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Healthy earth, tasty wine

Cassie Pence
AE Winemaker1 SM 6-14-06
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VAIL – “My wines don’t knock your socks off, they seduce them off,” Robert Sinskey said during a winemaker’s dinner in his honor last week at Kelly Liken. With that one sentence, Sinskey not only had the crowd rolling, he captured the essence of his wine. Sinskey is the owner, operator and resident daydream believer at Robert Sinskey Vinyards in Napa, Calif. After meeting him for the first time – with his Elvis Costello glasses, sexy gray hair and charming one-liners – one might think there’s nothing subtle about this guy. But Sinskey produces wine that is subtle, yet seducing, and that’s the way he believes wine should taste. Too often wine earns points for power, but as Sinskey said at dinner, wine is not an athletic event.”It’s too personal to be an athletic event,” Sinskey said.

Wine lovers and Kelly Liken fans (some a little of both) mingled at the start of the evening while nibbling passed appetizers and sipping Sinskey’s 2005 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, a delicate rose. When most people were turning their noses up at rose, Sinskey was trying to produce a quality variety.”This was a knee-jerk reaction to white zinfandel,” Sinskey said of his Vin Gris. “I thought there should be a good quality European style of rose.” Making a small amount each year, he added, this Vin Gris never fails to sell out.Sinskey has a soft spot for Vail, he said, as everyone settled into their respective tables. He met his wife Maria Helm (now Maria Helm Sinskey), a well-known chef from San Francisco, for the first time at Taste of Vail. Though the two didn’t know it right away, they were a perfect match: Helm cooks delicious food, and Sinskey makes great wine.”It’s hard to talk about wine without talking about food,” Sinskey said.

Sinskey makes understated wine to complement food, like his 1999 Vineyard Reserve, “RSV” Proprietary Red, for example, which Liken paired with the rich lacquered organic beef short ribs for the third course. His wine isn’t cerebral, either, although it’s far from boring. Sinskey’s wine is intended to simply be enjoyed, like his 2005 Abraxas, Vin de Terroir – a crisp, slightly sweet white that Liken served with an Ancho chile rubbed prawn over corn, fava bean and tomato succotash for the first course.In the vineyard kitchen, Helm focuses on organic fresh products direct from the garden, allowing natural flavors to come through in the food. When the culinary world was building towering art on the plate, Helm turned the other direction and made her dishes simple, seasonal and fresh. Sinskey and Helm’s relationship envelopes the whole Robert Sinskey Vineyard philosophy. “It’s about purity from the earth to the table,” Sinskey said.Sinskey’s sense of purity goes way beyond most winemakers. In 2001, Robert Sinskey Vineyards achieved organic status in all 200 acres while working toward biodynamic certification – which should impress wine drinkers even more. Biodynamic agriculture, theorized by Rudolf Steiner, is when farmers are even more in tune with their land. Biodynamic looks at the land as a whole system of interrelated organisms including the soil, bugs, varmints, hawks and even the moon. It’s a recognition of the basic principles at work in nature, and it’s striving to balance those principles.What inspired Sinskey to go organic was back in 1990 when one particular vineyard just wasn’t growing. The vines were sick with phylloxera, and basically, this prime plot was dying.

“The soil was dry and fractured and when we (his winemaker Jeff Virnig) dug into the soil there were no earth worms,” Sinskey said.After seeing the absence of earth worms (a tell-tale sign that soil is unhealthy), it dawned on Sinskey that when they were spraying the vineyard with Roundup, they were not only killing bad growth, they were killing good growth, like fungi and bacteria, that would help the plant combat the sickness on its own – naturally.”That’s when I turned to my winemaker and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do it all organic?’ Sinskey said. “And Jeff looked at me and said, ‘If it will make the wine taste better, I’m in.'” Now Sinskey and Viring, along with the rest of the vineyard staff, are working to close the organic loop. They run a large percentage of the vineyard and winery on solar power and make their own blend of biodiesel from vegetable oil to run their tractors. The bottomline, as Sinskey pointed out, is better soil produces better tasting wine.

“You grow it well and try not to screw it up yourself,” Sinskey said.Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 748-2938, or cpence@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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