A time for change: Mike Sinor winemaker of the year, Part II

This blog continues to follow Mike Sinor’s transformation from Assistant winemaker to Byron and Domaine Alfred wineries in California’s Central Coast, to the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery. Please look for the first post in the series: Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor

Sinor LaValle owner directs Ancient Peak Winery

“It was the lowest point in my life,” winemaker Mike Sinor said, after dealing with the deaths of family members in January 2006. “My head was all messed up. Yet even before my loss, I had already begun contemplating a change in work for both me and my family. I knew six months before [family deaths] a new challenge was needed. I believed my time with Terry Speizer [Domaine Alfred] was coming to an end, I just didn’t know it would happen so soon after my parents died. But despite what we were going through, I now knew it was time for me to explore another level of winemaking.”

Bernie Sinor on one of his hunting trips to Wyoming where he hunted big game (bison) in 2004.

Little did Sinor know at the time, but the 2012 Central Coast winemaker of the year, would have a 2006 spring to remember, even while mourning the loss of his father, Bernie Sinor and stepmother, Betty Ann.

“I needed to change positions because I could see Domaine Alfred was growing as we became successful, much the same way Byron Wines grew,” Sinor said. “Even before the 96-point score Wine Spectator gave the 2004 Domaine Alfred Pinot Noir [Califa Chamisal Vineyard], I needed a business opportunity. I was saying ‘no’ to a lot of jobs and wanted to do something right for my family. Yeah, it was crushing when my parents were killed and we endured a high level of personal pain. So Wine Spectator’s honor came at the lowest point in my life but I already had decided to leave. I knew there would never be a perfect time to change. And I know growth often comes through uncomfortableness. Terry understood I needed to leave. He’s a good friend and an entrepreneur himself.”

During the spring of 2006, when local proprietors and long-time wine growing families of Rob Rossi, Doug Filipponi and Karl Wittstrom approached Mike with a opportunity to be the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery, Sinor jumped at the chance to join them in May.

“I had never met these guys from the Santa Margarita Ranch, but from the start, it was a convergence of energies and focus,” Sinor said. “They had been reorganizing the operation at Santa Margarita starting in 2005 and it seemed a good fit. We became business partners rather than an employer/employee relationship. I wanted to have control over the winemaking process and they were comfortable with that. So, I said, ‘let’s start dating’ and we’ve been together ever since.”

Santa Margarita Ranch July 2012

Mike Sinor and I spent the day together at the historic Santa Margarita Ranch, just minutes north of San Luis Obispo, July 26. I wanted to find out why he had left promising positions at Domaine Alfred and Byron Wineries. The man who thrived on creating lasting relationships through his infectious attitude and positive, passionate energy, left sure-fire success for a restart winery. I wanted to find out why he had stayed on at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.

Mike Sinor left Domaine Alfred Winery after receiving an offer to be the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita. The Oyster Ridge Vineyard is in the foreground with the Santa Lucia Mountains providing the backdrop.

While we met briefly at the Ancient Peaks’ tasting room, Mike pulled out a large coffee table book, offering a pictorial and historical background of the ranch and Santa Margarita. I was moved by his attention to names, places, land formations and background of the region. His perspective was so impassioned, it was as if he had been born there. Mike then offered to take me up to the working winery and vineyards. I agreed and looked forward to the 17-mile drive up into the heart of the Santa Margarita Ranch, through pastures of Slender Wheatgrass, Purple Needlegrass and Danthonia Oatgrass.

Mike’s 20-minute version of Ancient Peaks Winery and its history included how Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi Winery leased a section of the ranch in 1999 for six years. They developed and planted what has become known as Margarita Vineyard. Remarkably, it was the Mondavi family who saw immense potential in the land, and accurately predicted that its diverse soils and marine-influenced climate would deliver remarkable wines.

While the vineyards and winery are 17 miles away near the Margarita Vineyard, the Ancient Peaks tasting room is in Santa Margarita, one mile east of Highway 101.

Our conversation digressed to include how the Franciscan missionaries planted grapes on the ranch as early as 1780. In fact the ranch became part of Father Junipero Serra’s famed Mission Trail, culminating with the establishment of Santa Margarita de Cortona, a sub-mission of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, in 1787. This historic structure, known as the Asistencia, was converted to a barn but remains a centerpiece of the ranch.

