Interview with Administrative Director, Donna Rene Johnston
Kerrville Hills Winery is a tasting room, production facility, and incubator based in Kerrville, Texas. The Hill at Hye is their private tasting room on the 290 corridor in Hye, Texas. Both locations are under the leadership of John Rivenburgh, a 16-year veteran of the Texas wine community and administered by Donna Rene Johnston, a 12-year staff member and ambassador of sales.
John Rivenburgh was raised in a farming family in San Antonio, Texas. After he was introduced to the Texas wine region, he got immersed in the Texas wine community and found he had a knack for winemaking and a natural palate for wine. He was an early member of the Texas Hill Country Wineries Association (the largest regional wine industry association in Texas) serving as President twice, and served with the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Industry Board.
When he was developing his signature winemaking style, he wanted to incorporate his simple farming principles into his fruit-forward winemaking technique.
“You can’t make great wine with bad fruit. So he tries to find the best fruit available and let it shine. He doesn’t like to overwork his fruit.” said Johnston.
In 2019, Rivenburgh purchased Kerrville Hills Winery. He had long seen the value of an incubator, and had a desire to mentor and help winemakers grow and succeed. So when the Kerrville Hill property became available, and production buildings had enough production capacity to foster winemaker education programming, he went all in. His passion for wine and winemaking is a reflection of his passion for teaching.
“Time has allowed him to develop a point of view in the vineyard. He draws very heavily on his experience to support his clients and to mentor them on winemaking processes – to help them make decisions about what to carry in their tasting room, to help them develop those timelines for opening their tasting room, and getting their winery up and running. And he’s very involved when it comes to the whole process – he does some hand holding, but also a lot of mentoring. He’s really good at what he does, and is humble, friendly and funny. And just exhibits a warmth and a real love for people as much as his wine,” said Johnston.
John Rivenburgh has two labels, one under the Kerrville Hills name and the other under his own, Rivenburgh Wine. They represent his diversity of skill, and his interest in serving the comfortable and the curious.
On one hand, the Kerrville Hills label is primarily showcased at Kerrville Winery, and is known to be reliable in delivering 100% Texas fruit marketed toward consumer tastes. On the other hand, you can try the Rivenburgh Wine label at the Hill at Hye location to create an intimate and elevated experience of his wines, produced in smaller batches to represent what Johnston calls his “artistic expression.”
Kerrville Hills Winery represents a variety of winemaking styles and a diverse group of stakeholders. Rivenburgh prioritizes hiring women and has a great team of women on the team. The number of female clients that make up his incubator program right now is larger than the number of Texas female winemakers in one industry combined. John’s hands-on learning approach to winemaking encourages and motivates those with a desire to learn.
“He takes on a client and his number one goal is for that client to thrive. You see a lot of exciting things during production where all the winemakers are standing around collaborating, figuring out how and what they’re going to do with this fruit or this particular blend or theirs. He’s able to communicate in a way that brings people in to collaborate, gets people excited about the process, and makes everyone feel comfortable and welcome,” said Johnston.
As much as his staff admires his leadership, they equally admire his wines. John is considered a pioneer of Tannat, one of the first to discover the propensity of success growing Texas Tannat.
Johnston described Rivenburgh Tannat by saying, “It really is like drinking midnight. It’s got that dark inkiness to it on a quiet night when the stars are out. It’s just a beautiful wine.”
Johnston made sure to close the conversation by encouraging consumers to pay attention to which wine region you support. In terms of core values, Kerrville Hills Winery is proud to be “100% Texas, and dedicated to being true to the Texas wine industry with the mission to make Texas a world class wine region.”
In the near future, Johnston believes that Texas wine will be put on the map internationally and not just an afterthought when it comes to wines.
Finally, Like many of us, Kerrville Hills has pivoted their plans during COVID to be flexible to the times, learning to navigate the world as it comes, just as the grapes adjust to new climates. To support their efforts, we encourage you to visit their Kerrville Hill tasting rooms in either Kerrville for a casual social scene, or The Hill at Hye for an intimate learning experience, or both!