Mike Skinner, 50, is a champion NASCAR truck racer. He's a native of Susanville, Calif., who moved to North Carolina as a young man in order to properly pursue his racing ambitions. His first NASCAR race was in 1986, and he joined Richard Childress' team in 1995, winning the inaugural Craftsman Truck Series that year. He was named Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1997, exceeded the $1 million mark in single-season earnings for the first time in 1998, and for the past three years has led the series in pole positions, earning a whopping 11 in 2007. Through his extensive travels on the racing circuit, Skinner has developed an abiding love of wine, and has amassed a 1,200 bottle collection in the Florida home he shares with his wife, Angela. Skinner recently spoke with Wine Spectator about Italian house wine, the joy of finding bargains, and being "converted" to red wine.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Mike Skinner: I was driving for Richard Childress, and my teammate was the late Dale Earnhardt. We'd go to nice places—Ruth's Chris or Morton's—to eat, and I'd have a glass of white wine and put ice cubes in it. I was embarrassing them all so bad, and Richard and Dale decided to convert me. At the time I thought red wine was too bitter, too dry, but they asked me, "Have you ever had good red wine?" Which is what I now ask people who are afraid of wine. So the first good bottle I drank was an Altamura, and from then on, it turned into a hobby for me. It's real easy to spend $300 or $400 and get a good bottle of wine, so the hobby became finding the $15 to $25 bottle of wine that drinks like that $100 bottle.
I've been through "eggs are bad for you," "milk is bad for you," all the things that I grew up eating and drinking have all been bad for you at some point, and the only thing I can think of where they haven't been able to come up with anything that's bad in it, besides water, is red wine. I think that says a lot.
WS:What's in your wine cellar?
MS: When we lived in North Carolina, I built a little cellar that held about 400 bottles. In the home we're in now, in Florida, we have a 1,200-bottle cellar. I always tell my wife, "I want this stocked up very nice, so in case we ever have hard times, at least we'll have good wine." [Laughing.] I'm a big California wine guy, and for the most part I'm loyal to my country. I'd say our cellar is about 85 percent California, but my wife and I love Australian wines, Chilean wines .... We just found Heartland Shiraz the other day for $15 and it was just awesome. And we've always loved the Estancia Meritage. When I started drinking it, it was maybe $18, and it might be $25 now. It's always been a real good, consistent wine.
WS: Have you done much travel to wine-producing regions overseas?
MS: Well I love Brunello di Montalcino, and that's one of the reasons we went to Italy last year. I love that when you go to Italy, the house wine at a humble little lunch restaurant is phenomenal. The cheap wines in Italy are better than our cheap wines in America, but I think that their expensive wines aren't any better than our expensive wines.
WS: Have you noticed an increased interest in wine among the NASCAR crowd?
MS: Absolutely. Jimmy Johnson, who won the Nextel cup in 2007, he enjoys good wine. Jeff Gordon enjoys good wine. There are a lot of people in our sport now that get it, and I think part of that is going to nice dinners with sponsors, and going to Sonoma to race [at Infineon Raceway]. We recently had an awards banquet with a cocktail party beforehand, and the Toyota folks were nice enough to hand out Opus One to all of us.
WS:Is there a "dream wine" that you'd love to have for your collection?
MS: Well I've got a few trophies … I've got some old Bonny's Vineyard Silver Oak, which they haven't made in a long time. I have some wines that I probably need to drink sooner than later. Frank Altamura makes my favorite wine, and I've had the opportunity to go into the archives with him and drink some stuff that wasn't even released—he's made some Chardonnays just for personal consumption that I thought were great.
WS: Do you have a preference for screw caps or cork closures?
MS: Well I know it really doesn't make any difference; what makes the difference is the juice that's inside, but there's just something about pulling that cork out of that bottle … if it's a pretty good wine, I feel weird about unscrewing the cap and then decanting it. Like, this ain't right! [Laughing.]
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