Victor Hugo Roberts. ©Julia Perez, The Winemakers of Paso Robles.
Victor Hugo Roberts represents the essence of the small high-quality producer that shaped the wine history of the county in the 1980s and 1990s, and he continues to do so. Gary Eberle describes him as one of the finest winemakers in San Luis Obispo County. Victor is a quiet and thoughtful man, but he is also a leader, a visionary, and the man that takes responsibility. He is known for getting the job done thoroughly and efficiently whether it is the Paso Robles AVA application or making wine for a United States President’s inauguration.
In 1982, his first year as winemaker at Creston Manor Vineyard and Winery, Victor’s first vintage of Sauvignon Blanc won gold medals. Wines created by Victor Hugo have received over 600 medals in wine competitions.
In the same year, 1982, Victor stepped forward as a newcomer to join the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce and local winemakers to help research and write the application for the Paso Robles AVA. He was among the founders of the first annual Paso Robles Wine Festival which helped develop Paso Robles as an important wine region in California. This festival grew to become the largest in the United States with his support and leadership. He was instrumental in founding and leading the first organization of growers and winemakers in the Paso Robles region. As Gary Eberle states, “Victor Hugo Roberts was at the nucleus of every important stage in development in Paso Robles wine region.”
Impact on the Wine History of San Luis Obispo County
- Roberts was one of the early UC Davis graduates from Davis to settle in San Luis Obispo County, becoming an early pioneer in establishing winemaking as art in conjunction with science.
- As Winemaker and General Manager of Creston Manor Vineyard and Winery (1982-1997), Roberts crafted hundreds of gold medal-winning wines including his very first release. Creston Manor was structured as a multilevel general and limited partnership formed with tax shelter advantages, one of the first in San Luis Obispo County.
- In 1984 Roberts established a custom crush service at Creston Manor for small producers, increasing cash flow for the winery.
- In 1988 Roberts made a limited release Presidential Cuvée for Creston Manor that was served at George H. W. Bush Presidential Inauguration.
- In 1997 Roberts established his own winery, Victor Hugo Winery, in Templeton. Victor and his wife, Leslie began by planting 15 acres of grapes in 1985. His first vintage was released in 1999. Today the family-owned winery produces high-quality wine from 78 acres of sustainably-farmed estate vineyards.
- Roberts was influential in leading the Paso Robles wine region in its formative years. Roberts:
- Served on the Paso Robles AVA Committee which successfully established the Paso Robles AVA in 1983 and developed a marketing plan to make Paso Robles a regional tourist destination.
- Served on the Paso Robles Wine Festival Committee from 1982 to 1996, and as President from 1988 to 1996. Following the festival’s inaugural year in 1983, it grew to become the largest in the United States with his support and leadership.
- Served as President of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association from 1993 to 1995. PRVGA was the first organization of growers and winemakers in the Paso Robles region.
Victor Hugo Roberts is a native of Coalinga, California. He enjoyed studying science at Coalinga High School and made his decision to apply to only one institution of higher learning, the University of California at Davis. He was impressed with the campus’ green philosophy, excluding cars and supporting bikes and people in the environment.
In 1972 he entered UC Davis with a group of students who would become well known for approaching winemaking as an art and for honoring the science involved in this craft. He chose general science as his major, planning a curriculum that would prepare him for medical school. Roberts enrolled in a viticulture course as an elective and enjoyed the small classes and personal contact with his professors. He decided to change to a new major in Fermentation Science in 1976, graduating with an emphasis on Enology. The science of winemaking was taught with laboratory work an integral part of the work. Professors were available to share information about current research and the changes occurring in the field.
Roberts graduated in 1979 with a preference for drinking white wines, particularly Riesling and Gewurztraminer. His career in the wine industry started at two iconic Italian wineries. Victor Hugo was hired as an assistant enologist by the Italian Swiss Colony founded in Asti in Northern California which began making wine in 1885. He arrived in the summer, worked the harvest, and learned the business well. As his palate matured, Victor developed more interest in drinking red wines such as Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, enjoying their intense flavor and complexity.
