Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Wine Lover to Wine Maker: Sierra Foothills' Synapse Wines Makes the Transition

Randy & Debbie Knutzon
How do you get from tasting wines on the consumer side of the table, to pouring wines on the winery side of the table?  The short answer is:  persistence and passion.  The longer answer involves career-switches, determination, experimentation, finances, continuing education, partners, and creativity.

You’ll have your chance to meet a husband-and-wife-team who made this transition during the El Dorado Winery Association Passport Weekends, coming up on April 14-15 and April 21-22 (click here for ticket info).   If you can’t wait until then, go to the Synapse Wines tasting room in Placerville, El Dorado County, to chat with Debbie and Randy Knutzon.   
The journey from one side of the table to the other did take a while. The first time I met Debbie Knutzon of Synapse Wines, she was pouring wine a few years ago at a Sample the Sierra event at South Lake Tahoe.  Her enthusiasm just brimmed over, and she was honest about her wine beginnings.  She noted the help she’d got from more experienced winemakers in the Sierra Foothills, notably John MacCready of Sierra Vista Winery.       

Here’s Debbie’s story:
“ Randy and I moved to Sacramento in 1987.  I had a masters degree in Molecular Biology.  Randy had a brand new medical degree from the University of Iowa, ready to begin his radiology residency at UC Davis.  We were relative newbies to the wine world, however our appreciation for wine soon increased, as did the frequency of our winetasting trips to Napa and Sonoma.
 I don’t recall when or why we made our first winetasting trip to El Dorado County, but once we did we were hooked on the casual atmosphere, beautiful country and delicious wines.  I’m also not sure how I first heard about the Passport Weekends.  The first year, just Randy and I went.   We had a great time – loved the concept.  Although we tried hard, we couldn’t get all of our passport stamps; we missed a few wineries.  So, the second year we went to the Passport Weekend,  we got a few friends together and also a designated driver.  From then on, our Passport Weekend excursion became a looked-forward to event, with friends coming in from out of town, and a limo… 
The Partners: (l-r)
Randy, Debbie, Alisa, Bruce
Some years went by – Randy finished his medical training as a neuroradiologist and joined a group in Roseville.  In the spring of 2000 Randy went to a medical meeting in Atlanta.  When he came back, he told me that he had met up with Bruce Ginier who was practicing neuroradiology in Fresno.  Bruce had also done his radiology residency along with Randy.  Randy came home and recapped the meeting…“and by the way – we decided to start a vineyard in El Dorado county”  (or something along those lines)    Basically they had gotten to talking about “wouldn’t it be cool to retire and own a small vineyard / winery”. 
Bruce and his wife, Alisa, really like the foothill region – Alisa has family in northern CA and they had actually recently been up looking at properties in the foothills. Turns out that one of the properties Bruce had been looking at just outside Somerset was a 40 acre parcel with a beautiful south and west exposure sloping down to the canyon of the north fork of the Cosumnes river.  The bad news was that it was raw land – no power, water, roads, or anything.    The good news was that it was not being marketed as “vineyard potential” so the price was right.  
One thing led to another and before we knew it we were having soil samples taken and drawing up a purchase offer contingent on drilling wells and finding water.
Retirement was still a ways off, but since it takes a while to get a vineyard established we boldly charged ahead. We planted our first vines in 2002, - approximately 6 acres of syrah.  The initial plan was to sell the grapes until retirement, but as we got closer to having our first crop we got the winemaking bug and decided to try our hand at it. (Besides that, the market for grapes was pretty much in a trough).  Again, one thing led to another and soon we were building a winery building. 
First Crush!
Our first crush was in 2005 and we made five different styles of Syrah, all the way from a Rose to a dessert wine. 
In 2007 we took out some of the syrah and grafted on Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. 
At less than 1000 cases, our annual production is quite small, even by El Dorado standards. We still produce 5 different Syrah-based wines in addition to Zinfandel, Grenache, and Mourvedre. 
April 2010 Tasting Room Opens
The vineyard and winery are quite remote – they lie back on almost 2 miles of steep gravel road, so having an onsite tasting room was not an option.  We chose a site on Main Street in downtown Placerville next to the Cary House Hotel.  We opened up on April 16, 2010. 
Grand Opening May 2011
It’s been a 10 year journey, but we have gone from being consumers of wine to dreaming a dream, developing raw land, becoming grape farmers, becoming winemakers, becoming business owners, and actually getting to pour our wine for consumers to enjoy and purchase!  The learning curve has indeed been steep. 
Even more exciting is that we have finally joined the ranks of the “big boys and girls” of the El Dorado Winery Association.  We are extremely excited to be a part of the 2012 Passport Weekend event.    Life truly is an adventure – never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that I would one day trade in my research career for one in the wine business. 
We are often asked for the rationale behind our name – Synapse Wines.  As neuroradiologists, Randy and Bruce spend a good chunk of their days looking at nerve cells and the connection between them – the synapse.   Synapse Wines symbolized the connection between the two families to create the vineyard and winery, and also the value that we place on connecting with family, friends, food, and wine.”
(Thanks, Debbie, for a great story!  nb: Barbara Keck)
Visit Debbie, Randy, Bruce and Alisa at the Synapse Wines tasting room,  304 Main Street, Placerville.
The El Dorado Winery Association Passport Weekend offers a lot to see and do.  Plan ahead;  there is a printer-friendly map on the association website, click here to get it.   
Here is the list of participants, click on the winery name to go to their website for more information on the winery background and varietals produced.   Or click here for a short description on the Association website.  Ah yes…. try to line up a designated driver.     

