Kieran Robinson Wines: Rhone inspired, Sonoma Made

Fog rolling through Bennett Valley, Sonoma.

Fog rolling through Bennett Valley, Sonoma.

Kieran Robinson Wines is a hidden gem just outside of Healdsburg, Sonoma. It's literally off the beaten path, but I think that Kieran's wines are well worth the trek along the winding roads. He makes rich, savory Syrah and surprisingly refreshing Viognier, both remenicient of the Rhone wines that made him fall in love with the varietals. Last summer I visited Kieran for a tasting and a chat. I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my conversation with him!   

How did you first get into the wine industry?

I went to Ithaca College in upstate New York, near the Finger Lakes wine region. I needed a job and thought, what better place to work during college than at a winery? So, my senior year I got a job a small winery. In the fall, I picked grapes and worked on the crush pad. Come winter, I helped with bottling and worked the tasting room. In that year, I just sort of fell in love with the wine business. 

What had you been studying in school?

I studied environmental science and had planned to go into politics to work on environmental policy. But, I interned one summer for a congressman in D.C. and realized politics wasn’t for me.

Fortunately, the jump from environmental science to wine wasn’t that big. It was easy for me to get a handle on the biology and chemistry involved in making wine.

What did you do after college?

I moved back to Philadelphia, where I’m from, and got a job at a winery about an hour outside of the city. I worked there for three years and, though it’s not a renowned winegrowing region, it was a great experience for me. There were just two of us in the cellar, so I really got to learn winemaking from crush to bottle. The wines we made ran the gamut—from dry Cabs to sweet wines made from French-American hybrid grapes. I discovered that I really liked working with my hands and creating things.

After that you did work in a renowned wine region—Northern Rhone—how did that come about?

A friend’s girlfriend was a wine broker who sold some wine for Domaine Pierre Gaillard in the U.S. She knew Gaillard like to hire foreign interns, so she connected me with him and I jumped at the opportunity. I told my girlfriend at the time (now wife, Kristie) that I was moving to France and asked if she wanted to come with me. She pretty much quit her job the next day to go with me. We took some conversational French classes and we were off. We got to France just in time to work harvest.

What was your biggest takeaway from your experience in the Rhone?

Really understanding the "sense of place and time" of wine. I remember, that November after harvest, we did a blind tasting of the wines from about 70 different vineyard blocks from Gaillard and a few neighboring wineries. The winemakers were able to pick out, with incredible accuracy, not only their specific vineyard blocks but their neighbors blocks as well. That was my real ‘ah-ha’ moment for understanding terroir. I could taste how site really drives the characteristics of a wine—that wines have different personalities depending on where they are grown.

How long were you in the Rhone and what was next?

After harvest, I stayed on working in the cellar and, really, doing any manual labor they needed just to stay longer. In all, I was at Domaine Pierre Gaillard for about 8 months.

After that, Kristie and I moved to California. I wanted to work for the best producers and learn as much as I could. I started at Cakebread as a lowly cellar hand and just put my head down, working, taking it all in. I was filling barrels, emptying barrels, driving the forklift, things like that.

Then I moved on to Paul Hobbs where I became an enologist, running the numbers on the wines. While there, I started my own brand.

What made you decide to launch your own label?

Having your own label allows you to try new things and take risks—that’s a freedom some of the bigger wineries don't have. Kristie and I wanted to make wine that we love and are passionate about: Syrah. It probably would have been easier to sell wines made from more popular varieties, like Cab or Pinot, but Syrah was our first love and that is what we wanted to make. 

You’ve said it took three years for you to select the vineyard source for KRW, what makes that site so special?

I ultimately selected the Vivio Vineyard in Bennett Valley for the balanced expression of Syrah I had tasted from it. Bennett Valley is heavily influenced by Northern California’s "marine layer" of fog that rolls through the Petaluma Gap, hits Sonoma Mountain, and bowls up in the valley. That has a cooling effect which allows Syrah to keep its savory profile--the white pepper, bacon fat and olive notes. But, this is still California so you are always going to get a great fruit component to the wine from the overall warmth of the region.

 What is your winemaking philosophy?

It’s cliché but it’s about just not screwing up and letting the wine do the work. I try to be as hands off as possible. I do all native yeast fermentation—primary and malolactic—and I don’t add any nutrients to the wine. Site and picking decisions are what matters the most.

What is your favorite thing about working in the wine industry?

Working with my hands and being able to create something. It is very satisfying to see the grapes picked, watch and taste the juice ferment, age the wine in barrel, bottle it and then to see how it evolves over time.