Santa Margarita Ranch has survived since the 1840s; however, in 1889, then owner Patrick Murphy sold much of the town’s land to Southern Pacific Railroad in hopes of getting a rail stop. He hoped to move cattle from this sprawling ranch that surrounded Santa Margarita.

Mike Sinor: Super charged, relational winemaker

Mike started humming the tune to Smokey and the Bandit as we neared the winery, located near Creston. When I asked why, he smiled and said this project is just like the song indicated. “We are just old-time entrepreneurs working on a project by the seat of our pants.” I didn’t ask him if he fit the Burt Reynolds persona or Jerry Reed’s truck driver character. But I did get the gist of the metaphor: Sinor delivers–no, Sinor over delivers wine quality for the price point. I can still see the gleam in his eyes as he gripped the steering wheel and sang, “We gonna do what they say can’t be done.”

However, while we walked around the Ancient Peaks Winery, I remembered what Ken “Byron” Brown told me about Sinor: Mike was a good-humored, energetic, young winemaker while he worked at Byron Winery years earlier.

“Mike Sinor stands out as a super-charged, friend of all; every one likes him,” Brown said. “He takes time for relationships but not at the expense of his work. Mike is extra double energy. He brought excitement to the team and ignited everyone at Byron each day.”

During his winemaking career, Mike Sinor, right, worked with Tim Mondavi, left, and Ken “Byron” Brown while creating wines with Byron Winery.

As we walked by the 2011-filled barrels safely tucked away in the aging room, we got to talking about wine, Mike’s preferences and who he enjoys working with besides his partners at Ancients Peaks.

“Actually, I don’t drink a lot of Ancient Peaks wine at home,” Sinor said. “It’s a little like only eating your mom’s spaghetti. If I drink the wines I help create everyday, I won’t get better. Like Burgundy’s winemakers, I want to make wines as good as their grandparents. We don’t have a rich, long history and culture of winemaking like they do in France. So if I’m not improving my pallet, I’m losing.”

Sinor went on to say he chooses to enjoy friend’s wines and finds it refreshing to try different wines from around the world.

Since 2007, Mike Sinor has been the director of winemaking at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.

“For instance, I really like Broadside Wines Cabernet. It is made by winemakers Chris Brockway [Broc Cellars] and Brian Terrizzi [Giornata wines] who are very passionate about wine that is done well; their wines transmit place. In other words, their wines exhibit my mantra: ‘The message is the place; the messenger is the wine.'”

As we continued to walk the grounds of the winery, Mike showed me how Ancient Peaks has added buildings and updated the old Creston Manor and Vineyards that Jeopardy! game show host Alex Trebek used to farm. The latest addition was in spring of this year when extensions were added to the Margarita Vineyards.

Story is unfolding, evolving in vineyards

Our trip across the ranch ended when we stood on a rise overlooking the Oyster Ridge Vineyards. I marveled at Mike’s zeal as he spoke of the land, rich in fossils from an ancient sea bed, adjacent to vineyards planted in shale, sedimentary, volcanic and granite. Mike was spirited and had a fanaticism or fixation on soil that many in this country have for baseball or football. And when we stopped to walk the Oyster Ridge Vineyard, he held a football-sized, petrified crustacean like it was a trophy.

“These (oysters) are high in calcium and, when they are crushed or broken down, create a soil profile similar to those found in the world’s most prestigious grape growing regions.” Sinor beamed as he spoke and the pace of his voice quickened, rising in intensity while we moved from row to row.

The Ancient Peaks Oyster Ridge Vineyard soils include crushed and larger pieces of ancient, petrified crustaceans. The vineyard was a part of a large seabed millions of years ago.

He spoke about the legacy of environmental stewardship at Margarita Vineyard as if it was his own child. The vineyard advanced to “Sustainability in Practice (SIP),” and was certified by the Central Coast Vineyard Team in 2010.

