Firmly at the helm at storied Washington winery, Betz Family Winery, Louis Skinner has a downright awesome story in wine. Louis took time to gain interest in wine and was inspired to learn more by a friend who was an avid wine collector. Like many people in the wine industry, Louis changed careers and became all-in, learning everything he could about grapes, tasting and winemaking. A graduate of the South Seattle Community College program, Louis has trained under legendary winemakers, Chris Upchurch and Bob Betz, MW, prior to taking over for Betz at his namesake winery. Having tasted through his new lineup of wines, I have found Louis’s wines to be highly precise, showing a good degree of minerality and varietal typicity. He also makes a beautiful wine from the stony terroir of the Walla Walla Rocks AVA, as Betz now owns a vineyard there. Here is my exclusive interview with Louis Skinner, head winemaker of Betz Family Winery.
WWB: How did you decide to switch your career to wine?
LS: There was a moment where a friend of mine who originally got me into wine. We had become good friends in my 20s and our friendship actually had nothing to do with wine, we were both car enthusiasts. My friend was obsessed with wine and his house had a lot of classic Bordeaux as he had a deep wine cellar. He would always lay out some amazing glasses of wine for us to try. We did dinner about once a month for about a year. One day he put me on the spot and asked why I wasn’t drinking his wines that he poured. He mentioned that there was no reason why I shouldn’t gain an appreciation for wine of the world.
That same week on a Saturday he opened some beautiful wines for me to taste through. There were stunning wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy as well as Rhone wines and California. This tasting was an eye-opener for me,. We tasted about eight bottles of wine and the next morning I woke up thinking about these marvelous wines. I was blown away that there was so much diversity in the wines. I was quite shocked and I went to the grocery store that same day and walked around the wine aisle.
Prior to that wine had no meaning to me. It was a drink that I would occasionally have at wedding receptions but I had no connection to wine whatsoever. I went from not even knowing about wine to becoming very interested in it. Within a month of this tasting I was going to the library and avidly reading books about wine. That learning process spiraled from there and I would become more and more inspired. My friend helped my learning as he possessed the high end collectable side of wine, even up to Domaine Romanee Conte.
A few years later I enrolled in South Seattle Community College to start their wine program. About a week before I started I wanted to do a wine retail position as well which would help my education having the ability to taste wines on a regular basis. It was only about a week until my instructor found me a wine retail job in Redmond and I got a job on the spot right there. My four years working at the wine shop in Redmond really helped me meet people and taste the wines. I was doing a tasting group there and also was a part of a great tasting group at Wild Ginger. My world in the wine industry has grown exponentially since that point. That is the great thing about wine is it brings people together from all walks of life.
WWB: What was it like training under legendary winemaker Chris Upchurch at DeLille Cellars?
LS: It was a great experience learning under Chris Upchurch. When I look back at my time in DeLille I wouldn’t trade my time there for time anywhere else. Chris was a friend of mine when I applied for the position, because we were both fans of Burgundy and collectors of those wines. My relationship with him began before I was working for him. That was a really natural progression and by the time I was working with Chris in 2011 he knew who I was and had told me a couple of times that he would like me to work in the cellar. We had that on the horizon and the whole team at DeLille had been changed and Chris Peterson had left to start Avennia and then Jason Gorski was starting there. Everyone was new other than Chris Upchurch. Jason and I were new people at DeLille which was a great experience. I had previously worked with Bob Betz, MW, prior to coming to DeLille, as an apprentice and I knew some of the details about making wine. Bob Betz had taught me a lot, and had spent some time learning about winemaking in France in 2011, so when I was at DeLille it was almost a clean slate and I was able to take some of my knowledge and help build a program working with Jason. My job was to help run the quality control aspect as well as help with the laboratory work. I was able to help design the lab there. My relationship with Chris was about studying other wineries and how we could apply that to making wine at DeLille. This past year I had the chance to visit Chateau Latour. That was really interesting because I had seen how Chris Upchurch had modeled his winery through learning about practices at Latour. Chris seems very relaxed and as far as winemakers or people I have met, but Chris was very motivated to travel the wine world from France to Spain to Germany to Australia and visit wineries and learn about how they get from point A to point B in their winemaking process. He has learned a great deal from his vast travels to the great wine regions of the world.
WWB: What were some of the challenges with becoming head winemaker at Betz Family Family and taking over the program from someone who is such an iconic name in Washington wine?
LS: Bob works with us in a consulting role. He tastes with me and we try to create our best vineyard program and how we can improve the wines. The transition from Bob to myself has been really comfortable. I think Bob is comfortable with getting behind my ideas with winemaking, and I do a lot of tasting. Tasting for me is front and center for winemaking and developing the palate. Without tasting the wines that we idolize or love, it becomes challenging to understand what direction you want your wines to go. As a winemaker you have access to the great wines of the world. When I was working for Fine Wines in Redmond I had people who would get together and taste the great wines of the world and split the costs. To be able to taste the wines and be able to see how they contrast the other wines, I think that helps Bob feel comfortable with what we are doing with the Betz Family Wines program. That is the main driver is I want to see what the producer was doing with the style, the region and the vintage.
