Bob Tillman describes himself as someone not content to simply pursue hobbies in retirement. But after listening to the story of how he came to establish Alta Colina in the Adelaida District of Paso Robles, I wonder if he might just pursue his hobbies with a bit more drive than most retirees.
Bob didn’t discover wine until he and his wife Lynn took a wine appreciation class during the time he was in graduate school. “My wife and I took that class and we fell in love,” he told a group of us during a recent Zoom conference organized by Fred Swan, wine educator and founder of Wine Writers’ Educational Tours. Over the next 30 years Bob took wine seriously and even became a home winemaker. The idea of having his own winery remained in the back of his mind.
The Site and Vineyards
In 2003 the Tillmans purchased 130 acres in the mountains of the Adelaida District of Paso Robles. “We started with dirt,” Bob told us. The property is rugged with a maximum elevation of 1750 feet above sea level (Alta Colina means high hill.) At 31 acres, the site is fully planted. The rest of the property is too steep and is left to oak forest and the wild animals that inhabit it.
Bob loves drinking Rhone-style wines, so he planted Rhone varieties. Happily this property, which appealed to the Tillmans in part because of its beauty, proved to be the perfect site for Rhone varieties. The vineyards were planted in consultation with a viticulturist and the red varieties (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Petite Sirah) were planted first. The soils drove rootstock selection and topography influenced row orientation. A north-east/south-west row orientation for some blocks allows more morning sun and less afternoon sun, which reduces the heat load on the vines and promotes even ripening. The steepness of the terrain in other blocks dictated a north/south orientation. The white varieties (Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier) were tucked into the remaining sites suitable for vineyards.
Soils are a mixture of calcareous shale and mudstone derived from the Monterey Formation. That translates to basic soils that are porous with a high clay content and excellent water retention. Average annual rainfall is 25 to 28’’, putting Adelaida District among the wettest of Paso’s sub-AVAs. As you might expect, Bob has embraced technology in the vineyard to manage water use. The combination of water-retaining soils, adequate rainfall and technology results in minimal water being drawn from the well and irrigation pond on the property. The water level of the well has remained unchanged since it was first drilled.
Alta Colina vineyards are farmed organically, although they are not certified as such. Early on, Bob began experimenting with organic farming and discovered there was no loss of quality, not a lot of extra work and he was happy not to apply synthetic chemicals on the vineyard. He now also follows no-till practices and has incorporated the use of compost teas. “Our approach is simple,” Bob told us.
Current wine production stands at 3000 cases annually that is comprised essentially of six red wines and four white wines. I noticed a Pet Nat and rosé on the website as well. Alta Colina’s wines are 100% estate grown and Bob sells approximately 35% of this grapes to other winemakers.
Speaking of wine, in April of this year Bob hired Molly Lonborg as Alta Colina winemaker, a position he formerly held. Bob will be able to concentrate his efforts in the vineyard to give Molly the best fruit possible to continue improving Alta Colina’s wines every year.
Molly brings with her a degree in Earth Sciences and nearly a decade of experience making wine in Paso Robles. She comes from a very large producer (Halter Ranch) where she tasted wines in batches to Alta Colina where she is able to taste each barrel of wine individually. This individual approach will allow Molly to incorporate the artistry, creativity and science that drew her to winemaking.
The barrel program at Alta Colina currently includes four to five French coopers with roughly 50% new oak. Various barrel sizes are used and the use of oak in winemaking will continue to support and highlight the bright fruit flavors and not dominate them.
During the time Fred moderated the discussion we sipped a sampling of five Alta Colina wines. Three were barrels samples of 2019 Syrah Block 8 in different cooperages of variable size and age. The second set were bottle samples of 2017 Alta Colina GSM and 2016 Alta Colina Old 900. All were sent to us in individually-labeled tubes.
In general, red wines are aged 20 to 22 months in oak and 1 year in bottle before release. Bob’s goal is to release his wines as they begin to shine, with the expectation they might be in their prime at 10-12 years for many wine drinkers, but up to 20. White wines are made using both stainless steel and barrel.
The 2017 Alta Colina GSM is a lively, fruity expression of Grenache with bright acidity and nice balance. The proportion of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre varies as the vintage dictates. Molly likes to co-ferment Grenache and Syrah when ripening of the two varieties allows.
2016 Alta Colina Old 900 Syrah is generous and dark with more oak influence, but still well balanced and made to age. The name, Old 900, comes from the airplane flown by Maggie Tillman’s grandfather in World War II.
The Alta Colina Experience
The Alta Colina tasting room has been temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic for two months. A robust wine club has helped keep Alta Colina going, but Maggie Tillman (Bob and Lynn’s daughter) who manages sales and marketing looks forward to opening the tasting room soon. She noted the tasting room experience will be different than it was before, with reservations required, but expect it to be personal and informative. Also look for their Summit Tasting (in the vineyard) and Behind the Cellar Door Tasting.
Maggie observed that Paso Robles’ location 3 hours from both Los Angeles and San Francisco makes it a destination, not a day-trip location for most visitors. That translates to tasting room visitors that are very engaged. It also means visitors will need to stay overnight and the Tillmans have you covered.
The Trailer Pond is a collection of five vintage travel trailers surrounding the irrigation pond at Alta Colina. Its location among the organically-farmed vineyards is quiet and peaceful, not to mention scenic. And, Maggie was quick to note, it’s a short ride via a ride-hailing app to fine dining in Paso Robles. It sound ideal, doesn’t it?
I just checked the Alta Colina website and they are planning to reopen the tasting room on June 12! If you are unable to visit, remember Alta Colina wines are available online or for curbside pickup by prior arrangement. Reach out to the winery, they’re happy to help. Plus, we need to keep Bob busy in his retirement.