Victor’s second job took him to Southern California where he was hired by Brookside Vineyard Company located in Temecula and Rancho Cucamonga on the old Guasti estate. Brookside is recognized as one of the early wineries emerging in the 1960s during the California wine revolution. According to historian Charles Sullivan in his book, A Companion to California Wine, Brookside was organized by Philo Biane in 1952 and moved onto the old Guasti Estate in Cucamonga in 1957. The winery expanded by opening tasting rooms in California, Nevada, and Arizona. In 1973 the company was acquired by Beatrice Foods, a large conglomerate headquartered in Chicago. Sales declined in the early 1980s and Brookside was closed in 1985.
Victor Hugo and Leslie Roberts move to San Luis Obispo County
Victor Hugo Roberts, a 1979 graduate from UC Davis in Fermentation Science, was one of the early UC graduates from Davis to settle in San Luis Obispo County. The first was Gary Eberle who planted the vineyards and designed the Estrella River Winery in the 1970s, the second was Tom Myers who became one of the most influential winemakers driven by science, with over 42 harvests between Estrella River Winery and Castoro Winery. A decade later, Steve Dooley, founder and winemaker of Stephen Ross Wines.
The tax shelter legislation represented a new era for the region, which brought limited partnerships and corporate structures to Paso Robles and the Edna Valley in the 1970s and 1980s to purchase land. Almost all of these partnerships initially grew wine grapes to sell throughout California to new wineries forming as the California wine revolution expanded. Many added winery operations in later years.
Victor, with his wife Leslie, came to San Luis Obispo County in 1982 to take on a challenging job that comprised two positions at the newly formed Creston Manor Winery. The first position was that of General Manager. Recent changes to the Internal Revenue Tax Code provided incentives for a group of investors to form an investment partnership between a group of general partners who actively made business decisions and took on significant financial risk in the investment and a group of limited partners, who invested their capital with limited risk and no management responsibility. Both groups received significant tax deductions. Agriculture, or in the case of Creston Manor, the vineyards and winery, provided generous tax deductions. At the time many investors believed the tax deductions were as important as making profits.
The four general partners at Creston Manor were Larry Rosenbloom and his wife Stephanie and celebrity Christina Crawford and her husband David Koontz. There were 19 limited partners. The partnership, formed in 1980, purchased a ranch of 480 acres in rolling hills twenty miles northeast of San Luis Obispo near Highway 41. It was a remote area at the time. While all the partners had an interest in wine, they had no experience in grape growing, winemaking or wine marketing. Forty-five acres of vineyards were planted with Sauvignon Blanc, and a winery constructed by 1982.
Victor’s second position was that of the Creston Manor winemaker. The winery building was barely completed before his first harvest; Victor made his first wine, Sauvignon Blanc. Over the next 10 years, his wines would win over 300 awards for Creston Manor Winery. In 1987 when Christina and her husband divorced, the business took in new partners including celebrity Alex Trebek, host of the television show Jeopardy. The name was changed to Creston Winery.
The Roberts Family Purchases a 100-acre Ranch in Templeton
As mentioned earlier Roberts represents the essence of the small high-quality producer that shaped the Wine History of the County in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to do so. He became a role model for excellence in the county as he transitioned into growing and winemaking on his own land.
Victor and Leslie decided to buy their own land in 1984. They selected a 100-acre ranch on El Pomar Drive in Templeton with a 50-year-old Spanish farmhouse which they restored. They initially planted 15 acres of vineyards and viewed themselves as weekend farmers. The grape variety was determined by the location of their vineyard, the soil and local climate. The relatively cool and windy conditions produced premium Chardonnay grapes. Victor shares his knowledge, noting that the key to producing high-quality grapes is good air penetration. To quote Victor, “you want wind penetration under the canopy which reduces the risk of mildew.” The Templeton area also presents challenges with deer and a few insects; the deer which are controlled with an eight-foot electric fence and the insects are controlled with spraying. Solar panels have been added to generate energy.
Victor stated in the early 1990s that vineyards were potentially more profitable than a winery operation. He cautioned that before investing, there were two important hurdles to overcome. The first challenge is the four-year lag between planting the vineyard and the first grape harvest, requiring significant capital investment and no cash return. In 1992, Victor estimated that the cost of planting and maintaining a vineyard required an investment of $10,000 per acre. The second hurdle is to develop contracts with grape buyers and a marketing plan to sell your harvest before planting a vineyard. The grower cannot leave the sale of the harvest to chance.