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cab for The Cure: Foothills Wineries Support Important Women's Health Cause

Talk about a good idea that contributes to a good cause -- Holly Dismukes has created a hop-on-the-bandwagon concept that can benefit both wineries and breast cancer research.  It’s the “Cabernet For The Cure” event to be held for the third year with the participation of 7 good-hearted wineries in the Fair Play AVA (El Dorado county).

Holly lives near Sacramento, and she says that although she is not in the wine industry, “I absolutely love wine.”   She and her husband Brian and her brother Casey Steel have been going to wineries in the Sierra Foothills for 15 years or so.  Holly’s job as a staff accountant at Sysco gives her leisure time on weekends to enjoy the wine tourism that’s become such an important part of the Sierra Foothill areas near Sacramento.

The concept development for Cabernet for the Cure was simple.   “I’ve been doing the Walk for the Cure for a few years in Sacramento, and so when I go wine tasting in the Foothills, I’ve asked wineries from time to time to donate to the Susan G. Komen cause.  Three years ago,  Single Leaf, Iverson and Windwalker helped me formalize this idea with the first Cabernet for the Cure event.  More wineries join in every year.”

20 – 50 – 150 people and, now, 7 wineries

Holly is not herself a breast cancer survivor, but she believes this is a good thing to be doing for all the women who can be affected.   The first year, 20 people showed up.  Last year, 50.  And now, all 150 “tickets” (tee-shirts) to the afternoon barbeque that keynotes the event at Single Leaf Winery are sold out, ten days before the deadline.

Wine lovers can still participate in the tasting/donation part of the event by asking for a pink ribbon at the tasting rooms of the seven wineries, or by showing a print-out of the poster.  The wineries will donate between $2 and $5 a bottle for each bottle of their wine purchased.   (Linda Neal of Mellowood, who alerted me to the event, tops the pack by donating $5 per bottle.  Atta girl, Linda!  Good on you!)

All donations flow through directly to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.  What does Holly Dismukes get out of this?   Pennies in heaven, I hope. 

The participating wineries are Busby Cellars, Iverson Winery, Mellowood Vineyards, Perry Creek WinerySierra Oaks Estates, Single Leaf Winery, and Windwalker Vineyard.  Click on any of the winery names to go to their websites.  
To make your tour to Fair Play easier, here are the winery addresses:

Busby Cellars
6375 Grizzly Flat Rd
Fair Play, CA  95684

Iverson Winery
8061 Perry Creek Road
Fair Play, CA  95684

Mellowood Vineyards
2979 Mellowood Drive
Fair Play, CA  95684

Perry Creek Winery
7400 Perry Creek Rd
Fair Play, CA  95684

Sierra Oaks Estates
6713 Mt. Aukum Rd
Fair Play, CA  95656

Single Leaf Winery
7480 Fairplay Road
Fair Play, CA  95684

Windwalker Vineyard
7360 Perry Creek Rd
Fair Play, CA  95684

Free Pruning Clinic at Mellowood Vineyards- March 17 & 18

If you are scooting around FairPlay on March 17th for the Cabernet for the Cure event, you might just want to stop at the free Pruning Clinic that Linda Neal of Mellowood Vineyard has put together. It continues on the 18th too, and Linda, who alerted me to the Cabernet for the Cure event (bless her heart!), sent this information in her email.,

