Kenneth Volk Vineyards
Santa Barbara County region
A legendary winemaker and his namesake winery offering uniquely crafted wines from acclaimed Central Coast vineyards
To completely understand what comprises the Kenneth Volk Vineyards, it is necessary to delve back into the history of its owner, Ken Volk. If his name isn’t all that familiar to you, you might want to look up Volk’s first winery, the trail blazing and much revered Wild Horse Winery & Vineyards.
At a time when grapes and wines from the Santa Maria Valley weren’t exactly household items, Ken Volk helped set the standard for world class wines from the Central Coast of California. The time was 1983, and Volk produced a Pinot Noir from the nearby (to historic Templeton, CA) Sierra Madre Vineyard. The wine was arguably one of the first important wines made from the noble Burgundian grape that accurately mirrored the quality of its French cousins. Wild Horse Winery’s first production was a mere 600 cases but steadily grew to around 150,000 cases during Volk’s twenty-two year run with the winery. When he sold the entity to Jim Beam Brands Worldwide in 2003, Ken Volk began to search for another vehicle to encompass his enological talents.
In late 2004, Volk purchased the ‘original’ Byron Winery facility from Robert Mondavi and renamed the property Kenneth Volk Vineyards. By 2006, the first wines under the new winery brand were released to the public and his legion of dedicated followers scooped up the company’s initial wines.
“We have experienced a great deal of variation with our production,” confessed Ken Volk during a recent interview. “Several years ago we produced around 35,000 cases but this year we will only bottle around 4,000 cases. It’s all about the grapes and what nature provides for us. We have always had a serious interest in producing complex, interesting wines that are achieved through comprehensive planning and execution in the vineyard. We believe the winemaking process should support and enhance the excellent flavors of well-tended winegrapes.”
Unfortunately, Ken Volk suffered a major stroke a couple of years back and says his declining health has forced him to put his beloved Kenneth Volk Vineyards up for sale. “I just don’t have the energy it takes to do what I consider must be done to keep our wines at their present levels of quality. I am looking for a good parent to adopt the brand and continue making great wines.”
The winery and its four-acre estate vineyard is one of the darlings of the Santa Maria AVA, the appellation Ken Volk helped to create back in 1981. “A great deal has changed since the early days in Santa Barbara County,” reflected Ken Volk. “We started with two appellations (AVA’s) and now we have six to choose from. Since a great deal of our grape production winds up in either Napa Valley or Sonoma County, the quality we produce is self-evident. I wish more of our fruit could remain here and be locally produced, but business models dictate otherwise. We have had a great run, so there’s nothing to regret.”
From a true pioneer with worlds of experience in an extremely competitive environment, truer words have never been spoken.
Map of the area
Kenneth Volk - Owner & Winemaker
His credentials are nothing short of spectacular as are his plaudits and high scores that have followed his lengthy career of more than four decades. Ken Volk started his winemaking vocation while attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (he managed the school’s berry producing project) and creating wines concocted in his family’s garage. Early on, he apprenticed at renowned Edna Valley Vineyard and the iconic Dick Graff, an early pioneer and champion of Central Coast wine production.
Ken Volk insists his winemaking begins in the vineyard and has spent his career developing multi-faceted wines that have competed successfully on the international wine stage. He is a proponent of picking fruit from the same vineyard on multiple harvest dates. The differing maturity levels this practice allows translates into diverse flavors and spectacular multidimensional wines, the hallmark for Kenneth Volk Vineyards and its winemaker/owner.
He has been named Winemaker of the Year on numerous occasions and, in 1999, was honored as Agriculturist of the Year by his alma mater, Cal Poly State University.
Ken Volk considers himself a yeast connoisseur and exhorts his fellow winemakers to consider the impact yeast has on a wine’s flavor. Each wine, in Ken Volk’s opinion, must be created with structure, aromatics and mouthfeel in mind and might require the use of several different strains of yeast. Rather than leave it to nature’s vineyard production, Volk prefers to make the decision himself. These progressive techniques have made Volk a leader in yeast technology as well as a gifted and celebrated winemaker.
