About Paul Skinner, Ph.D

Dr. Paul Skinner

Dr. Paul Skinner discussing a soil sequum with  Prof. Genxing Pan, Soil Science Dept. Nanjing Agricultural University

Paul Skinner, Ph.D. has been consulting on all aspects of growing super premium quality wine grapes since the early 1980’s. While still working on his Ph.D. at UC Davis, Paul was asked by individual growers and by growers groups from around CA to talk about his research characterizing for the first time the phosphorus nutrition of grapevines. This research led to new management strategies with regard to fertilizer applications through the drip system, leaf tissue testing in the laboratory, and crop assessment through cluster primordia quantification as well as the effects of phosphorus deficiency on the growth and production of all major wine grape varieties.

After receiving his Ph.D. in Soil Science and Viticulture in 1988, Paul set out to become one of the first problem solving consultants the industry had seen outside of the UC system. Working for wine industry icons like Louis M. Martini and Charlie and Chuck Wagner at Caymus Vineyards, Paul quickly found a niche for bringing current and developing research into the practical world of growing grapes and making wine. The phylloxera epidemic of the late 80’s required the re-planting of large acreages of Napa and Sonoma county vineyards in a relatively short time period. Paul’s years of prior experience and expertise in mapping soils in the Peace Corps and with the USDA Soil Conservation Service and USDA Forest Service, was immediately put to use as the new phylloxera resistant rootstocks were “super sensitive” to soil conditions, in particular to soil texture and water holding capacity.

As a result in the early 1990’s, Paul mapped thousands of acres of potential new planting acreages throughout CA, NY, VA, OR and WA as well as northern Mexico. After these vineyards were planted however, the more difficult tasks of managing the vigor of the vines to produce super-premium quality fruit became Paul’s major occupation. During this time Paul worked for many of the major wineries in Napa and Sonoma, including Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home, Domaine Chandon, Hanzell, Hess Collection, Sebastiana, Chateau St. Jean, Whitehall Lane, Chimney Rock, Iron Horse, as well as the many of the newcomers, including, Pride Mountain, Paloma, Terra Valentine and David Abreu’s portfolio of clients. Paul also saw clients out of the area incuding Tualatin and Willamete Valley vineyards in OR, Guenoc in Lake County, Delicato and Gallo Modesto in the central SJV, and MerSoleil, J. Lohr and Treana on the Central Coast.

Given approval to experiment in some of his clients vineyards, after harvest every season and during the winter months, Paul traveled the world bringing back many new ideas from Europe, South Africa, Israel and Australia for trial use in his client’s vineyards at home. From new plant materials scions and rootstocks, to training and pruning systems, trellis configurations, and equipment Paul brought back ideas and hardware that proved useful to his clients.

Now Paul is using all of his expertise honed over the previous two decades to focus on his clients top criteria of producing optimum yields of the highest quality fruit possible from every vineyard that they farm. This means knowing the site and the soil from every aspect, including seasonal climate, soil texture, soil fertility levels, soil restrictions and soil water status, to mention just a few of the many aspects Paul has become expert in.  Balancing the soil and the rootstock characteristics, Paul uses the latest soil moisture and plant sensing technologies as well as his intuitive feel for how a grapevine should look and perform at each important stage during the growing season.

Thus during the growing season, Paul directs both irrigation and fertilization practices based not only on the current state of the vines but with a well-trained and knowledge based approach from having done research on the long term seasonal carry-over effects of vine water and nutritional stresses on both vine growth and more importantly fruit production.

As the season progresses and vine crop load and canopy start to develop, Paul utilizes his many years of working with vines on all types of training and pruning systems; from 40 yr old head trained vines, to quadralateral GDC systems, CA sprawl, single wire high cordon, modified GDC, quadralateral lyre, Sylvoz, vertical cordons, VSP, Y-trellis, and mxm Guyot Paul has worked with or experimented on just about every spacing and trellis configuration that is being used in vineyards today.

In Paul’s own vineyard, Kidd Ranch in St. Helena, he has planted Syrah using the oldest stake and training system, sometimes referred to as echalas, that is probably still in continual use since the Romans planted Syrah on the steep slopes of the northern Rhone. Growing and producing wine from the vigorous Syrah planted on a 1.2 m x 1m spacing with sometimes only 6-8 shoots per vine has proven to be a task that continually challenges all of Paul’s knowledge and expertise.

Canopy management techniques including the timing and extent of early season leafing by hand or with mechanized systems is something Paul has researched thoroughly and been the first to adapt to CA vineyards on a large scale. Crop load adjustments also prove critical to the vines ability to weather the desirable deficit irrigation strategies that Paul implements in most of his clients vineyards. Deficit irrigation and its effects on future bud development and cluster differentiation bring added importance to the vine nutritional strategies that need to be implemented during the growing season. Paul’s knowledge of vine nutrition is based on years of study with the best plant and vine nutritionists of the 20th century including, Emmanuel Epstein, Andre  Lauchli,  Mike Reisenauer, Robert Carlson, and James Cook, all Professors at UC Davis during Paul’s Ph.D. study there.
As the season moves toward harvest, Paul’s familiarity and work with some of the best wine makers in the business, including; Tony Soter, Bob Levy, Helen Turley, Robert Foley, Heidi Barret, Mark Aubert, Tom Smith, Steve Kistler, Bob Sessions, Doug Fletcher, and Chuck Wagner, to name just a few,  have instilled in him an appreciation for and knowledge of the challenges they face in trying to continually make the best wines in the world.

Paul’s own wine making efforts from his Kidd Ranch vineyard have brought his experience full circle. On just over 2 acres, Kidd Ranch produces close to 300 total cases of Sequum Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah wines. This effort has provided first hand experience of the workings of the distribution networks, and marketing and sales arenas that drive the rapidly changing wine industry today.

Most recently Paul has served as the lead consultant directing a team of consultants to locate, analyze, and develop 1,000 new acres of “state of the art” vineyards in northern China. This chapter in Paul’s continuing quest to extend his viticultural expertise has yet to be completed…