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.     


  1. This a wonderful article. How inspiring! I have the pleasure of frequently playing guitar at the Synapse tasting room and I love it! The people that surround this endeavor, from the owners, to the folks that manage and pour in the tasting room are all very gracious and inspirational and they know how to promote a good time. The wines are incredible. Synapse easily makes the best Sirahs around.

    Best Regards,
    John Martin

  2. Nice to see that Synapse is doing well in Placerville. We found the downtown area is very historic and convenient to get in out of quickly from Hiway 50. Definitely worthy stop for a sip of wine, entertainment and walking access to nice shops and food.

    Mike chick.