Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Christmas Season Arrives

christmas_tree4Our household, like most others on our street in Pasadena, California, consisted of three generations. It was a result of the Great Depression, where people in my parent’s generation were not able to afford their own home and, with children in tow, simply moved in with their parents, or vice versa. Therefore, for most of my life I lived with my father and brother in my paternal grandparent’s home. It was crowded, especially when my aunt, uncle and cousin joined us for a while, but always wonderful, creating an enriched childhood for me, especially during the holiday seasons.

Christmas at our house started the weekend after Thanksgiving when the men in the family, my grandfather, father, brother and I, piled into my father’s black 1941 Buick sedan and went looking for a Christmas tree. No, we didn’t take an axe or saw and head to the woods, we lived in Southern California and were simply off to a Christmas tree lot.

Usually the lot was at a large grocery store (supermarket wasn’t a word then) where huge bundles of fir trees were being unloaded from giant trucks into rapidly growing piles in the parking lot.

The four of us, with my grandfather orchestrating every move, exited the car and we two youngest grabbed trees one-by-one from the pile marked “six to seven feet” and stood each one upright for my father and grandfather (mostly my grandfather) to judge. We jealously eyed the “rich” people contemplating the Silver Tip trees, which cost an outrageous fifty cents a foot, while we went through what seemed like hundreds of common fir trees, dropping each one back onto the pile after hearing words from my grandfather like, “too crooked,” “not full enough” and “it’s flat on one side.” Finally, one of us came across what my grandfather said was “the tree” – the best in the pile by far.

My father paid for the tree, which usually cost under a dollar, and we prepared to take it home. We thought about putting it in the car’s trunk and tying a red flag to it’s tip or tying it to the top of the car, like most people did, but that could damage it. We had a better way to get it home. We two kids stuck our arms out the car’s windows and held it tight against the side of the car as my father carefully drove home, just daring to be stopped by a policeman.

We bought just the tree, the wooden stand cost another quarter. Besides, my grandfather was a carpenter who could build anything out of wood and always reminded us that he still had last year’s stand – somewhere.

Home at last, without interference from the police, we called to my grandmother to come see the tree while my grandfather went looking for last year’s tree stand. While my grandmother was telling us that it was the most beautiful Christmas tree she had ever seen my grandfather would give up looking for last year’s stand and make another one out of “something” he had lying around.

Having spent most of his life as a carpenter, my grandfather had an amazing set of ancient carpenter tools to use for this purpose. Perhaps set is the wrong word, a collection would be better. He had piles of tools that modern carpenters wouldn’t even recognize, all tucked away in an long, oiled wooden carpenter’s box that had a carrying rope which fit over his shoulder. Of course, the first thing he needed was a hammer and there was never one to be found amongst the tools. Hammers always seemed to be somewhere else, usually set aside after having served as a tomahawk for the latest session of “Cowboys and Indians.” Nails were another thing.

My grandfather had a collection of nails. Nails, to him, were treasure. If he saw one in the street, he picked it up and put it in his pocket to take home, straighten and put in a coffee can for future use. They cost real money when he was in the business, and he remembered that.

Once the stand was completed, the base of the tree was cut level – after two or three tries and lots of loud discussion – and the stand was firmly nailed on with no less than four huge nails.

Most bridges weren’t that secure and the stand was on the tree for eternity, unless of course, it had to be taken off and the tree re-cut because the tree proved to be too tall for the house.

We proudly carried the tree into the house, in an operation fully choreographed by my grandfather, where it was stood up in the corner of the living room and bent as it hit the ceiling because it was always too tall. Six to seven foot trees were always at least nine feet tall. We knew that, but we never learned – or maybe we never cared – because it was part of the ceremony.

Knocking over at least two objects that my grandmother cherished in the process, we took the tree outside again, hammered the stand off and cut a few more inches off the bottom of the tree. Once the stand was reattached, we marched the tree back into the house, where it finally stood in the corner, always leaning badly to one side. We shimmed it, bent it, pushed and shoved it, and, finally brought it to straight by fastening it to nails in the wall – nails left over from previous years – with fishing line.

