John Rivenburgh & his Kerrville Hills Incubator Propel Texas Wine Growth

Recent economic indicators signify that the Texas wine industry continues to grow at a substantial rate with no signs of slowing down. The most recent economic impact study from the National Association of American Wineries’ shows that the industry contributed $20.35 billion to the American economy in 2022, which puts Texas just second behind California in wine’s overall economic impact. Just five years ago, that number was $13.1 billion for Texas – an increase of more than 55%!

John Rivenburg | Photo courtesy of Big Thirst Marketing

The continued growth is attributed to a number of things – education, better wine, marketing – and hard work. One of the folks doing the work is John Rivenburgh, owner of Kerrville Hills Winery. Rivenburgh, a sixth generation Texan, has nearly twenty years of wine experience and, early on, saw the potential of the industry. Nicknamed “The Reverend” by some for his deep sense of respect and admiration for the industry, he’s sincere in his belief that Texas wine can compete with – and beat – wine from anywhere else. And he’s putting his money (and effort) where his mouth is.

The Rise of the Incubator

The barrel room at Kerville Hills Winery featuring the wines of multiple producers | Photo Credit: Katrina Rene

Rivenburgh is also the man behind Texas’ first ever wine incubator, a communal space for those that are interested in trying their hand at Texas wine. Located at Rivenburgh’s Kerrville Hills facility, the incubator supports its members in all aspects of the wine industry. “Our goal is just to give people a safe set of training wheels to learn winemaking and everything that it encompasses,” he says. “It’s not just ‘here’s the yeast, here’s how you start a fermentation.’ It’s all the things that go into it, including the logistics, the network.” 

The services offered by the incubator are quite extensive. Everything from growing grapes and managing a vineyard, to running a tasting room and marketing is fair game. “They can learn front of the house, learn about the regulatory process, marketing, all sorts of things,” he shares. Where some similar programs may simply offer use of the space or crush pad facilities, Rivenburgh’s company goes beyond. “We’ve integrated consulting, both from a vineyard and winery business standpoint, and coupled that with winemaking facilities.”

Rivenburgh first got the idea of the incubator during a trip to Washington State. “Washington has a state-funded wine incubator program based in Walla Walla,” he says. “It’s where the birthplace of this came from. I visited and fell in love with the concept. I thought, what better way to help people who don’t necessarily have millions of dollars sitting around make quality wines and even open a winery of their own.”

Even before the incubator was officially born, Rivenburgh had been laying the foundation. The idea began sprouting during his consulting days after he’d left winemaking at Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas. “I’d like to think that we are part of the reason that the incubator started,” says Mike Nelson, winemaker at Ab Astris Winery. “We were dabbling with the idea of starting a winery and that was honestly as a result of John.” Years before, Nelson and his family had visited Bending Branch and found themselves amazed at the quality of the wines. That visit helped plant the seed.

Over the years, Nelson kept up with Rivenburgh and when he and his family got to the stage of actually pursuing winemaking, he knew whom to call. The timing couldn’t have been better as Rivenburgh was ramping up his consulting practice. “We were one of his first consulting clients,” says Nelson. “For a time, we were nomads making our wine wherever they would have us. Basically, wherever John had consulting clients. Those were essentially the pre-incubator days.” Despite making wine, Ab Astris still wasn’t in a financial position to build a facility of its own. But it wasn’t just Ab Astris. Others in the industry were also looking for a place to get their projects started. Rivenburgh, recognizing the need and recalling the experience in Washington, purchased Kerrville Hills Winery, which had recently been put up for sale. The first harvest at Kerrville Hills was in 2019.

Success is Proof

Seeing the success of Ab Astris is proof that the concept works. Not only did they go on to plant an estate vineyard in 2018, the fruit for the 2023 harvest will be processed in their own facility. “2022 was our last harvest there. And we definitely wouldn’t be where we are without John,” says Nelson. Over the years, the wines of Ab Astris have been met with widespread acclaim, garnering numerous awards and medals. “When we started, there were other wine consultants; but, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have wanted to work with anyone else. What John brought to the table in creating an environment to teach me, but also giving me enough leeway to do my own thing, was huge.”

For Nelson, it also wasn’t just the obvious areas where Rivenburgh was a resource. “A lot of what’s been most helpful with John are the little things. I was a city boy through and through. If things didn’t go my way, I’d just be ready to stop. I guess you could say I had a lot of ‘quit’ in me,” he laughs. He credits Rivenburgh for helping him to build resolve and problem solve. “In this industry you have to be resourceful and willing to get your hands dirty,” he says. “John is truly the ‘Jack of all trades’ and taught me everything from hooking up a gooseneck trailer to working a forklift.”

Nelson marvels at Rivenburgh’s ability to be so many things when it comes to wine. “I mean the dude can fix anything, operate just about any piece of equipment, get anything done.” Miguel Lecuona, co-owner of former member Siboney Cellars, also credits Rivenburgh for his resourcefulness. “Harvest is both planned and unplanned and John knows this all too well,” says Lecuona. While the team at Siboney were in the midst of building their own space, they still had harvest to contend with and Lecuona knew that they had a strong partner in Rivenburgh. “He’s seen a lot of vineyards, harvests, and crushes in his time. He rolls with the changes and helps solve a lot of situations before they become problems.”

There’s a tremendous sense of pride for Rivenburgh when clients are able to move out on their own. “It’s like raising kids and watching them do well,” he says. But even when a member formally leaves the incubator, the collaboration continues. While Siboney is no longer actively making wines at the incubator, the partnership continues to bear fruit. “We have been selling and serving wine at Siboney since the spring of 2021,” shares Lecuona. “However, some areas were not completed in time for the 2021 and 2022 harvests, so we relied on John’s team for bottling as well as for significant logistics like transferring finished wine and empty barrels back to our site.” And, because of Rivenburgh’s experience, Lecuona knew they didn’t have to worry that the bottling wasn’t under their own roof. “We not only authorized Kerrville Hills to act on our behalf to bottle the wine, we even allowed them to submit our labels to TTB for Federal approval,” says Lecuona.

The Community Impact

Students and locals help to plant a vineyard at Schreiner University | Photo courtesy of Kerrville Hills Winery

While the incubator has certainly met Rivenburgh’s expectations, it has also exceeded them. One of the things he’s most proud of is the communal aspect of the incubator. “We’ve created a winemaking community based around this facility and have people here that can serve as a resource,” he says. “Why go in and stumble around when you can be in a safe place and learn with others?” Nelson agrees; and, for him, it has been a revelation. “One of the benefits of the incubator has been that, as I’ve gone through the process, I’m now able to answer others’ questions. They can bounce ideas off of me and I can pass on some of those kernels of wisdom,” he says. “There’s no doubt that you learn a subject better if you not only go through it, but then also teach it. So, the incubator provides that kind of full-circle experience.”

The impact of Kerrville Hills has even extended beyond the grounds of the winery. Rivenburgh was recently approached by Schreiner University in Kerrville to partner with them to start an enology and viticulture program. The first step was planting a vineyard at the university, which was just completed at the end of April 2023. Beyond that, the collaboration will entail students making wine at the Kerrville Hills facility, paving the way for future generations of winemakers.

Listening to Rivenburgh, there’s little doubt about his zeal and enthusiasm. “For me, this is a passion project,” he says. “At the end of the day, when I stand in a room with people I’ve helped shepherd, father, and mentor through all the things that they’re doing, it’s very fulfilling.” Keenly aware of the impact of Rivenburgh’s efforts on Texas wine beyond simply those with whom he has worked, Siboney’s Lecuona puts it best, “He is good for us and good for Texas Wine!”