'Raisins on the Vine' Winemaker with
Avalon Ties Survives Sonoma Wildfires
By John Tracy Jr.
Kieran Robinson at Avalon’s Wine & Spirits Festival in 2017.
Vineyard for Kieran Robinson Wines.
It was a quiet year for weather in the mid-Atlantic region in 2017, but elsewhere in the United States, powerful weather affected the lives of millions.
Kieran Robinson was no stranger to crazy weather. Growing up in West Chester, Pa., with summers in Avalon, the 39-year-old had been through plenty of hurricanes and nor’easters before. But last fall, he experienced a new form of tempest when engulfing wildfires swooped dangerously close to his home and winery in the heart of Northern California’s Sonoma County.
While most kids are guzzling light beer and cheap vodka, Robinson discovered a love of wine during his college days. Attending Ithaca College in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, he found the perfect job working part time at a local winery during the fall harvests, and eventually moved into a role in the tasting room.
“I completely fell in love with the business,” Robinson says with sheer delight, “and that’s when I decided what I wanted to do in life.”
Returning home to the Philadelphia area after school, Robinson had the opportunity to make wine in the nontraditional wine region of the nearby Pennsylvania countryside at Chaddsford Winery. It was during a routine shift in the tasting room there that he met his future wife, Kristie.
Determined to further his knowledge of winemaking, he set off to the Northern Rhone region of France. Working for Domaine Pierre Gaillard, he absorbed the traditions of French winemaking and acquired an affinity for the famous varietals of the Rhone: Syrah, Viognier and Grenache. In 2006, Kristie and Kieran moved to the West Coast, settling in the Napa Valley. Robinson continued his work in the wine field, working at renowned wineries like Cakebread Cellars and Jericho Canyon.
After years of learning and honing his skills, Robinson started his own winemaking business in 2009, moving to Sonoma and using local grapes to produce the same styles of the Rhone he fell in love with in France. Today, with the help of Kristie, Kieran Robinson Wines produces about 1,000 cases of boutique wine and operates a small vineyard that grows Grenache grapes. At this point of his life, it seemed like all of his dreams had come true.
This made the Sonoma County fires in October of 2017 so frightening. “It was so stressful,” Robinson says. “I felt like there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
The blaze came within a half-mile of the Robinsons’ home. He credits the firefighters’ bravery and the vineyards themselves as the reasons why their house was not consumed.
“The vineyards acted like buffers from the fire,” he says. “The ground underneath the vines is typically kept free of grass and so the fires stopped at the edges.”
Most of the wineries in Sonoma were spared of major damage, but the timing of the fire was during the peak tourist season, which hurt the wallets of many businesses.
“It would be like if a hurricane hit during the first two weeks in August in Avalon,” Robinson says. “Some of them lost volume if they didn’t pick in time, and it may be possible that some 2017 wines will be a bit smokier than usual.”
The Robinsons did have to evacuate for about a week and stayed with friends in the South Bay. They lost nearly all of their 2017 Syrah.
Kristie Robinson with a grape harvest.
“The grapes had just started to be picked the night before the fire came,” Robinson says. “It had already been a hot week, and the fire came about 100 yards from where the grapes were growing. We weren’t able to get back to it for 10 days. Most of it just turned to raisins on the vine.”
Robinson still is in the midst of a complicated insurance claim for the damaged grapes.
For now, Sonoma is mostly back to normal. But we must not forget the hundreds of families who lost their homes to the firestorm in Santa Rosa and the surrounding area.
Robinson has bright hopes for the future of his wine business.
“For now, I am pretty happy with the size of my operation, but I am thinking about opening a tasting room back home on the East Coast,” he says. For now, you can pick up his wines at Fred’s Liquor Store, retailing for about $30 per bottle.
“I’m glad we are safe,” he says with a smile, “and I can’t wait to come visit my family in Avalon again this summer!”