“There still are places that are compelling to plant but I am still trying to figure out who we are and how to stay on target,” Sinor said. “We have five wines at Ancient Peaks and three White Label wines. And with the longest running ranching operations in California and new zip line business always demanding attention, I am determined to stay in constant watch to focus the winery’s goals to offer high wine quality for the price point.”

Wine Spectator agreed with Mike’s assertion and promoted Ancient Peaks as “Best of the West for $25 or less… 2009 Zinfandel, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Merlot” in their April 2012 issue.

The 300-400 cases of Sinor-LaVallee [Mike Sinor’s personal label] wines are created from about 14 rows of fruit from the Talley-Rincon Vineyard in the Edna Valley.
I asked Mike how he ensured there was not a conflict of interest between his Sinor-LaVallee label and the Ancient Peaks wines he consulted on.

“I am working with about an acre of fruit from the Talley-Rincon Vineyard and the Sinor-LaVallee wines I make are not meant to compete with Ancient Peaks,” Sinor said. “I am working with 2-4 barrels of wine from 14 rows. Actually, the diversity of exposure is what makes my consulting for Ancient Peaks exciting. The time spent with both brands requires and puts into practice a balance of reading/studying, keeping me fresh. This is fun! I’m honored to do this. Do the math: I get to live at the beach.”

Mike Sinor is married to Cheri and they live in the Edna Valley with their two children: Tomas (12) and Esmee (10). All four of their thumb prints appear on every bottle of the family wine label. “By definition, I am an alcoholic,’ Sinor said, “but I mimic a healthy lifestyle to my children, showing them how to live responsibly.

“I look to enjoy and share my life wife my family and community in good and bad,” Sinor said. “We are born to suffer, grow to overcome suffering. I have my dad’s and previous winemaker’s work ethic. They inspired me and now I work with many of my heroes.”

Mike currently is the President of the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association and says he likes to volunteer his time in community events and organizations because “The wine business has given me everything I own. I owe it to wine.”

The Sinor-LaVallee wine label is named after Mike’s Spanish heritage and Cheri’s French last name. The Sinors appear here during their 2004 Burgundy trip and winery visits.

For more information on Ancient Peaks Winery and wines, visit Ancient Peaks Winery or Mike’s personal web site: Sinor-LaVallee Wines.

Get to know 2012 Coast winemaker of the year: Mike Sinor

Sinor LaValle owner a central coast mentor

Earning Wine Spectator’s praise for a 96-point Pinot Noir wasn’t enough to keep Mike Sinor fulfilled. In fact, neither was flying from Santa Maria to Napa for wine and dine lunches on a private Gulfstream jet. The trips to Burgundy and Bordeaux, France, to study winemaking and wine dinners with the Rothschilds were wonderful, but the ‘perks’ and awards always came while working for someone else.

After returning from France in 1996, Mike Sinor started his own wine label, Sinor-LaVallee, with his wife, Cheri, in 1997.

When the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and San Luis Obispo Vintners Association each named Mike Sinor California’s ‘2012 Central Coast Winemaker of the Year’ in mid July, the  Visalia, California, transplant soon traveled back to the Central Valley for a promotional event at The Market. Later that evening, Mike and I chatted at Trelio Restaurant during a wine dinner event. We agreed to meet a week later at the fabled Santa Margarita Ranch and  Ancient Peaks Winery, just south of  Templeton, Calif., in order for me to better understand the man behind the honor.

While Mike was raised in the center of agriculture in the State, his father, Bernie, an avid pilot, sold heavy construction equipment as owner and operator of Sinor and Sons Equipment company. Bernie gave young Mike plenty of opportunities to work on the job sites or at the family-owned Fresno junk yard. Mike spoke fondly of his father’s staunch commitment to his business, working hard but taking time to play hard with the family.

Bernie and Mike often went hunting together, and while it did not often include big game, father and son hunted doves in the foothills of Madera. And like many Central Valley residents, the family made numerous trips to Cayucos which is where Mike’s love of the beach began.

But working for Dad was not a part of Mike’s plan. College and the Central Coast beaches lured the high school graduate. The teenager ended up in San Luis Obispo; Mike enrolled at California Polytechnic State University [Cal Poly], ready to become the first college graduate in his family (Mike’s sister, Teri LaFleur, is now a 3rd grade teacher in Woodlake).

