Santa Barbara County region
Koehler’s limited production wines are sold exclusively through their boutique tasting room on the winery property.
In the late 1990’s, Peter Koehler decided to purchase an existing plot of vineyard land as a present to his wife Kory. Koehler, now 57, was a successful Chicago businessman in the lighting business and was originally from Dusseldorf, Germany. His wife Kory, now 32, was from South Dakota and expressed interest in the wine business. After the purchase, the Koehlers continued the former owner’s practice of selling all their grapes to existing wineries.
After several years acting as growers, Felipe Hernandez entered the picture. Hernandez was involved in vineyard management around the Santa Ynez Valley and had been in control of the Kohler vineyards’ sales operation. He explained to Peter Koehler, that the addition of a small winery to the property could provide much greater profits than simply growing grapes. Koehler agreed and construction on the winery was begun in 1999 and completed sometime in 2001.
Koehler’s first release occurred in the same year and consisted of about 800 cases. Production has since grown to between 7,000 and 8,000 cases, depending on the quantity of fruit produced on the Koehler Winery estate. It is interesting to note that all the wines produced by Koehler are either sold at the winery directly to consumers or through special arrangements similar to those of Gold Medal Wine Club. A New York retailer recently ordered 1,000 cases of wine that were sold privately once a deal was struck.
“This is actually a great level for us,” informed Felipe Hernandez, who is also a co-owner of Koehler Winery. “If we produced any more cases, we would have to go into a distribution network that entails all sorts of extra work and additional personnel. Right now we have three full-time and three part time workers, and we can easily control the quality of our wines. It would be silly to mess up an existing situation that is working so well.” Koehler Winery actually occupies 110 acres of which 64 are planted in vine. The winery benefits from the fact that it is situated along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail of Sideways movie fame and home to a large number of highly respected wineries including Firestone Vineyard, Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards, Andrew Murray Vineyards, Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, and Cambria Estate to name just a few.
The existing Koehler Winery label was designed by former winemaker Mike Ross who left Koehler after three years for a new position. The label is remarkably simple, with a classic black and gold label that resembles a number of German wine labels. Like numerous other Central Coast wineries, Koehler Winery has enjoyed the notoriety involved with the explosion of interest in Central Coast wines and wineries. Their relative position to Los Angeles and its mega-population has made day trips an easy ride for millions of wine enthusiasts and wine enthusiast want-to-bees. At Koehler Winery, the charming tasting facility also involves a menagerie of unusual animals and exotic birds, something highly unusual on the normal wine scene. And, like many other smallish wineries that dot the California countryside, Koehler Winery has created its own unique niche that is appealing to its many visitors and customers.
“We feel we give our customers good value and a beautiful setting in which to enjoy the wines,” explained Hernandez. “From the response we’ve gotten so far, we seem to be doing the right thing at the right time. We’re not about to change anything around here.”
For the record, co-owner Kory Kohler is in charge of the winery’s books and keeps everything around the place looking good.
Paris-born winemaker, Olivier Rousset
It might seem a bit out of the ordinary to have a French winemaker for a Central Coast winery, but Paris-born Olivier Rousset, 34, is undoubtedly more than well qualified for the position. Rousset comes from a line of renowned French chefs, a fact that first caused his interest in wine at the tender age of eight. Also, his family owns Chateau La Roche Beaulieu (Cotes de Castillon, an exterior Bordeaux appellation) where Rousset gained a great deal of his winemaking expertise. In California, Rousset has worked for a number of noteworthy wineries, most of which are in the Kendall-Jackson family of wines. Based mostly in Sonoma County, these include La Crema Winery, Verite Winery and Anakota Winery, as well as the luminary and highly regarded Archipel Winery. Archipel was originally intended strictly for winemaker’s consumption, but was later changed to allow a small amount of distribution to the wine drinking public.
Rousset’s incredible scores with these wines (numerous 90-plus marks) brought him to Koehler Winery in 2009. His classic French background and already proven excellence in handling California’s extensive collection of varietals makes Olivier a perfect choice to handle Koehler Winery’s continued march to excellence.
Felipe Hernandez, the heart and soul of Koehler Vineyard Estate.
If ever a single person could be called the heart and soul of a winery, it is not difficult to make a case for Koehler Winery’s world-class vineyard manager and co-owner, Felipe Hernandez.
Hernandez, 55, came to the United States when he was just 19 by jumping a fence after he left his native Jalisco State. It was the early 1970’s and a friend told him of extensive plantings around the Foxen Valley area by the Santa Ynez Grape Growers Association, the group responsible for the area’s first real plantings of the modern grape era. Felipe found a job and toiled numerous hours in the vineyards planting the first vines that would eventually become the lower Central Coast Region. After work, he also plied at off jobs, earning the respect of everyone who met the talented young man. His first real job involved vineyard care for La Zaca, forerunner of today’s famed Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards. Several years later, when the well-respected Oak Savanna Vineyard was established, Felipe Hernandez was named its vineyard manger. He still lives on the property, and continues to work the vines in the same manner as he has for many years.
Today, Felipe Hernandez is known around the area as Don Felipe, a much-deserved title of respect given to him by his peers and employees. His role as co-owner of Koehler Winery is also a tribute to his unique and effective approach to the business. ‘When I approached Mr. Koehler about the prospect of building a winery, I wasn’t sure he would agree,” Hernandez informed. ‘After all, it involved quite a bit of money. He told me that he respected my ideas and the fact that I really knew about the business. He even gave me a piece of the business for which I will always be eternally grateful.”
Hernandez concedes that his job is to bring the fruit correctly to the winery so that the best wines can be made. Correctly, Hernandez says, means optimum growing time and acid levels in an environment that isn’t always that cooperative. ‘I have been at it for a good many years,” he added. ‘I have come to know the weather’s little tricks and how to handle them whenever a problem arises. Everyone knows the quality of fruit determines the quality of the wines, and I just want our fruit to be the best it can be.”
Solid reasoning to be sure, and even more solid results. Hernandez has seen Koehler Winery’s wine entities capture numerous awards and ratings during the past decade and expects even greater results in the future. ‘I designed a grafting program more than eight years ago and we are really seeing the results in the increased quality of our grapes. Mr. Koehler was a fan of some of the Italian and Rhône varietals so that’s what we grafted. He was exactly right and now we have some really marvelous fruit for our winemaker to work with,” he finalized. Felipe Hernandez has also helped raise a family of five children who have all excelled, both in school and the workplace. None of the first four children were interested in Felipe’s vineyard work, but he is holding out hope for his final son, Felipe Jr., who is now 14, and is just entering high school.
‘I still have great hope that he will follow me into the vineyards,” Hernandez sighed. ‘He has already worked with me around the winery. I wanted him to see just how much hard work went into making something good happen, and it seems to have gotten through to him. I am going to keep my fingers crossed during the next few years. With God’s will, it will all work out well in the end.”