In 1987 Victor and Leslie welcomed their son, Kevin. Victor fondly remembers placing him in his backpack as he pruned and managed his vineyard. Initially, Victor did all the physical work in the vineyard including the drip irrigation. He uses a tractor for breaking up the surface soil or discing, and mowing the vineyard. Today he has additional workers to help maintain the vineyard.
Victor’s first harvest was in 1989 and his grapes were purchased by local wineries including Creston Vineyard and Winery.
The second planting of Chardonnay was completed in 1993. The first planting of Zinfandel was in 1995, Merlot was added in 1996. In 1997 Syrah, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Sirah were added. Grapes continued to be sold to local winemakers. The last planting was Viognier in the year 2000 until it was decided to replace a small amount of Chardonnay with Tannat in 2013.
Creston Manor Wine served at Presidential Inaugural Celebration in 1989
1989 was also the year that Victor crafted a new wine in honor of newly elected George H.W. Bush to be served at his inauguration in Washington D.C. It was known as the 1988 Presidential Cuvee made with the classic blend of 85% Semillon which had been fermented in stainless steel tanks to enhance and preserve the fruitiness and 15% Sauvignon Blanc which was barrel fermented in French oak barrels for nine months on the yeast lees. The Presidential Cuvee was served as a chilled aperitif; it sold commercially for $9 per bottle. California artist James-Paul Brown was commissioned to paint a portrait of George H.W. Bush which was printed on the label of this limited release. After the inaugural events, the remaining bottles of Presidential Cuvee were not allowed to be sold commercially in the United States. They were shipped to Japan and sold consumers, creating new groups of wine admirers for Creston Manor wines.
Los Angeles Times Critic Robert Lawrence Balzer
The Los Angeles Wine Critic, Robert Lawrence Balzer, wrote about Creston Vineyard and Winery in the April 16, 1989 edition of Los Angeles Times Magazine. He described the Inaugural Event discussed in the paragraph above, as well as a recent blind tasting organized by Rod Smith, writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Rod had organized a panel of six tasters including a wine market analyst, a wine buyer and a chef. The panel voted the new Creston Manor 1987 San Luis Obispo Chardonnay “the number one Chardonnay ” over and above the famous Sterling Vineyard 1987 Chardonnay. Victor’s wine was described as “a beautifully balanced, tightly structured Chardonnay in the French style.” It sold for $12 per bottle.
Although the 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon made with 90% Cabernet and 10% Merlot was not a winner, Balzer praised it as a wine with a satin smoothness and harmonious finish; it was aged 27 months in the barrel before bottling. The label designated it as the Winemaker’s selection, selling for $16.50 per bottle.
Balzer was the first to note that Creston Manor received its first gold medals for its first vintage, the 1982 Sauvignon Blanc made by Victor Hugo Roberts. Every vintage edition that Victor made continued to win gold medals.
Balzer also wrote about the Creston Manor Beaujolais Nouveau, a varietal that became immensely popular in the 1980s among California winemakers. Balzer praised the use of Pinot Noir grapes in the winemaking rather than the traditional use of California Gamay; he stated that Creston Manor was the first in California to use Pinot Noir which created a Beaujolais Nouveau with a floral bouquet and a taste that suggested rose petals. He praised Victor’s technique, which included submitting the Pinot Noir grapes to the classic carbonic maceration method where the whole cluster of grapes are placed in open fermenters, producing a wine of intense color with no tannic bitterness. Balzer also noted although the wine was ready for the market within 60 days of harvest after being cold-settled, racked, gently filtered, bottled and labeled, Victor’s wine would continue to develop for the next two to three years unlike other Beaujolais Nouveaus. The price was $8 per bottle.
Shaping the Paso Robles Wine Region
July Ackerman was hired as the founding Executive Director of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association to establish the organization as a regional wine trade organization in July 1992. She was also hired by the Chamber of Commerce to coordinate the tenth annual Paso Robles Wine Festival. The goal was to establish Paso Robles as a world-class wine region. July worked closely with Victor Hugo Roberts to achieve these goals.
