Meet a Farmer: Mark Fowler, Associate Winemaker at Skinner Vineyards
Growing up on a vineyard surrounded by vines had quite an impact on Mark Fowler. As a young adult he returned to his roots to study winemaking, and it’s turned into a fruit-full career at an outstanding California vineyard.
CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company and what your role is.
Mark: I’m the associate winemaker and viticulturist working with wines and our vineyard management company to meet goals and needs. I’m a Fresno State graduate with a degree in winemaking. My parents started a winery in the foothills in Ione in the late 70’s so I’ve been around vineyards most of my life.
The legacy of Skinner Vineyards and its wine goes back more than a century. Mike Skinner did not know about his family’s winemaking history. His son, Kevin and his wife, Kathy discovered that there had been a prominent family with the last name Skinner in the Rescue area during the gold rush. On a road trip to Tahoe, they detoured to Rescue and started to ask about the Skinner history. They found quite a few people with knowledge of the Skinner vineyard and eventually were able to connect Mike with a docent they met at a gold miners cemetery in Rescue. From there, Mike would continue the genealogical investigation to uncover the family’s history.
Skinner loved the history of the area and wanted to get back in the wine business. In 2007, they acquired the property, putting vineyards in and started making wines. In 2011 the winery and tasting room opened in its current location in Somerset.
CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?
Mark: My time is split between the cellar and the vineyard. On the wine side, we are proponents of a holistic approach to winemaking. The wine is actually made out in the vineyard. We don’t get our first look as the grapes show up and the winemaking begins. We look at all aspects of what is going on in the vineyards, including how the vineyard is designed and laid out, light exposure, soil types, and clones of root stock. We keep the varieties separate so that we have a lot of blending tools. We work on how much we manipulate the vines and crop loads, ultimately trying to dial in our brands and fine tune each of the wines we make and it all starts in the vineyard.
Our wine style and cellar is very hands off. We express site and location and give a true representation of our inputs along with Mother Nature and try not to have a heavy hand in manipulating the wines.
CA GROWN: What is your favorite thing about winemaking?
Mark: It’s never the same and I love the seasonality. By the time I start getting comfortable in a season, its awesome to see another phase come on. Right now, the growth phase is done and ripening is occurring and we are getting ready for harvest. Same thing is happening in the cellar. Wine is a living product and there is a seasonality to making it, whether its bottling or where it’s at in its maturation. Things are always changing and evolving and it keeps you on your toes.
CA GROWN: What are some ways your winery gives back to the community?
Mark: One of the Skinner sons is a fire chief and we give back to and support the local fire department. This is a rural area with a lot of trees and growth and the threat of fire is real so we do what we can to support the fire department. We do a crab feed and donate time and resources to the fire department. We also offer our facilities for charity events and we donate our wines for events and auctions. Even though the owners do not live in the community, they visit often and are committed to being a part of the community and giving back where they can.
CA GROWN: What’s your personal connection and what drew you into the winemaking profession?
Mark: My parents moving out of Orange County in the late 70’s and growing up in the vineyard environment shaped my future. Growing up in and around the vineyard, I was exposed to every aspect of winemaking. At one point after graduating high school, I just wanted to get away from the vineyard and then after my parents sold the vineyard, I realized that I really liked it and missed it. I started working at a few local wineries and then decided to go to Fresno State and get a degree in winemaking.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or pastimes when you’re not making wine?
Mark: I’ve been too busy to develop hobbies. Home renovation by default is what I spend some amount of time doing. I enjoy tasting different wines and learning about wine styles and techniques. I like beer but have not gotten into brewing. I enjoy learning about spirits production and cocktail culture. I enjoy food and experiencing what is going on locally in the food and beverage movement.
CA GROWN: As a California winemaker, we know that you have a long list of activities you undertake on your vineyard to care for the land and its resources. What are one or two ways that you’re most proud of or you feel are innovative ways you care for your land?
Mark: Our approach and philosophy is to farm organically. We work on building the soil while limiting the manipulation of soil. We rely heavily on Mother Nature and what she provides for the health of the land. Composting, cover cropping, and organic spray procedures are a few things we do as a part of our sustainability measures. Our fermentations are native and we limit inputs and how much we manipulate wine so we get a real true feel for the site and vineyard in the wines.
We are also in the process of building solar to minimize our energy consumption. We are trying to blend in with community and environment and be responsible stewards of the land.
CA GROWN: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Mark: Tasting the final product and experiencing the vintage in a time capsule. All the hard work from start to finish is reflected in that bottle of wine. Seeing the fruits of our labor represented in the taste of the wine is very rewarding.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a winemaker?
Mark: Do research and develop a palate for wine. Internships are a good way to learn the business. You need to have a love for the wine business because it requires long, hard days. It is a lot of dirty and dusty work and certainly not glamorous. Make sure you know what you’re getting into because it is a difficult industry if you don’t have a passion for it.