Kevin Willenborg joined Vina Robles Vineyards and Wine Estate in 2012, having already built a full resume as a winemaker at prestigious wineries such as Château Petrus in Bordeaux and Rubicon Estate in Napa.
A graduate of UC Davis, Willenborg originally planned to become an engineer, but changed course to winemaking and viticulture after his freshman year. After beginning his career alongside Jean-Claude Berrouet at Chateau Petrushe held key positions in winemaking and vineyard management at Louis M. Martini in St. Helena, California; Cedar Creek Estate in Kelowna, Canada; Firestone Vineyard in Los Olivos, California; and Rubicon Estate in Rutherford, California.
According to the Vina Robles website, he was inspired to join his team there after learning about owner Hans Nef and the family’s commitment to Paso Robles and their holistic approach to crafting fine wines. Nef grew up in a rural village outside of Zurich, Switzerland, eventually ran his own wine import business in the United States, and after discovering Paso Robles in the mid-1990s, partnered with a long-time friend and associate to plant the seeds for a new winery. . They began planting the first of six vineyards in 1997 and opened the winery in 1998.
Neff passed away in 2019, but his family continues his legacy. In April 2022, Kurt Ammann brought his nearly 20 years of experience in the wine industry as the new CEO of Vina Robles.
The Vina Robles Hospitality Center blends classic California Mission-style design with modern European elegance, providing a venue for events of all sizes and styles, including weddings, parties and corporate functions. It opened in 2007, depending on the website. In the summer of 2013, the Vina Robles Amphitheater held its grand opening and hosts several dozen world-class performers from April through October each year.
It is here that Willenborg excels in bringing out the terroir of each wine-growing site by operating with precision and delicacy in the cellar, according to his biography. He says: “Each wine has its own life. This life begins with the planting and development of the vine. It is then transferred from the earth through the vine as the grapes are harvested, crushed, fermented into wine and finally bottled. The role of the winemaker is to respectfully manage this life with care and attention to detail.
His signature wine Vina Robles is the Cabernet from the mountain path reserve“This wine embodies the unique terroir of Paso Robles with ripe blue and purple fruit tones, beautiful color and a rich, creamy palate that’s approachable yet age-worthy thanks to its naturally high acidity and structure,” says- he.
His work will be presented at Vina Robles 25th Anniversary Winemakers Dinnerscheduled for October 8.
PennLive sent Willenborg several questions about his work at the winery and the wines he produces.
His responses are below:
Q, So I read this: Kevin strives to let the terroir of each site shine through by operating with precision and delicacy in the vineyard & The cave. What are some of the details that you have introduced into your daily process of making great wines?
A, It all starts in the vineyard and each region and site is unique – fruit flavors, color and even textures are naturally produced by the vine. We fine-tune the work with the vine at each site to find an optimal balance – pruning, canopy management, crop thinning where necessary, and taste-based picking to help achieve rich, ripe varietal fruit, resulting in wines expressive that define the terroir of our Paso. Robles estate vineyards.
In the winery, it’s about extracting and retaining the flavors and textures in the wine with minimal intervention. From optical sorting of unwanted berries, extraction of flavours/colors/textures with bespoke automated pumping, gentle pressing cycles, purging of transfer lines with nitrogen to mitigate oxygen uptake , from controlling desired temperatures and climate throughout fermentation and aging, to monthly refilling of each barrel, all are just a few examples of how attention to detail along the way contributes to the making a great wine.
Q, Reading your biography, was there an “a-ha” moment when you decided to steer your career towards oenology? Someone you met? Somewhere you traveled?
A, It was more of a continuum of events that led to a career in winemaking that really came together when I took an introductory winemaking course as a student at UC Davis pursuing engineering studies at the time. A few years ago, in high school, one of my best friends, a much older brother who was an accomplished lawyer, said something to us that stuck with me: “If I had to do it again, I’d like to create something with my hands (rather than on paper). During my winemaking course, I felt that oenology fulfilled both this scientific and creative quest – I was also drawn to the idea of creating products that can bring people together.
Q, What do you like about working with Cabernet Sauvignon and the types of wines you can make with it?
A, Cabernet Sauvignon is not just about aromas and flavors, but also embodies texture and mouthfeel. It also expresses quite well the differences of terroir. Even at our estate vineyards here in Paso Robles, I tend to get more blackcurrant and licorice flavors with smoother expressed textures from our Huerhuero vineyard, while I get more dark cherry flavors and a little more structure and cream from our Creston Valley vineyard. From our higher Bear Valley and White Cliffs vineyards, with very limited limestone soils, I tend to taste more of the varietal’s blueberry and boysenberry notes with great color, natural acidity and rich, enveloping tannins. the palate – truly wines with phenomenal aging potential yet balanced enough to be drunk even early.
Q, I ask everyone this: what do you know now that you didn’t know when you started making wine? And is there one or two pieces of advice you would give to a young winemaker?
A, Humility – I like to joke with people that I feel like I know less now after 38 years in winemaking than when I graduated from UC Davis. I learned a lot of the science of winemaking in college – especially how to research, experiment and learn. I had a lot of preconceptions about making great wines after graduation, but you aren’t taught that per se – you have to figure it out for yourself. In reality, there are endless variables in winemaking [from terroir to bottle] challenge all that effort and I still learn new aspects every year.
As for the advice to give to someone starting out in oenology: Viticulture and oenology go hand in hand. Both in the vineyard and in winemaking, pay attention to your own observations throughout the cycle, from pruning to bottling. Constantly evaluate. Make your picking decisions on taste and textures, not numbers and taste all the way to bottling and beyond. Taste other wines, develop your own style and how to achieve it consistently. Winemaking experience in another region (at least one harvest).
Q, For those unfamiliar with Vina Robles wines, what are a few things they should know about them?
A, Incredible quality, integrity and value in one bottle – wines of purely delicious varietal character that showcase the rich, ripe fruit of the Paso terroir. All of our wines are sourced from our sustainably farmed vineyards with all picking decisions based on taste, not numbers. Wine is processed in our cellar designed for high quality wine production, including an optical sorting line, gravity feed systems, automated pumping devices as well as heating/cooling jackets on each tank to ultimate fermentation control, four individually temperature and humidity controlled barrel chambers for aging.
Q, How much time do you spend in the vineyard and what are you looking for when you are there?
A, Multiple times of the year by ensuring the vines and fruit load are balanced, proper light exposure in the fruit zone, assessing stress or vine vigor levels as well as d other signs. Almost every day [2-4 hours] before and during harvest, taste grapes to determine picking decisions – assess flavor as well as progression of skin and seed texture [it’s a race at harvest; having one foot in the vineyard and one in the winery].
Q, I guess, well, what kind of wines do you like to drink, and from where? Locally, or from somewhere in the country or the world? And do you have the opportunity to interact a lot with other winemakers?
A, I really like a lot of different types of wine from different regions and depending on what I eat or do. I like a good Cab, Petite Sirah and a Sauvignon Blanc as a go-to but also a good Pinot Noir or Champagne, but also many others. I still remember a 1982 William Selyem Pinot Noir in 1986 introducing me to California’s potential for great Pinot Noir and the Krug Grand Cuvée while visiting the cellars in 1985. I mainly interact with other winegrowers from the region during events. or during work weeks – a few at dinner parties. I also interact with winemakers that I have known throughout my career while also working in Napa, Bordeaux and Santa Ynez.
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