Vina Robles Winery
Central Coast AVA
Vina Robles brings a unique Swiss-European imprint to the Central Coast's wine country
In any business, when a number of Swiss get together, the result is usually a most precise, well- organized and highly competitive entity. Such is the case with this month’s Gold Series selection, Paso Robles-based Vina Robles, a Central Coast winery that is already turning heads despite the fact it is less than seven years old.
Vina Robles is the product of an association between a pair of Swiss businessmen, Hans Nef and Hans Michel (pronounced Mikel) that developed as a result of the pair’s long-term association in agricultural-related business endeavors. Growing up in a rural village just outside Zurich, Switzerland, Vina Robles majority owner Nef learned to appreciate his rural surroundings and the incredible blessings that agriculture provided those who worked the land. He eventually attended university and earned a degree in civil engineering. He formed his own civil engineering consultancy and management firm and eventually undertook a number of major engineering projects in and around Zurich.
In the early 1990’s, Nef spread his operations to an international level when he acquired two prime agricultural properties in Arkansas. It was there that Hans Nef came into contact with fellow Swiss expatriate Hans Michel whose company was actually charged with operating the Arkansas properties. Around the same time, Nef became a serious collector of fine Bordeaux chateaux and even began a business that imported high caliber wines. During the mid 1990’s, Nef became acquainted with the emerging Central Coast wine region and in particular the area around Paso Robles.
Taken by the natural beauty of the rugged farmland area and the incredible friendly attitude of the people he met there, he decided to expand his American agricultural holdings by purchasing three distinct tracts of land around Paso Robles with the sole purpose of establishing premium estate vineyards. These three vineyards are the foundation acreage of today’s Vina Robles Winery.
“I want Vina Robles to express a unique blend of European heritage and American opportunity,” remarked Nef, “As individuals, the principals of Vina Robles are rooted in the Old World. As winemakers, we are inspired by the New World. But both worlds bring value to what we do, and we endeavor to capture this distinction in our wines.”
Vina Robles began modestly with an initial release of 772 cases in 1999. Most of the initial release went to Switzerland where it gained immediate acceptance from the always-demanding European palates. The growth rate for Vina Robles has been steady if not spectacular. Vina Robles will produce more than 15,000 cases this year and intends to grow substantially in the next three years with a thirty thousand case goal for the year 2009.
Construction has already begun on a major tasting room and hospitality center located on Highway 46 East that sits nearby Vina Robles’ three existing vineyards that should be open for customers late next spring. An even grander project is a sparkling new winery with even greater capacity that is already in the planning stages and should reach fruition prior to the end of the first decade of this new millennium.
Interestingly, the newest Vina Robles wines are mostly (around 75%) consumed in the United States, while a smaller portion continues to be exported to Europe, Canada and Japan. Nef and Michel both credit their success to a number of key factors, including their Swiss winemaker, Matthias Gubler, who has carefully orchestrated all of the growth associated with Vina Robles. Brought aboard in 1999, Gubler brought an incredible winemaking resume that included stints in Switzerland, France, and Italy as well as an earlier role as harvest worker with Brutocao Cellars in Northern California’s Mendocino County.
Hans Nef spends most of his time in Switzerland with his two daughters and prefers to leave the management decisions for Vina Robles to his partner Hans Michel and winemaker Matthias Gubler. Nef focuses on his extensive international real estate holdings but keeps a close eye on his favorite Central Coast entity that he has seen grow from just an idea to a multi-faceted, award winning winery.
“What would you expect?” he offered recently through an associate. “There’s not much sexiness associated with soybeans and rice crops. But a winery like Vina Robles brings out the soul in each of us. It’s our gift and it keeps giving.”
The Art of Fine Wine
Painted by watercolor artist Beverly Morgan as part of her wine series using negative painting techniques. Many of her colorful pieces can be found on flickr.com.
