Eve's Wine 101: Tasting with Vina Robles Winemaker Kevin, AKA My High School Boyfriend, Willenborg

Posted on: 09/13/2013 00:00

Earlier this year I went to Paso Robles’ first Cabernet Collective Festival celebrating the wineries that are making top-scoring Bordeaux blends.  At a barrel tasting (tasting wines that had to go at least another year in oak barrels before bottling and ultimately in the hands of consumers) I paused over my taste from Vina Robles for two reasons:

One was that it was the best wine in barrel I had that day and because the winemaker, Kevin Willenborg, greeted me by saying something like “I think we met in high school” and I replied, “Oh, I’m sure we dated in high school.”  This banter quickly escalated to a running joke about déjà vu, former lives, reincarnation, etc.

Fast forward to the night before I was to leave for a one-day Paso trip.  I emailed Willenborg, reminded him of our “connection” and asked if I could see him the next day.  He said yes.

Willenborg’s Vina Robles

The winery produces 30,000 to 35,000 cases a year.  Willenborg works with a a cellar master and vineyard manager but they’re not big enough yet to need an assistant manager.  On this warm mid-August day it wasn’t yet time to harvest so Willenborg had time to meet with me.

As far as the production of Cabernet, there are far more Cabs grown in Paso Robles than any other grape varieties.  Willenborg said that up until recently most of the grapes were trucked outside the county for processing by mostly North Coast established winery brands.   “These players recognized the quality and value early on from the region.”  He called it the “Colonization program”, as they are bringing their (Paso) fruit back to their “home base facilities” out of county.

The Cab Collective was started as people are enjoying the next level (better Cabs) that are now being made by more than just a few local producers.  And wine drinking consumers are now taking note of that.

As we readied ourselves for a tasting I noted the inviting grounds, a two-room retail store and an extra large tasting room with large floor-to-ceiling windows letting in natural light that was conducive for examining wines.   

Tasting with Willenborg

The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from the Jardine Vineyard was newly released just this July and is Kevin's first vintage here, prior to that he was at Rubicon Estate in Napa.  Kevin said it had good tropical fruit, while I noted pear, kiwi, cling peaches, fruit cocktail.  No barrel fermentation so the wine retained more fruit, all stainless steel, the wine had beautiful balance and acidity.  And as the wine is subjected to as little movement as possible, again to retain the fruit aromatics, Willenborg said that it even translated into your glass once emptied. He was right!  Oak masks aromatics, according to Willenborg, as it’s porous and takes away much of the fruit.  Here the Sauvignon Blanc is “fragile" and you want to “capture that” fruit.  Willenborg said, “With fresh fruit and no oak...it’s about freshness in the wine.”

2012 White Four is another new release and a blend of Viognier, Verdelho, Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc.  “Can’t do this kind of blending in Europe” Willenborg said. Aromas like that of a Riesling, jasmine and just-bit-peach; with flavors of dried apricots, (Kevin said mango) acidity, cream on the back palate, and tingly citrus fruits.  

2010 Red Four is a Rhone blend, not like the white, and comprised of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Mourvedre.  Willenborg thinks Paso is a “sweet spot” for Petite Sirah, and it delivers a richer mouthfeel, with aggressive and astringent tannins.  He said that a winemaker must "tame" the tannins – and the prevalent heat in the growing area help round out the tannins. Plums and dark cherry, black currant, stewed mushrooms all on the nose.  On the mouth I got black cherry, stewed plums, jammy, green peppercorns and softened tannins to the end, ready to drink now.  And at $17 it’s a damn good deal.

The 2010 Cabernet experienced crueler cooler weather than in 09 and 08.  Dark cherry, wet wood, black pepper, juicy, minty on the nose – and cassis according to Willenborg.  On the mouth it was bursting with black cherry and pepper, nice fruit, balanced tannins. I could drink this now.  

The 2010 Petite Sirah was yummy with mature fruit on the nose, and aromas of plums, leather, a nice viscosity, tannin fruit-forward, lush, smoky yet creamy.   Approachable now or lay it down. It’s harder for other areas to grow a Petite Sirah like this, rich and round without astringent tannins on the finish, Willenborg said.  I thought it was very well done.

2009 Suendero is a blend of 95% Cab and 5% Petit Verdot and had aromas of smoke, mint chocolate, blueberry, wet leaves.  Tastes of milk chocolate, red to blue fruits, toasted oak, incredibly full, drying with the fruit hanging in for a very long finish.   Drink now with food (or not) or age.  Fullest wine of the day.

2008 Syree blend is 82% Syrah and 18% Petite Sirah and silky smooth per Kevin.  I found a bowlful of dark, ripe fruits, forest floor, smoke, dark chocolate, black licorice.  In the mouth I got spicy jam, mushrooms, maybe steamed spinach, tannins and "structure" per Willenborg.  Age-worthy too.  

Blind Barrel Sample - I got lots of red to dark fruits, several layers and discovered it was a 2012 Petit Verdot!  Willenborg thinks both Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah do well here - where the fruit characteristics are more prevalent and the tannins naturally rounder.  The one we sampled will be released  in 2015.

Eve’s Conclusion: I did not meet a Vina Robles that I didn't like!  Visit!  Some are available in limited quantities.

Eve’s Wine 101 Event Picks: Wine Tasting Returns to Cheers@All Corked Up on 9/15 (reserve: 661-259-2000), www.SCVMusicFest.com is 10/4 & 10/5, Winter Pass in Santa Ynez runs 10/1 to 1/31, The Wine Affair: Sip, Stroll and Savor is 10/20, Sunset in the Vineyard is 11/3 and the third annual Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles from 11/7 through 11/9.


Eve Bushman is a local writer that specializes in writing about wine. You can find great articles by Eve on her blog at http://www.evewine101.com or email her at Eve@evewine101.com. Her commentaries represent her own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization she may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon. You can follow Eve’s Wine 101 on Facebook and Twitter!


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