In 1982, Victor Hugo joined the committee. Tom Martin was the Chairman; committee members included Gary Eberle, Herman Schwartz, Tom Baron, Jim Kolb, Victor Hugo Roberts, and Pat Mastan. The task of creating a Paso Robles Wine Festival at a time when the concept was unique proved to be challenging and required many volunteer hours. It was an immediate success. Each committee member worked with lists and friends to notify potential attendees from the San Francisco Bay to San Diego on the California Coast, as well as the Fresno to Bakersfield corridor in Central California.
The first Paso Robles Wine Festival, held in the Downtown City Park in Paso Robles hosts 16 winemakers. Each winemaker had a booth with two wine barrels and a 4’ by 6’ plank set on top to offer tastings of the wines poured, including Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Festival was a success with an estimated 2500 participants.
According to July, “Vic was highly instrumental in putting Paso Robles on the map as an up-and-coming wine region in the 1990s and beyond. In his role as chairman of the Paso Robles Wine Festival committee and President of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association, (PRVGA), Vic was uniquely qualified to lead our group through its infancy. He was one of those leaders Steven Covey would characterize as highly effective, with a quiet style. He kept us on track in our meetings, built consensus, and was far more interested in achieving our common goals than in power.”
July observed the characteristics that make Roberts so successful in guiding organizations. She describes his kind and respectful manner toward everyone he works with. He listens, can prioritize and focus on group goals. His most impressive skill is his ability to get things done. He is totally committed to the job he takes on. July summarizes his impact on her career: “Vic was an important mentor to me. I learned so much from him about group processes, business, leadership, and wine. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with him for so many years.”
Roberts has served as a consultant to many in the wine industry. He consults on vineyard production. He also works through all the challenges facing the person who decides to start a winery without a background in the wine industry including the selection of barrels, bottling materials and packaging. As the Chairman of the Paso Robles Wine Festival Committee, he handled all the marketing as well as the organization and management of the event. These skills have been an asset in his consulting practice.
Victor Hugo Winery
Victor resigned as President of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association and as the winemaker at Creston Vineyard and Winery in 1996 to focus on developing his own facility in the old redwood hay barn, built between 1890 and 1900 on the ranch. The first step was to remove old equipment from all the outbuildings and put a new roof on the old barn. Victor discovered that with the cool nights in Templeton that the barn keeps the wine cool with refrigeration needed only a few hours in the morning on a hot day. He has installed solar panels to boost energy availability.
Roberts’ winemaking methods remain based on science with little manipulation. His wines continue to impress all who enjoy them. Gary Eberle would like Victor to be recognized for all his contributions to the wine history of Paso Robles. Gary often complains that Victor is the premier winemaker in the county, who does not receive enough recognition for his winemaking. He praises Victor’s Cabernet Sauvignon as outstanding.
In all my interviews with local winemakers, Gary’s praises were echoed. And the final thought expressed in the interviews is “Victor Hugo Roberts is a true gentleman and a very dedicated family man.”
1954: Birth of Victor Hugo Roberts, who is named after his uncles, Victor and Hugo. His family is of French descent however the family name, Robert, was anglicized by his great-grandfather Victor circa 1875. Victor grew up in Coalinga, California.
1972: Roberts graduates from Coalinga High School with an interest in science.
1972: Roberts is accepted at the only college to which he applied: University of California,Davis.
1972: Roberts enrolls in general science major at UC Davis.
1976: Selected new major in Fermentation Science.
1979: Graduated from UC Davis in June with a Bachelor of Science in Fermentation Science with an emphasis in Enology.
1979: Employed at Italian Swiss Colony in Asti, California as an Assistant Enologist.
1980: Employed at Brookside Vineyard Company in Guasti, California as the Assistant Winemaker. This winery was one of the bright stars of the California Wine Revolution of the 1960s.
1980: Creston Manor Vineyard formed as a general partnership by Larry Rosenbloom and his wife Stephanie with Christina Crawford and her husband David Koontz. There were 19 members participating as limited partners in the partnership. The partnership purchases the 480-acre ranch, located in the hills 20 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo in the La Panza Mountains. 45 acres of young vines are planted.