"If you enjoy the dusting of mustard petals against your pants as you approach the tangle of canes, if you want to hold the professional #7 Felco shears in your hand as you decisively shape the vine for the upcoming season, if you want to learn the difference between shoots and suckers, buds and nodes, cordons and spurs, this is your event. We will start at 9:30 with coffee and pastry, I will demonstrate and describe the process, after which you will tackle your own vine. Prune one or more, as you like, even tagging with your name, to watch throughout the year. Afterward we will taste the fruits of our labors in delicious Mellowood wines. There is no fee, but advance registration is required by calling 530-306-9454 or linda (at) "

Mellowood Vineyard is at
2979 Mellowood Drive
Fair Play, CA  95684

Thursday, March 1, 2012

What Were They Thinking? My Mom Said, "Get a Room"...

What Were They Thinking?
"We had the first customers of the day come to the tasting room,  Teri and Rick Girard and they brought a friend along.  I’m pouring a glass of my Syrah and my wife Melissa is there with me.  The Girards are what I call “alpha customers”.  I met them at another winery, and after they came to see us, they started bringing in their whole family to discover us.   Our combination of wine and hospitality really resonated with them.
I grew up as a winery brat.  My parents dragged me through Napa Valley from the time I was 8 years old.  My dad was the controller at Gallo Wine in Modesto.  I went to school with the Gallo kids.  The first batch of wine I ever saw being made was in a barn in Modesto with a bunch of Greek guys.  I was 11.  It was awful; really oxidated white wine made from Colombard.   When our family moved to Pollock Pines in the late 70’s, we started making a few barrels of wine under our house.  In 1988 I took it over with a group of friends as a kind of co-op.  When we got to 22 barrels under the house, my mom encouraged us to go get a room.
So that’s what I did.  My “room” here at Crystal Basin is bigger this year; we added a space that made it kind of V shaped.  This is the first season for the remodeled room.   Melissa runs the tasting room, and she really is the face of the winery and has grown the wine club to 1300 members.  We’ve been married for 19 years, and we moved to the Sierra Foothills from Silicon Valley in 2006.  We’d been making wine at Gold Hill Vineyards in Coloma since 2000 and wanted to see if we could scale it up.  We did; from 700 cases to 6500 today.
Not that long ago,  Melissa wanted to kill the winery.  She thought it was distracting and a boys’ drinking project, which it was.  In 2007 she switched horses.  Now she’s pretty excited about the bistro that we’re opening; tapas-style.   The Girard’s other brother and sister were coming up later that day to help us with the bistro.
We were enjoying this wine right before the big storm hit, and we were all really giddy about seeing the weather show up."    


Great Headlines: The Subterranean Horror!

I'm a sucker for great headlines.  What writer isn't?  And most readers appreciate them too.  So when I got this email from Mr LoneHat ( John Thomas, from JJ Cedar Company), who could resist opening it?  I'd like to think that John was listening to my brief "how to do better PR" presentation to the El Dorado Wine Grape Growers Association last week, but I think he's just got a natural talent... and I was compelled to read the whole HORROR story!  You can too...and thanks, John.

The Subterranean Horror  Popillia japonica


Adults surfacing in June/July

Adult Popilliajaponica  (Japanese Beetle)

The adult beetles feed on the foliage and fruits of more than 250 kinds of plants, but grape is one of the preferred hosts.  The larvae areC-shaped grubs found in the soil, and are serious pests of grass roots. 

PCO Choice kills Japanese Beetles andits Larvae.   PCO Choice kills the adult insect.  The biosolvent influenced cedar oil will dissolve insect egg and larvae by eroding theexoskeleton and cuticle, promoting rapid dehydration. Egg-layer cycles arefurther interrupted by pheromone interference with the insect’soctopamine neuro receptors, and the next generation of arthropod is therebyeliminated.

Because this pest has one generation each year, it may be possible toeradicate them from your vineyards.  Creating a 15ft boundary around thevineyard can help stop this subterranean destroyer from re-entering yourplanted areas.

     PCO Choice concentrate

For more information contact:  jthomas (at) or visit