Kevin Riley admits he is “totally obsessive and compulsive about winemaking.” Growing up the son of a wine store owner in Westport, Conn., Riley moved to the Central Coast in 1996 to study viticulture and fruit science at Cuesta College and Cal Poly. By the time he was 30, he already had worked for a half dozen wineries, and was consulting winemaker for Sextant Wines, AJB and Pomar Junction. He also had launched his own two labels, Proulx and Blackburn. And somewhere along the line, he made time to start a family.
“My wife says I never take days off, but it’s because I enjoy what I do,” Riley explained. “It’s part of my life, it’s not just something I do with my life.”
Now Riley has opened a new tasting room for his label Proulx. Located on Vineyard Drive near Paso Robles, wedged between Denner Vineyards and Jada Vineyard, it sits on the top of his in-laws 34-acre property. The tasting room overlooks a 55-year-old dry farmed zinfandel vineyard -- a labor of love for him and his father-in-law Ken Fuller, and the source of his prized zinfandel wine.
Winemaking is a family affair. Riley named Proulx (pronounced proo) after his mother’s maiden name, and Blackburn is the town in England where his father’s family originated. Wife Genoa is also involved in the business, when she’s not running after their three young sons, and the Fullers still live on and farm the vineyard. Genoa’s grandmother and her husband also live on the stunning property.
When the Fullers bought the property in 1992 they had no idea there were even vines planted on the hills. The old vineyard was buried under years of weeds, and only discovered by accident. Fuller rejuvenated the vineyard and in 1997 started selling the fruit to Peachy Canyon and Norman. Now Riley is carefully tending the property, and his gracious in-laws have signed a 99-year lease with him, with an option to buy at some future date.
While he would like to spend more time on his own projects, his time is split amongst his other clients. “Consulting really is the biggest part of our business,” he said. In addition to the 1,000 cases he’s making of Proulx, he makes about 7,000 of the Blackburn label, about 1,500 cases for Mondo Cellars, 2,000 for Pomar Junction and 10,000 cases for Sextant. He’s also consulting winemaker for G&H Holdings, which will be opening a new winery and tasting room for their Shale Oak label early next year.
Just last month Riley’s 2007 Sextant Central Coast Zinfandel was ranked the top zinfandel of the year at $15 or under by Wine Spectator, one of the many accolades the modest winemaker has been accumulating lately.
Now 32, Riley’s next major project will be building a larger tasting room and a winery on the site. He’s already determined the spot for it, and has worked on an agrarian design that will fit naturally on to the property. Unfortunately he expects it will be another nine years before it is built. But he, like most winemakers, is patient.
“I’m just a young guy,” he explained with a smile.