Dunne on Wine

Starfield Vineyards, where the marketing plan bloomed before the wine

Tom Sinton strolls under the rose arbor he’s built at his Starfield Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County.
Tom Sinton strolls under the rose arbor he’s built at his Starfield Vineyards on Apple Hill in El Dorado County.

Choice grapes and smart winemaking are two of the three legs to prop up the dreams of aspiring vintners. The third is savvy marketing. Curiously, many vintners don’t give it much thought until bottles start to roll off the bottling line.

Not Tom Sinton. His marketing plan was conceived even before he bought 82 rolling and sunny acres at Highway 50 and Jacquier Road on Apple Hill east of Placerville in 2012.

At the philosophical core of his burgeoning Starfield Vineyards is hospitality. His marketing plan from the start called for matching fine wine with an embracing and imaginative setting. Terrific sites for vineyards still are available throughout California, he believes, but few also provide a “knockout venue” for hospitality, which facilitates the selling of wine.

“The Apple Hill area was always on my radar for hospitality potential, being near a major metropolitan area, having easy access to a freeway, with an established tourism industry,” Sinton says.

Only this fall did he harvest his first commercial crop from the 31 acres he’s planted. The inaugural El Dorado County wines under the Starfield brand won’t be released until next year, which is when he also hopes to build a winery on the site. And his estate won’t open to the public until the spring of 2018.

“I wanted to plant the best grapes for this area, and I wanted to introduce people to the foothills in a way that hadn’t been done before,” says Sinton as he gives a tour of the estate.

Here and there we get out of the way of lumbering dump trucks hauling in gravel. We pass craftsmen erecting a huge gate across a new entrance to the property. And we skirt past gardeners pruning the first roses to start climbing a massive iron arbor.

The arbor arcs 11 feet over a concrete path 12 feet wide. It stretches 330 feet from a hilltop residence that is to be converted into a tasting room, curves through blocks of grenache and mourvedre and ends up at an amphitheater that overlooks a small lake, on the other side of which rise the piers for a pavilion that is to hover over the water. It’s one of three ponds he’s dug on the property.

“All over Europe you can hike through vineyards in a way you can’t in California. You can get real close to the vineyard and feel it,” Sinton says. In California, on the other hand, people tend to visit a winery tasting room maybe once a year, with little incentive to venture into the vineyard or return. “But this is designed to be a place that people keep coming back to.”

Arbor, pavilion and amphitheater are parts of the lure, but so are about two miles of paved paths, embroidered with some 10,000 daffodils and hundreds of maple trees, scarlet oaks, cottonwoods, dogwoods, tupelos and other foliage. He didn’t plant all of them himself, but he picked out each spot, his vision being to provide visitors with shade and a shifting kaleidoscope of color from spring to fall.

He attributes his green thumb to his mother and grandmother, both avid gardeners. Indeed, his grandmother Nellie Hollister Jack and her rancher/developer husband, Robert Edward Jack, lived in an 1880s two-story Italianate home in downtown San Luis Obispo. The Jacks gave it to the city, which now opens the home and garden to visitors and uses the property for weddings and community gatherings.

Starfield Vineyards, designed by Sage Architecture of Sacramento, also will be a showplace, but Sinton isn’t sure how he will use it. Weddings and concerts are possibilities, but at this point he’s only mulling his options beyond drawing consumers. “I haven’t operationalized this yet,” notes Sinton, who figures he is investing around $12 million in the project.

Sinton is a member of a long line of farmers and ranchers in San Luis Obispo County. They included his grandfather Silas Sinton, a partner with venerated vintner Louis M. Martini in the L. M. Martini Grape Products Co. at Kingsburg in Fresno County, who made sacramental and medicinal wines and grape concentrate during Prohibition. At the time the Martini facility was believed to be the largest winery in California. This was before the elder Martini moved to Napa Valley, where a winery still bears his family’s name.

Tom Sinton drifted from the family’s farming heritage when he went to Harvard University, where he earned a degree in English literature in 1970. Afterward, however, he returned to the fold, joining an uncle in 1972 to develop Shell Creek Vineyards southeast of Paso Robles. As he managed the 200-acre vineyard, he also earned a master’s degree in food science with an emphasis on viticulture and enology at UC Davis in 1976 and 1977.

But then he veered again, selling his interest in the vineyard and undertaking studies at Stanford Business School in 1982, graduating with an MBA two years later. He founded ProBusiness, a payroll and human-resources outsourcing company, and sold it in 2003. He then created a similar company, which he also eventually sold. That freed him to return to the wine trade and the creation of Starfield Vineyards in 2011.

“I wanted to make Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon,” Sinton says. His initial concept, and the inspiration for the name “Starfield,” was to find premium vineyards – or “star fields” – for his wines, most of which are made by consulting winemaker Kian Tavakoli at Eleven Eleven Wines in Napa. (He also has had wine made in Bordeaux for the Starfield label. “When I got started with cabernet in Napa I got carried away and asked, ‘Why not try this in Bordeaux?’ ”)

When his son Robert switched from studying biochemistry to viticulture and enology at UC Davis, Sinton figured he’d better expand production beyond the 200 or so cases he’d been making for each vintage.

This led to a search for potential vineyard and winery property throughout the West. He saw a promising deal fall through at Paso Robles, concluded he’d rather not live in the Northwest and realized that logistically and financially Napa Valley wasn’t penciling out. “You need a huge amount of money to make an impact in Napa today,” Sinton says. “I couldn’t see how to do it in Napa, but I could see doing it here.”

He was drawn to the Mother Lode after tasting wines from Ann Kraemer’s vineyard along Shake Ridge Road east of Sutter Creek. “Here was a new vineyard in the foothills where you could produce terrific wine,” Sinton recalls thinking.

He settled on the 82 acres 2,400 feet up the Sierra foothills not only for the views it offers and the way the terrain could be altered to accommodate ponds and paths but also for its soils and exposures, which he felt would be ideal for Rhone Valley and other Mediterranean varieties.

“I planted varieties that I thought would do best here regardless of the property’s potential for marketing,” Sinton says. “It’s a Chateauneuf-du-Pape kind of region,” he adds, referring to a French village celebrated for its robust and layered wines.

He’s planted blocks of such traditional Rhone Valley varieties as syrah, counoise, marsanne and viognier as well as Italian grapes like aglianico, barbera and fiano and the Spanish variety tempranillo.

He hasn’t, however, planted any zinfandel, the variety most closely identified with the foothills. “I’ve had bad karma with zinfandel,” Sinton says, recalling that the zinfandel he’d planted at Paso Robles early on was extensively damaged by El Niño rains and humidity. “I’m not going to do zinfandel up here.”

This isn’t the first time that grapes have been planted on the property, Sinton says, noting there was a crop grown right after the Gold Rush. That early vineyard, however, went away during Prohibition, succeeded first by pears, then apples. Now it is back to grapes.

Ultimately, he expects Starfield to yield around 6,500 cases of wine per harvest. His current wines can be ordered through his website, www.starfieldvineyards.com. They include a 2013 Napa Valley sauvignon blanc ($26), a 2012 red blend from Bordeaux ($35) and the 2012 and 2013 vintages of his flagship wine, a husky Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon with the proprietary name “The Starbeam” ($65).

By late next year, after he hires a hospitality manager, he hopes to have Starfield wines in Sacramento wine shops and restaurants.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.