Pioneer to Retire: Ken Volk Selling Legendary Santa Barbara Co. Vineyard

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/11/17

As he heads into his 40th vintage as a Central Coast winemaker, Ken Volk is calling it quits.

“It’s driven by my health,” Mr. Volk, 59, says of a decision that is, really, bittersweet.  The well-known winemaker is still reeling from the effects of a significant stroke three years ago, which affected the part of his brain that control the optic nerves, inducing a wandering blind spot.  He had a knee replaced last week.  And, along with recent bouts with epilepsy, he may be seeing the early onset of Parkinson ’s disease.

“Not being able to drive, not having the stamina I used to have – it makes it pretty hard to play in the wine business,” he says.

Vintner Ken Volk at harvest
Volk’s impact on California winemaking has been, however, a tour de force.  It began in the mid-1970s, with fruit science studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and harvest work at Edna Valley Vineyards.  In 1981, he founded Wile Horse Winery, a label that would become one of the most recognizable on the Central Coast, and a venture that would grow to 200,000 cases a year before he sold it to a division of Jim Beam Brands in 2003.  His move into Santa Barbara County followed when, in late 2004, he bought a legendary vineyard.

The original Byron Vineyard was founded by winemaker Ken Brown and partners that included famed grower Dale Hampton.  Located in the northeastern portion of the Santa Maria Valley AVA, and at the mouth of Tepesquet Canyon along Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, the sprawling 12-acre property was acquired by Robert Mondavi in 1994.  Mr. Volk purchased it, and renamed it Kenneth Volk Vineyards, 12 years ago.

The tasting room on Ken Volk Vineyards
As part of his retirement, Mr. Volk is putting his namesake winery and vineyard on the market.  A decades’ worth of upgrades and infrastructure improvements by Mr. Volk include a plumbing overhaul and improved crushing equipment.  The turn-key operation includes a tasting room, a winery with a 25,000-case capacity and a four-acre vineyard of what’s easily considered world-class pinot noir and chardonnay.  There are also native gardens, event facilities and a commercial kitchen.  Represented by real estate broker Jenny Heinzen (who helped Mr. Volk sell Wild Horse), the property is being offered at $3.7 million and the entire business -- including label and wine inventory -- for $5.5 million at wineryrealtor.com.

“In a perfect world, I sell the vineyard and the brand as a package,” says Mr. Volk, who's open to maintaining, at least in the short term, his label.  “I do plan on bringing in fruit this year, and crushing,” he says, “just very scaled back from what I’ve been doing.”

I asked Volk what he’ll miss most of a career four decades in the making, and in a region that’s seen the number of producers explode along the way.  “The viticulture side,” he answers quickly, fessing up to a genuine love for grapes, especially under-appreciated grapes.  “Pinot noir and chardonnay pay the bills, and they’re popular because they’ve proven they can make interesting wines around the world,” he says.  “But if I could go back, I’d go back to school, and I’d do analysis, and I’d study to better understand lesser-known grape varieties and where they came from.  The fact we’re now able to follow the DNA trail and the alpha protein trails of grapes, we can really see what’s related to what.”  He pauses, and then adds, with a chuckle, “Yeah, it’s kind of goofy.”

The Volk chardonnay selected for Pope Francis's U.S. visit in 2015
Over the years, Mr. Volk has served on a variety of grape grower alliances and advisory councils on the Central Coast.  He’s also received myriad accolades, including Winemaker of the Year from Wine & Spirits Magazine and Wine Industry Person of the Year from the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association.  He also made news two years ago, when his chardonnay was selected for Pope Francis’ flight into New York City during his U.S. visit, which Volk described as, “a nice surprise for my company.”

The father of two children, ages 30 and 26, Volk lives with his wife in San Luis Obispo. Find out more about Kenneth Volk Vineyards at volkwines.com.



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