. To me, sanitation was the big thing. If the winery is kept clean, there are fewer chances of there being a problem introduced into the wine. You would be surprised with the conditions at some of the wineries I have visited.”


The winery building is made of steel with 80 percent of it recycled. It is 12,000 square feet in size and was positioned to utilize natural energy sources. The slanted roof faces south and has 55 kilowatts of solar panels, which, according to Pittenger, “so far have kept the electric meter running backward.”

The building has maximum insulation and even the roll-up doors in the east end have windows to let in natural, morning light, which requires minimal artificial lighting inside.

The barrel rooms are on the cooler, north side of the building and each of them has a roll-up door separating them from the large, winemaking area. Offices are on the warmer, western end.

The only air conditioning is in the four barrel rooms, in which the temperature can be individually controlled, according to the wants of the winemaker.

“This winter we were able to control the barrel room temperatures using only night air,” said Pittenger. “I hope we can continue to do that into the early summer.”

The winemaking area is all gently sloped towards the floor drains and the equipment has been designed to make cleaning fast and easy.

“I spent years cleaning winery equipment and floors,” said Pittenger, “so we had everything designed and built to make that as easy as possible. We also put the laboratory, storage and break area above the barrel rooms, to keep the winemaking area clear.”

One of the cellar hands, Eric Wolff, who is also the assistant tasting room manager agreed that what had been done was good, especially for him.

“The winery is designed with a capacity of 10,000 cases,” continued Pittenger. “Right now we make around 2,000. Since 2007 we had been making our wine elsewhere, but our first crush here was in 2010 and it was pretty exciting, since the grapes and equipment arrived at the same time the water system was completed and the electricity turned on.

“We are presently using some grapes we purchased from other vineyards, but ultimately we plan on being essentially “estate,” using only our own grapes. Because we keep everything as clean as possible, we don’t plan on filtering or fining our wines, unless absolutely necessary.”

Skinner Vineyards and Winery tasting room is located at 8054 Fairplay Road in Fair Play and can be reached at 530-620-2220. The present tasting room hours are Friday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.

2012 Best Microwinery, Red – Hoyt Family Vineyards

Hoyt Family Vineyards    
5929 Kanan Dume Road
Malibu, California 90265

“We were quite excited when we found out about this award,” said Carol Hoyt, winemaker and owner, with her husband Stephen, of Hoyt Family Vineyards in Malibu, California. I was in Europe when I received an email about it, so it was quite a surprise.”

Like a number of microwineries, Hoyt Family Vineyards has no winery facilities of their own. However they do have two vineyards: one acre plus in Malibu, planted in 2001 and six acres in Paso Robles, just recently planted. Their grapes are custom crushed for their hand-crafted wine at Terravant Wine Company, a state-of-the-art winemaking facility in Buellton.

“I am the winemaker,” said Hoyt, “but have two outstanding consulting winemakers helping me: Travis Proctor from Terravant and Etienne Terlinden from Summerland Winery. It is always best when you can surround yourself with great people and I have two of the greatest helping me with the wine.”

The four wines that Hoyt Family Vineyards entered in the  California State Fair Commerical Wine Competition this year all received medals. One of them, their 2009 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, received a double gold medal, 98 points and, as a result, the “Best of Microwinery, Red Wine” award.

“A vineyard had been on our minds for a long time, “said Carol Hoyt in a recent interview. “For a while we lived in San Francisco and visited the Napa Valley area regularly to taste and buy wine. On our kitchen wall we posted pictures of vineyards and people often asked us why. ‘That is a reminder that we are going to have a vineyard one day,’ I would tell them.”

From there they moved to Hollywood where again the vineyard pictures were prominently displayed on the kitchen wall. Friends continued to ask the same question about them and received the same answer. The idea of having a vineyard had not been forgotten and continued to be their goal.

“I was a drama major at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, which you can tell had nothing to do with wine,” said Hoyt. “I was an actress for a number of years and had several interesting roles, including a season as the villainess on ‘Power Rangers.’ I’m retired from acting now, taking care of my family and making wine.”

Both Carol and Stephen Hoyt not only enjoy wine, but also like farming, so it was logical that they would ultimately go looking for some acreage and on which they could plant a vineyard and build their house.