Usually at that point, Blackie, the dog that belonged to the Johnsons next door but often came to our house to eat, chase mice and have puppies, would get up from her favorite spot near the gas heater, sniff around the tree and go back to sleep, apparently giving her approval. With that, we were ready for the lights.

Christmas lights used to come in strings in which if one burned out, they all went out. Of course, ours never worked the first time we tried them in spite of the fact that they worked when we put them away the year before. We would have to remove each bulb and replace it with a good one we bought last year at the after- Christmas sale (frugal we were) until the bad one was found and replaced.

For some reason the bulbs shaped like a snowman or Santa Claus, which were ancient even in the 1950s, always seemed to work and never burned out. A comment about this always brought out the “they don’t make things like they used to” statement from my grandfather.

Once the working lights were on the tree, my grandfather would get out his ancient extension cord – the scariest extension cord you ever saw. It wasn’t red, green, black or even brown, it was made of twisted wires covered in a badly worn tan cloth with a poorly replaced plug on one end and on the other end a brass socket which had a turn-switch, that sometimes, but not often, worked. That is what made it scary, since when you turned the switch, it made funny, popping electrical sounds and even smelled a little. Thank God that is all that ever happened.

Finally, plug lights into cord, plug cord into wall plug, carefully turn switch and…nothing. Somehow, in the time between when we had tested the lights and that moment, the bulbs had loosened, burned out or maybe just given up.

After fixing the lights and putting the tree-topper in place, my grandmother went to a drawer in her bureau for the first ornament. No, it wasn’t the Christmas tree candle holders which has been banned from use for years, those were in a drawer in the kitchen and although she would let me put them on the tree, lighting the candles was forbidden. What she was after was an ornament that she had received on her birthday – her real birthday – in 1878. It was glass, blue, about five inches across and must have been a quarter of an inch thick. It weighed half a pound or more.

She carefully hung it on a large branch, close to the trunk of the tree, where it would be safe from everything and everyone, including Blackie, who often wobbled the tree while trying to nibble on candy canes or strung popcorn and cranberries.

With that ornament in place, the Christmas season was here.

Steppin’ Out – Tale of the Dogs

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.
Otto von Bismarck

We are very lucky in having quite a number of places in El Dorado County that serve great hot dogs: Shoestring, Hangtown Hot Dogs, Buttercup Pantry (even deep fried), Old Town Grill (a circular dog), Skeeters in Pollock Pines and Ruffhaus Hot Dog Co. in El Dorado Hills, just to name a few. However, now and then I go outside the area just to compare.

About three months ago I wrote about a visit my friend, Russ Salazar, and I made to try several hot dogs in the Sacramento area. It was not the first time, as a few months before that we had traveled to Capitol Dawgs, at 1226 20th Street in Sacramento, where we had enjoyed several of their offerings.

I gave Capitol Dawgs an “A” for variety. They have eight kinds of dogs from regular to turkey and veggie, most of which you can have grilled or deep fried and served 25 or more different ways.

We tried a “Prop 51 Dawg” (Chicago style), “Delta Dawg” (West Virginia style with mustard, chili, onions and cole slaw) and the “Governor Dawg” (their own Texas Tommy style with a deep fried American and Swiss cheese stuffed beef frank wrapped in bacon, cheddar cheese, cheddar cheese sauce and tomato). They were all good (Salazar was not wild about the cole slaw on the dog), but I need to return to try several more.

Our second trip involved a visit to three places: Weiner Works, Parkers of Santa Cruz and Sonic.

The Wiener Works is located at 5207 Madison Avenue, near Auburn Blvd. For over 20 years it has been in the same location. They take cash only, are a bit pricy, have no WiFi and, as someone commented, really haven’t given the place a thorough cleaning since they opened. On the plus side, the food is great, they steam their dogs in beer and, I’m told, they either make their own sausages or have them made for them.

They have lots of different sausages in different sizes, but we stayed small and ordered a chili dog and, something different, a red cabbage (cooked) and cheese dog, both of which we liked.

Parker’s of Santa Cruz is located in Roseville at 1604A Douglas Blvd (by Office Depot). Their dogs are “Old Fashioned Foot long 100% Beef” and more reasonable than those at Wiener Works.