I spent a morning with Mike Sinor, right, at Center of Effort in the Edna Valley where he works with a number of other winemakers and also creates his  Sinor-LaVallee brand.

“I was ready to go out on my own,” Sinor said. “My dad taught me my work ethic: to work hard and throw myself into it. So when I wanted to go to college, I had his blessing but I had to pay for it, work for it.”

Sinor’s upbringing, like many from the Central Valley, brought a love for the coast; Cal Poly was a natural choice. The Sinor family encouraged Mike to take responsibility for his education at an early age but expected him to pay for college. He entered Cal Poly hoping to become a high school shop teacher; however, upon meeting his future wife, Cheri, in a Chemistry 101 class, that dream changed: a love for each other and the wine-making journey was born near the beach in 1991.

Many Central California teenagers dream of leaving the San Joaquin Valley for a college beach experience. Mike Sinor left Visalia for San Luis Obispo and a degree from Cal Poly.

“My first job on the Central Coast was on old Corbett Canyon Road when I was 21,” Sinor said, “where I worked at many wineries, including Corbett Canyon Winery; that is where my winemaking training started. Claiborne and Churchill, Chamisal Vineyards, Saucelito Canyon, and Windemere Winery over the next three years (’91-’94). Initally, I had no idea what I was doing,” Sinor continued, “but these area wineries and winemakers became my community.”

Mike did more than just put in time at local wineries. He became a part of their families, including Bill and Nancy Greenough’s at Saucelito Canyon.

“We had previously lost a daughter when Mike showed up to work at our vineyard,” Nancy said. “While I had college kids around to be a positive influence to our youngest (Margaret and Tom), Mike Sinor lived out his time with us like their older cousin. Besides working that first harvest with us, there was not a job he wouldn’t do. Mike is an extremely positive person, has clear values, hardworking, and enthusiastic. He always did a job well.”


Whether Mike picked the kids up from school or punch downs three times per night, Nancy said Mike found joy in whatever task he undertook. She never felt awkward about asking him to do the “crappy job” or the worst job at the winery. Mike had a Valley Boy reputation: always hard working. No job was beneath him.

“Mike was like a Junk Yard Dog,” Bill Greenough said. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix: from tractors to wine equipment. Actually, I don’t know why he initially wanted to become involved with wine but he was so curious.

He always wanted a better way to do things, even if it involved the worst of jobs. He always volunteered: ‘I’ll do that…no problem.’ He willed himself to learn the wine process. He was so attuned to sensory changes to wine, juice, the smells, fermentation, pressing, barreling. His nose was always busy. He keeps an eye on stuff; his senses became like a hound dog sniffing, sniffing it out.”

Mike and Cheri’s personal wine label is Sinor-LaValle. Mike’s Spanish family heritage is the Sinor and Cheri’s background is French; thus the LaVallee.

Sinor not only had time for the wine business and babysitting the kids, but the Greenoughs said Mike took so much pride in completing even unusual tasks.

“We had this VW wagon sitting on our property; it had been parked for 10 years,” Nancy said. “Mice had moved into the camper: a 1966 Volkswagen Westfalia. Mike took it completely apart, got rid of the mice and put back together. He always brought out the best in people. The kids loved him.”

Today, Mike no longer wears a pony-tail under his baseball cap, something that Bill jokingly chided him for while Sinor lived in a house in the vineyards. Sinor, while living out a ‘Rush Limbaugh work ethic in the morning and country music in the afternoon,’ has given back to the Greenoughs. He has helped mentor Tom Greenough as he took over as Saucelito Canyon’s winemaker.

“I discovered myself because of them,” Sinor said. “They introduced me to my livelihood and I became so close to them; I not only worked by day, but I occasionally took care of their kids in the evening. Not only do I love my career but I also love the land and the people I am indebted to for my success. I love this community; it raised me.”

After graduating with a degree in Industrial Technology, Sinor began working for the Robert Mondavi family at Byron Vineyard in Santa Maria during the harvest of 1994. He rapidly gained respect as moved up from his cellar position to Assistant winemaker to Ken ‘Byron’ Brown.