About the Vineyard
Paso Robles is located approximately halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the northern part of San Luis Obispo County. Thirty miles inland, its warm climate is due to the Santa Lucia Mountains that block out most of the cooling Pacific Ocean influence during the day. The Templeton Gap is a saddle in the range that channels the moderating late afternoon breezes and cool night air across the region.
Geographically diverse, the appellation of Paso Robles is home to numerous soil types and elevation changes, and diverse valleys and canyons, which together account for varied climates and sites that yield a high quality production of diverse varietals, most notably reds.
Vina Robles sources the majority of its grapes from its three estate Paso Robles vineyards (Huerhuero, Jardine, and Pleasant Valley), each on the east side of the appellation. The winery, situated in close proximity to all three, is fortunate to be in the position to source fruit from these excellent vineyards for the Vina Robles label.
Matthias Gabler - Winemaker
As a boy, Matthias Gubler worked on his family’s Pinot Noir vineyard in Switzerland. He studied Enology at Wadenswil and came to the United States to apprentice at a small winery in Northern California.
He has since worked in several wineries in Switzerland, Italy and France. Contends Gubler, “Paso Robles is perfectly suited to big Rhône style wines. Being here is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Hans R. Michel - President & Chief Operating Officer
Even though his early business career was somewhat similar to Vina Robles’ majority owner Hans Nef, Hans R. Michel took an entirely different road to becoming President and Chief Operating Officer for the emerging Paso Robles winery, Vina Robles.
“I was a typical Swiss youth who grew up on a farm,” offered Michel recently. “We lived just outside Zurich and my family supported itself by the produce from the land. I learned at an early age to appreciate the role of agriculture in our family’s lives, and of its importance to everyone’s existence.”
Michel earned a degree in agricultural economics and consulting from the Technical College of Agriculture in Bern and by 1982 found himself in the United States. He worked for a large company in Tennessee where he eventually became responsible for the running of more than 375,000 acres of row crops in Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas. One of his soybeans and rice clients in Arkansas was a fellow Swiss investor/entrepreneur named Hans Nef.
In 1992, Hans Michel founded his own international agricultural management and consulting company with offices in several states and also Europe, whose primary function was property investment and analysis for a host of international clients. Having managed vineyards around Paso Robles as early as 1983, Hans Michel was keenly aware of the potential of California’s Central Coast growing region.
When approached by his client, Hans Nef, about the possibility of further investment in the grape business, Michel acted quickly and soon formed a company called Viticultural Management that specialized in high caliber Central Coast vineyards.
In 1995, the Jardine Vineyard off Tower Road became Vina Robles’ first working entity. Through a clever arrangement, some 95% of its grapes were contracted to prestigious Meridian Vineyards, a contract that remains in force today. The contract also provided excellent cash flow for the young company.
As Vina Robles’ majority owner, Hans Nef’s investment ventures continued to grow (he also owned restaurants in Europe), and he began to see the development of Vina Robles into more than a grape producing company. Additional vineyards were planted and Nef convinced Hans Michel to become involved with the development of Vina Robles as a major winery entity. Hans Michel agreed to a mutual relationship and became a minority investor as well as president of the growth-oriented winery.
“I had always had an interest in wine since I was really young,” he explained. “Remember, the drinking age for wine in Switzerland is 16, and I took advantage of that. When Hans Nef decided to really do it right in the planning and development of Vina Robles, I was truly excited to become part of such an operation.”
Hans Michel is also delighted to be able to be part of the project from its development through its completion, literally from A to Z. He put it simply: “How many people get this sort of chance with an upscale, vibrant company on the rise? And then, there’s also the prospect of the marketing of our company to consider. In my mind, marketing’s a really important aspect of any company’s development and I feel really special to be included. I am truly a lucky person.”
Also in the back of his mind is his family, who returned to Switzerland for his two daughters’ educations. One daughter, Simone, has worked at the winery for the past two summers and looks to be leaning toward joining her father in the winery business.
“That would be quite special,” Michel concluded. “It would mean everything to me.”