We ordered a “Pick-Me-Up Chili Dog,” and a Ruben Dog. When we got the food, we commented to each other, “Who puts all these beans in the chili for a chili dog?”

The dogs were solid and good, the buns were good and the kraut on the Ruben dog was tasty and not so juicy that it soaked through. But, shouldn’t a Ruben dog have Russian or 1000 island dressing, not just kraut and cheese?

Sonic – America’s Drive-In” is also in Roseville, at 913 Pleasant Grove Blvd, and is a real drive-in, with carhops on roller skates (some of them). They also have some outside tables, which is where we chose to sit.

Their specials at the time were Wholly Guacamole Dog and the Chili Cheese Fritos Coney. We ordered one of each and asked for water to drink (25 cents – but it was a big cup and came with ice, a cover and a straw). The dogs (and the napkins) are a bit skimpy, but what do you expect for under three bucks and two bucks respectively? Both the dogs were okay (the Wholly Guacamole Dog was best), but more than a bit salty and soft. Overall they were worth the cost.

Last week we added to our list and visited two new places for dogs: Burgerocity and The Wienery.

Burgerocity is located at 157 Iron Point Road in Folsom, next to the Folsom Premium Outlets. They specialize in fresh, Certified Hereford Beef burgers (which we also tried), but we were there to try a hot dog. We selected a Chicago Dog and, to accompany it, their Texas Chile Fries.

The Chicago Dog had a nice firm hot dog, but the bun needed to have been warmed, since both it and the burger bun were cold (the burger could have also used a bit more sauce). The fries were very good, even though the chili had a few beans (we think they use Delores Chili like Tommy’s in Southern California). A real plus for the place is both pump catsup and mustard for your fries. Give them a call at 916-351-5777 or visit for more information.

The Wienery is located at 715 65th Street in “East” Sacramento, tucked away in the Elvas Shopping Center. The restaurant has been there for 45 years, 29 as a hot dog place (counter with stools and a few tables). Their motto is” “We still cut the mustard.”

They use a long, Casper-like, casing dog that, along with the buns, is steamed. We split a Windy City Dog and a Chili Dog, both of which were very good. The Windy City Dog was their version of a Chicago Dog and the Chili Dog came open faced and is served on a real plate with a real knife and fork (grab lots of napkins).

They also have daily specials and soup. They used to make hot dog gumbo (a family recipe), but don’t anymore.

For more information and directions (you will need them) call 916-455-0497 or visit

Community Profiles – Georgia Slide


Georgetown to Georgia Slide envelope.

Georgetown to Georgia Slide envelope.

Many history books paint the incorrect picture that until Marshall picked up a few flakes of gold at Coloma in 1848, gold mining was unknown in the United States. But this is far from true.

In Southern California, at a place called Placerita Canyon, gold had been discovered and mined, to some extent, several years before Marshall even arrived in Coloma. But, even before that, in 1828 a significant gold discovery had occurred in the state of Georgia, near a town named Dahlonega. This town had its own gold rush and soon became the center for gold miners in the southeast.

It was the discovery of gold on Cherokee lands in Georgia that resulted in the Cherokee being forced to moved to Oklahoma and the “Trail of Tears.”

The discovery of gold at Coloma drew almost all of these miners west, leaving Georgia and its gold almost forgotten.

These experienced Georgia miners were some of the earliest in the gold fields of California and who brought with them, and fortunately shared with others, much of the needed mining knowledge and experience. It is also these men who left their name on numerous mining towns in California’s Mother Lode – Georgia Slide, northwest of Georgetown, being but one of them.

The town of Georgia Slide (originally known as Georgia Flat and Georgia Flatts until a large landslide occurred at the site), had its beginning in the fall of 1849, when several miners from Georgia staked out claims along Canyon Creek, planning on working them the next spring.

By the middle of 1850 Georgia Slide had become a lively mining camp with a saloon owned by one Yankee Sullivan and a store first owned by B. Spencer, a brother to Patrick Spencer of Georgetown, and later, G. F. Barklage, who also had a saloon and a large warehouse.

The community never reached the size needed to have a Post Office or a school of its own, relying on other communities in the Georgetown area for these services.

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.