Sinor’s background and passion for the land and vineyards also increased as he made two trips to France to study French winemaking processes with a focus on the vineyards and domains of Burgundy. These trips became even more personal as he married Cheri while on a trip to  Beaune, Burgundy, in 1996. A year later, Cheri and Mike started their own label: Sinor- LaVallee Wine Company. Their name is a ‘marriage’ of their two heritages: Sinor-Spanish and LaVallee-French. Their focus? Like that of their shared love: 300-400 cases of Pinot Noir.

Sinor worked with Byron Vineyards and Winery until November of 2000; he had seen production quadruple, a new winery built, and hundreds of new acreage planted. He left Byron after four years for his first winemaker position at Domaine Alfred [Chamisal Vineyard] in the Edna Valley and never looked back, despite what he gave up.

Sinor began his winemaking journey at Byron Vineyards and Domaine Alfred, where his 2004 Domaine Alfred Pinot Noir Edna Valley Chamisal Vineyards Califa earned 96-points from Wine Spectator. He currently works at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.

“It was very emotional for me to leave Byron after working with incredible people and the Mondavi family,” Sinor said. “No one could believe I was willing to give up the private jet excursions from Santa Maria to Napa for lunch or trips to Burgundy to learn more about winemaking. Why would this little guy from Visalia give up drinking with the Rothschild family?”

Domaine Alfred had been a small winery renewed by owner Alfred “Terry” Speizer. He planted the dormant vineyard with the latest French clones, including six Pinot Noir and five Chardonnay clones, in the mid 1990s. Speizer made Sinor his winemaker in November 2000.

“I felt a need to change,” Sinor said. “There is never a perfect time for change. I knew personal growth comes from uncomfortableness. So I risked and Terry gave me control over 80 acres of vines and the winemaking. We made a good team.”

The two worked the vineyards to near perfection for five and a half years, expanding and tinkering with the vineyards.

Sinor’s mantra is passionate: Wine done well will transmit its environment.

After 5 1/2 years as Domaine Alfred’s winemaker, Sinor felt like a change was imminent. He had offers for a lot of jobs but the opportunities were not a right fit.

“The message is the place, the messenger is the wine,” Sinor said.

Wine Spectator agreed with Sinor and put Domaine Alfred on the map on June 15, 2006. They rated the 2004 Domaine Alfred Pinot Noir Edna Valley Chamisal Vineyards Califa. This was the highest score their critics had ever rated any Central Coast Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay, Syrah, and Grenache also earned acclaim.

As a winemaker from a world class winery, Sinor led the Central Coast into notoriety. Sinor joined Brian Talley and a group of vintners who pioneered a new organization in 2001: The World of Pinot. He served on the board of directors for 10 years. Countless others in the industry kept him busy for interviews and consulting. Mike and Cheri’s Sinor-LeVallee wine label continued its own success in the Edna Valley and all seemed right. All seemed right to everyone except Mike and Cheri.

“Even before Wine Spectator came out and gave our pinot the high score, I was already thinking my time at Domaine Alfred was coming to an end,” Sinor said. “I knew a major grow of the brand was coming; we built a new winery and would need to hire more people to support the increased production. Both Cheri and I knew we didn’t want to stay much longer. I had lots of offers to leave but nothing seemed right. It was time to explore another level and personal growth but I didn’t want to do a job I have done before.

Family and community relationships continue to shape Mike and Cheri Sinor. In this 2003 family photo, Cheri holds a reluctant Tomas and Mike cradles Esmee.

“Some people said I left [Domaine Alfred] because of the accident. But I had been thinking about leaving since the fall of 2005, months before the high score and our time of grieving.

The Sinor family’s direction changed forever, Jan. 13, 2006. On a routine flight back to Visalia’s Municipal Airport, Mike lost his dad, Bernard “Bernie” Sinor, his stepmother, Betty Ann, and his stepsister’s two children. The plane crash claimed all their lives and reshaped Mike’s next steps.

Please check out A time for change: Mike Sinor winemaker of the year, Part II. Read as Mike overcame his great loss and accepted a new challenge at Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita, Calif. His wife, Cheri, and Mike still produce Sinor-LeVallee wines and continue to be leaders in the Edna Valley winemaking community.