1982: Victor Hugo is hired at Creston Manor Winery and Vineyard in dual positions as Winemaker and General Manager. In July 1982, the winery was under construction and completed in September for 1982 crush.
1982: First harvest at Creston Manor Vineyard; first Creston Manor wine, Sauvignon Blanc, made by Victor Hugo Roberts at the winery. The wine won a gold medal as the first vintage of Creston Manor Vineyard and Winery.
1982: Victor Hugo joined the committee formed by the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce to establish the first Paso Robles Wine Festival.
1982: Community leaders determine the need for the Paso Robles region to be designated as an AVA. A committee is formed to research and write the application for the Paso Robles AVA. Roberts joins the committee, focusing on research to complete and submit the application.
1983: The application for the Paso Robles AVA is approved, and the AVA established. There are fourteen wineries and 3,800 acres of vineyards planted within the boundaries of the AVA.
1984: Victor and Leslie purchase land of 108 acres in Templeton. They develop a business plan to grow one variety, Chardonnay. Victor continues to work as winemaker at Creston Manor.
1984: Second annual Paso Robles Wine Festival. Roberts serves on the Paso Robles Annual Wine Festival Committee through 1996.
1985: Roberts plants 15 acres of vineyards on his property with one variety: Chardonnay.
1985: Third Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival
1986: Fourth Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival
1987: Leslie and Victor are proud parents of a son, Kevin.
1987: Creston Manor Vineyards and Winery is reorganized as David and Christina Crawford Koontz withdraw as partners. Alex Trebek becomes a partner and gradually accumulates a large holding as he buys out other partners. The name is changed to Creston Vineyard and Winery.
1987: Fifth Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival.
1988: Sixth Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival.
1988: Roberts becomes Chairman of the Sixth Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival, and serves for eight years.
1989: At the January Inaugural Event honoring the newly elected President George H. W. Bush, Creston Vineyard and Winery is one of the select group of wineries pouring a chilled aperitif at the Inauguration. Creston’s new wine is named Presidential Cuvee at $9 per bottle with a label showing a commissioned portrait of President Bush for the Inaugural by California artist James-Paul Brown. The wine itself was a classical blend of 85% Semillon and 15% Sauvignon Blanc.
1989: Seventh Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival.
1989: Victor Hugo and Leslie Roberts complete their first harvest in the vineyards they planted in 1985.
1989-1993: Because of a phylloxera infestation in many vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, top winemakers and wineries created a strong demand for grapes grown in Paso Robles. Many of the old vineyards were cleared and replanted with a new phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The increased demand stimulated the planting and expansion of vineyards in San Luis Obispo County to meet the demand for grapes.
1992: Roberts celebrates his 10th anniversary as winemaker and general manager of Creston Vineyards. During these ten years, his wines earned more than 300 awards.
1993: Erin Roberts, a daughter, is born.
1993: Roberts joins as a member of the founding Board of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association. Roberts serves on the Board for four years and as Founding President for three years 1993-1995. His leadership is highly praised.
1996: Roberts resigns as Chairman of the Annual Paso Robles Wine Festival and from the Board of the Paso Robles Vintners and Growers Association.
1997: Roberts resigns from Creston Vineyard and Winery and transitions to winemaker at his own winery.
1997: Victor and Leslie found their own winery, Victor Hugo Winery in an old redwood barn on their ranch in Templeton.
1998: Creston Vineyard and Winery is sold.
1999: First Vintages of Victor Hugo wines are released including Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Opulence (Bordeaux style blend).
1999: Tasting room at Victor Hugo Winery is opened to the public but appointments are required.
1999 to present: wines created by Victor Hugo have received over 600 medals in wine competitions.
2000: The vineyard reached its full footprint of 78 acres planted.
2001: The Victor Hugo Wine Club was established.
2018: As of this year the vineyards of Victor Hugo Winery are growing the following varieties: Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petit Sirah, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and the most recent addition Tannat.
2019: Wines are sold directly to customers and wine club members as well to restaurants and wine bars across the country.