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Young Washington winemaker learns at feet of greats
WOODINVILLE, Wash. – Two of Washington’s most accomplished and acclaimed winemakers are Chris Upchurch of DeLille Cellars and Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery. One fortunate young winemaker has had the opportunity to work for both.
The experiences for Louis Skinner have been remarkable, especially for a guy who originally was going to learn how to repair cars.
After having an epiphany about wine, Skinner’s life took a U-turn into the wine industry, and he has since embraced it with gusto.
We recently sat down with Skinner to talk about his winemaking experiences so far. Here’s the interview.
From cars to wine
Skinner was born in Seattle but was raised in the Mason County town of Shelton, northwest of Olympia. Out of high school, he went to school to learn how to be an auto technician and had zero interest in wine.
A friend of his was into cars and wine, and Skinner would often go to his friend’s home for dinner. One day, the friend confronted him.
“He says to me, ‘Every time you come over to my house, you bring over a bottle of wine, but you never drink any of it,’ ” Skinner said. When he replied that he didn’t like wine, his friend said, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
The friend set up a tasting that included great wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley and Napa Valley.
“We opened eight bottles of wine,” he said. “The next morning, I woke up think about wine, and it was completely not on my radar my whole life until I was 26 years old.”
That moment changed everything in Skinner’s life. He knew he wanted to work in the wine industry, and that led him to South Seattle Community College’s wine program. It also sent him to local libraries, where he would check out books on wine — 10 at a time.
“There is not a shred of reading material related to wine that he hasn’t read,” Betz told Great Northwest Wine. “He has a depth of knowledge, and his analytical skills are very strong as a result.”
At South Seattle Community College, one of Skinner’s instructors was Kathryn House, then assistant winemaker at Betz Family Winery and now owner of House of Wine in Boise, Idaho. At the time, Skinner needed a harvest internship to complete his studies, so he landed at Betz for a few months.
Then Upchurch came calling.
From Betz to DeLille
Skinner got to know Upchurch while he was in the South Seattle Community College program because he’d also landed a job at Fine Wine & Cigars in Redmond – where Upchurch would shop. Because the two shared an interest in global wines, they became friends. And when Skinner was done with school, Upchurch decided to hire him.
“Like me, Louis comes from the point of view of wine appreciation,” Upchurch told Great Northwest Wine. “He started tasting wine from around the world while working retail. I look for people with a global palate.”
Skinner quickly realized he had landed at one of the state’s vaunted wineries and one of its most legendary winemakers. He spent the next three-plus years learning the craft from Upchurch.
“Chris and I get along really well because we both have this understanding that in order to make really good wine, you need to know what it tastes like,” Skinner said. “A lot of our time together was not necessarily just focusing on wine but focusing on what wines we still needed to taste in our lifetime.”
In 2013, the pair traveled to France, tasting their way through the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Beaujolais, the Rhône Valley and Provence.
Back to Betz
About a year ago, an opportunity arose for Skinner to return to Betz Family Winery – about three minutes down the road, depending on traffic. The chance to work more closely with Bob Betz was just too good, and Betz was more than happy with his return.
“I have the highest regard for his ability, his knowledge, his palate and his potential,” Betz said of Skinner. “You could tell (during his internship) that he had a precision with his thinking. You could tell that with experience, he was going to be a terrific winemaker.”
Skinner realizes just how fortunate he is to have been able to learn winemaking under the guidance of two accomplished winemakers, but he also is quick to point out that they are complete opposites.
“Though they’re both very focused at what they do, I don’t think Chris Upchurch would have any interest in making wine in the style of Bob Betz, and likewise for Bob,” Skinner said. “Bob loves every little detail and loves to go over it and over it and over it again to see if we can peel back any more layers or if we missed anything. Chris looks at it from a little more of a macro sense, I guess.”
The two longtime winemakers, friends and mutual admirers were quick to agree.
“I’m sure Bob has every sock in his drawer lined up perfectly,” Upchurch said. “I don’t even know where my socks are. Bob is scientific, detailed and exact. I have more of an attitude that things are going to be the way they’re going to be. I feel my way through life.”
Skinner said they often arrive at the same place but from two very different starting points.
“They both have a passion for what they do,” he said. “They know clearly what they want to do stylistically and where they’re going to go.”