If you look at the Betz program when I started in 2014 the Bordeaux wines and the Rhone wines were made in a similar way. Betz has a house style which is preservation of the fruit and a reductive handling of the grapes, a lot of oxygen usage to get richness and minimal racking to protect the wines and preserve that. Maceration is usually six or eight days and all the fruit was de-stemmed at that time. Betz had a great thing going when I started but where I push the program is having a bit more time in the skins, whole cluster fermentation on the Rhone wines and the framework behind the Betz wines is the same. We have a lot of detail and a lot of time in the vineyard.
WWB: I was enchanted by your 2016 Betz Family Wines ‘Domaine de Pierres’ Syrah (WWB, 94) which sourced from your estate vineyard in the Walla Walla Rocks region. How did you decide to purchase that vineyard? What style of wines do you craft with your ‘Domaine de Pierres’ Syrah?
LS: This was a very exciting new wine for our lineup. The first vintage from this was the 2016 vintage which you tried and that vineyard was originally called the Ancient Stones Vineyard. The vineyard was originally planted in 2006 and we bought the vineyard in late 2014 and there were some issues with the name because there were many names called ‘Old Stones’ and we decided that we didn’t want any part of a dispute over names. At the time the vineyard needed a lot of careful management and it had been about four or five seasons since someone had taken good care of it. A lot of the wires had fallen down, and even posts were dislodged so that was a challenge. Walla Walla has seen a lot of frost damage so there were a lot of freeze issues in the vineyard and there was many freeze damaged vines. There were some plantings that we wanted to change including Viognier and Malbec as well as Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Grenache which were planted. Because it is in a low spot in the valley the vineyard unfortunately wasn’t a good spot for Grenache.
In 2015 we tore almost the entire vineyard out and left a few blocks of Syrah, roughly one acre in size. One section of the vineyard was planted to Phelps clone and the other was Tablas Creek clones. We also left a few blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon for interest but doing Cabernet in the Rocks just wasn’t our thing. Over the last few years we have been trying to plant three acres a season to Syrah. In 2018 we were able to bring online a few more blocks of Syrah so today we have 4 different blocks of Syrah, including the 2006 plantings and then also our Spring 2015 plantings. We have done some research on clonal selections and had also spoken with someone who had been working on the vineyard side with Christophe Baron.
I have done a lot of tastings from wines in the Rocks and Christophe Baron pioneered this outstanding style of wine and Matt Reynvaan also has done a lot of great things in the Walla Walla Rocks AVA. I think there are a lot of styles of wine sourced from The Rocks District AVA, all based on location. I look to our vineyard showing similar to the wines from the River Rock Vineyard, which is adjacent to us. In general, I think the early years where we harvested fruit in 2015 and experimented with whole cluster inclusion and the 2016 we were still in the learning process. We ran a number of trials with 100% whole cluster fermentation and some with 50% whole cluster fermentation. As the seasons evolved we have learned that we prefer the wine to be made undergoing 100% whole cluster fermentation. We had skin contact for about two weeks for our 2016 ‘Domaine de Pierres’ Syrah. Now we have contact for about a month. For the wine I look at it as I look at the other wines at Betz. These wines are not exactly like the wines of Cayuse, Horsepower or Reynvaan but we look at the icons in the Rhone Valley as well. I look to the wines of Cote Rotie, and the savory and textural qualities of Jamet. I would love to make that style of wine, the savory fruit profile and textural profile.
WWB: You made some beautiful wines in 2015. What were the challenges presented for you making wine in 2015?
LS: 2015 was a challenging vintage. Everything 2013 and beyond you have had to deal with a lot of heat. 2013-2016 have all been warm vintages and that makes it harder to how we accumulate heat and dealing with the challenges throughout each vintages. I don’t mind a hot vintag. I think we have done well in these hot vintages but you have to be a bit apprehensive about making your wines to not achieve too much sugar accumulation without the phenolic ripeness. In 2015 we had to move quickly to make sure our wines were not overripe. In 2014 that was a problem as well and we started picking September 3rd and finished about a month later for the reds. In 2015 I think we picked 115 tons from 40 different blocks in about three and a half weeks. It was hard getting to the vineyard and sampling enough of these wines because everything was coming in at the same time. The pickers worked very hard because we had to get everything back to the winery. Merlot started ripening in the last week of August and everything else was ripening after that so it was a struggle with making wine that vintage and making the picking decisions. We had to figure out what varietals could have more hang time.The great challenge for us is getting the fruit off the vine quickly enough.