SLO Undergrad Drawn to Higher Elevations: Skinner Vineyards & Gros Ventre
The distinctive growing conditions and unusual soils drew winemaker Chris Pittenger to the Sierra Foothills.
The fact that it's so close to Tahoe skiing didn't hurt much, either.
"You can see the obvious connection there," jokes Pittenger, whose early 20s were as much about cruising the slopes in Jackson Hole as they were about working as a wine steward in the ski town's bustling restaurant scene.
Nearly two decades later, he's gone from selling wine to producing it. As the winemaker for Skinner Vineyards and his own label, Gros Ventre, Pittenger now spends his days crafting Rhone-style varietals from nuanced, mountain-grown grapes, and Pinot Noir from fine coastal sites.
Long before wine and skiing, there was baseball. Raised in Southern California on America's favorite pastime, he ended up at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for undergrad work.
"I had aspirations like any other kid to play in the major leagues. But after a shoulder injury and a viticulture course my freshman year, it was all about wine," says Pittenger, who ultimately majored in agricultural business.
A short stint working at a wine shop exposed Pittenger to bottles from around the world and helped develop his palate. It also gave him the chops to work in restaurants when he landed in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
"It was a cool ski-town environment, but there was a strong wine culture there," Pittenger says. Of his core group of industry pals, several - including him - went on to work in Napa Valley. "It was a cool little melting pot of wine people."
Cutting his teeth in what he describes as a "deer-in-the-headlights" cellar rat at Robert Biale Vineyards - known for old-vine Zinfandel - Pittenger also spent harvests in wine country both local and abroad, including at New Zealand's Kim Crawford and St. Clair wineries, and at California operations like Williams Selyem in Sonoma and Marcassin Winery with Helen Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer.
In 2007, Pittenger was approached by the Skinner family, who hired him to develop their property in the Sierra Foothills. He started making wines for Skinner at Santa Rosa's Copain Custom Crush during the day, hauling grapes down from the foothills, and continued to work nights at Marcassin during the harvest.
Two years later, he added another notch on his belt, bottling Pinot Noir under his own label, called Gros Ventre, founded with his wife, Sarah.
Finally, in 2010, Pittenger moved his family full time to the Sierra, and now produces everything at Skinner's new winery in Fair Play (El Dorado County).
Pittenger says he was infatuated with the region from the start.
"I saw these amazing vineyards at 2,500, 3,000 feet on these granite, volcanic soils, and I was just like, 'Whoa, what's going on up here?' " Pittenger recalls.
With such rare growing conditions - in addition to the soils, there's strong sun without intense heat, plus cold nights and high altitude - Skinner admits that plenty of pioneers paved the way in terms of what to plant there. It's a perfect match for Rhone varieties, like Skinner's flagship Grenache.
"It has the most upside potential," says Pittenger of the wine, adding that the grape has some temperamental tendencies that require him to be gentle - almost hands off - with it. "You have to treat it with kid gloves."
Perhaps it's this laid-back style that's allowed Pittenger to multitask so well. These days, that means days at the winery and as many weekends as he can free up on the slopes.
What he does: Elevating Rhone varieties in the Sierra, plus coastal Pinot Noir
Harvest snack: The bacon avocado cheeseburger with fries and an ice-cold bottle (or two) of Bud from Bones Roadhouse, a Placerville biker bar and grill.
Quote: "When I first got started in retail, it was a 1985 Burgundy from Henri Boillot that made me think, 'Oh, this is what it's all about.' Everyone has that aha moment."
From the notebook
2010 Skinner El Dorado Grenache ($26, 14.8% alcohol): Pittenger's Pinot mind applied to the perfect Rhone-realm grape. Great perfume: iris, strawberry blossoms and cedar, with a mountain-soil mineral touch.
- Jon Bonné