“ We found what we liked in Malibu and there was already a vineyard right next door,” continued Hoyt. “It was perfect for us and 2001 we planted chardonnay, malbec and merlot.”

The property they selected was on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway, a couple of miles from the ocean. Because of its location, it is subject to cool, foggy mornings, followed by heat and then cool evenings. It was the ideal climate for chardonnay, but maybe not malbec or merlot. Once they reached that conclusion, they decided to concentrate on chardonnay by planting more of those vines and grafting over the malbec and merlot.

Because of the location and the fact that the vineyard was only a little bit over an acre in size, they decided to use the Smart-Dyson trellis system for their vines. According to some grape growers it comes the closest to attaining the often elusive balance between foliage growth and maximum premium wine grape production in the coastal areas of California.

Smart-Dyson is a single curtain system with divided foliage. In simple words, shoots from each vine are positioned both up and down and the leaf cover is modified to allow in the proper amount of sunlight. By using that system they found they were able to almost double their potential yield and also have the fruit ripen before the Fall rains arrived, the bane of some coastal vineyard owners.

While waiting for the vines to mature, Hoyt decided it was time to actually try her hand at making wine. She purchased some cabernet sauvignon grapes and turned her kitchen into a winery. “We called it ‘Carol’s Cab,’she remarked, “and it turned out great, all two cases of it.”

With their chardonnay grapes maturing and the taste of success with the cabernet grapes, the next year they became more serious about their winemaking and Hoyt Family Vineyards moved from their kitchen to the facilities at Camarillo Custom Crush. One year later they moved again, this time to Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria where Carol Hoyt had the opportunity to work with Summerland Winery’s winemaker, Etienne Terlinden.

Just two years ago both Hoyt Family Vineyards and Summerland moved to Terravant Wine Company in Buellton, which then gave her the opportunity to work with both Terlinden and Terravant Wine Company’s winemaker, Travis Proctor.

“Both my husband and I prefer big, up front fruit cabernets, the ones with blackberry and currant flavors and lots of mouth feel,” Hoyt remarked. “As people become more educated about wine that seems to be one of the things they like.”

Because of that, they wanted to start growing their own cabernet sauvignon grapes to obtain maximum control over their wine, but they knew by experience that they couldn’t do it on their Malibu property. So they went looking elsewhere for a place for their new vineyard.

Since they were very pleased with the grapes they had been getting from the Paso Robles area, that seemed the most likely place to begin their search.

“On the west side of Paso Robles was an area I really liked,” said Hoyt. “There were already vineyards there and it had the calcareous soil that I wanted. I believe it is that soil that is putting the fruit of Paso Robles on the map.”

They found what they liked and bought it. In their new vineyard they planted six acres of vines: two of cabernet sauvignon, one of petite verdot, one of grenache, one of tempranillo and one of viognier. But for them that was only a start. In time they plan on adding more cabernet vines along with grenache blanc and petite sirah.

“We love the wine made from the cabernet sauvignon grapes that grow in that area and it is our present plan to use our petite verdot, grenache, tempranillo and viognier for blending purposes,” added Hoyt. “All of those vines are only a year old, so for a while we will still have to purchase grapes to make everything but our Malibu vineyard chardonnay.”

The grapes for their award winning 2009 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon came from Bella Collina’s vineyards. “We blended in five percent petite verdot and five percent merlot,” said Hoyt. “I believe blending is a creative process and the wine got better with just that much of those two added.”

What is in the future for Hoyt Family Vineyards? They are hoping to build a small winery on their Paso Robles property, but have no intentions of becoming big. Their present production is about 750 cases a year and presently they are not looking to even triple that amount in the future. “We like being small and more of a boutique winery,” said Hoyt.

Some time ago one of Hoyt’s friends asked her a very common question, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years? “I told her that I would be living on a vineyard and making wine,” answered Hoyt. “But it didn’t take me 10 years. Only three years after I was asked the question, I was there.”

Hoyt Family Vineyards wines that received awards at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition:

  • 2009 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon (Double Gold, 98 points, Best of Microwinery – Red Wine)
  • 2009 Paso Robles Tempranillo (Gold, 94 points)
  • 2009 California Chardonnay (Silver, 89 points)
  • 2010 Santa Barbara County Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Chardonnay white blend (Bronze, 87 points)