More on Kenneth Volk
It’s quite difficult to find a place to start with someone like Ken Volk. His career is such that one must extract snippets from various stages in his notable profession to adequately explain his imprint on the modern California wine industry.
The fact that he was one of the earliest proponents of exceptional fruit from the Santa Maria Valley and its subsequent rise to the highest levels of fruit quality around the state is one example. Ken Volk was convinced Santa Maria Valley grapes could produce wines that would show well against the world’s finest wines, a fact that has proven to be correct.
He also looks at every aspect of the grape growing and winemaking process with the values of a master researcher. Ken Volk is an avowed proponent of field-sorting and winery sorting of grapes, taking into consideration the degree of de-stemming, whole-cluster/whole berry ratio, rate/timing of inoculation, cap management techniques and cooperage selection to name a few.
Maybe the fact that after selling his original winery (see main story) to industry giant Jim Beam Worldwide Brands, he immediately began a search for a new winery property to ply is trade - is another example. Ken Volk didn’t need another winery, but his determination and zeal resulted in the current Kenneth Volk Vineyards that we offer to our Gold Wine Club members.
Ken Volk isn’t a person who rests on his accolades and achievements but considers himself something of a continuing innovator in the wine industry.
“Things have really changed since I first began working in a winery,” he recalled. “I think what has been termed our industry’s ‘Golden Age’ is a most interesting time period to consider. I remember using wooden bongs on the barrels and even using a wooden baseball bat to crush my first usable fruit. It was a grand time, and a great deal of fun for everyone. I’m not knocking the modern improvements and sophisticated equipment most wineries have today, but I sometimes miss the more traditional facets of the wine business.”
Ken Volk knows his time in the wine business is nearing its end thanks to a debilitating stroke that has affected his memory and robbed him of the energy necessary to run a vineyard/winery operation on the scale of Kenneth Volk Vineyards.
His exit from the wine business is everyone in the wine industry’s loss and to the Santa Maria Valley in particular. For as long as anyone can remember, Ken Volk has been in the forefront of the effort that has seen a sleepy, bucolic atmosphere transformed into one of the world’s top quality producing regions.
Even nearing retirement, Ken Volk remains a major presence in Central Coast wine production. His whimsical statement, “I guess most of my wines turned out okay,” mirrors his dedication and insistence on proven classical methods to produce world class wines.
Ken Volk will be missed and so will his lovely wines when they have run their course. It is our distinct pleasure to offer these fine wines to our Gold Wine Club members. Enjoy!
At Kenneth Volk Vineyards, the main focus may be on vineyard designate wines from the Santa Maria Valley and Bordeaux varietals from Paso Robles, however, the winery also has a special program for their ‘heirloom varietals’ - the under appreciated, rare and obscure varietals that they feel make remarkable wines, but the average wine drinker may not know about them just yet. This month’s feature of Kenneth Volk Vineyards focuses on these heirloom varietals, and the grapes for these wines are sourced from several of California’s top AVA’s.
Kenneth Volk’s Tempranillo and Verdelho are both produced from the Paso Robles AVA, roughly situated in the center of the Central Coast, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The area extends from the Monterey County border at the north, to the Cuesta Grade below Santa Margarita at the south, and from the Santa Lucia Highlands at the west to the Kern County line at the east. The entire region encompasses more than 650,000 acres, covering many different, distinct grape-growing areas. The variations in soil type, annual rainfall, altitude, maritime airflow and daily temperature swings are just a few of the significant differences within the various Paso Robles vineyard areas - and the reason why such a wide range of wine grapes can successfully grow here.
For Kenneth Volk’s Touriga Nacional, grapes are sourced from both Paso Robles and the Alta Mesa appellation, located within the Lodi AVA. ‘Alta Mesa’ is Spanish for ‘high table,’ and is in reference to the higher elevation of land compared to the surrounding area. It is known for its warm summers and low annual rainfall, and it is considered one of the warmest subregions of the Lodi AVA. Red varietals, such as Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, have had great success here.