Molly Lonborg: Alta Colina

The fork in the road can alter a person’s goals and life. Molly Lonborg had a career path she was going to follow, yet because of happenstance, Molly ended up going in a different direction because of a “logical” decision she made which she thought would be beneficial in pursuing her original goal. Although Molly says there was no special “A-ha” moment that set her on the path of winemaking, it was this well-thought-out decision that became her “A-ha” moment.

There is Always a Journey

Photo credit: Craft & Cluster

When you meet Molly, (over a glass of wine), she starts talking about winemaking, and how she got there. Molly is vibrant, intelligent, passionate, and introspective with a burning desire to know more about her field, extremely well-focused and as she says, is a lifelong learner. In some ways, that says it all about Molly’s path to take the fork that led in a related, yet different direction from what she originally imagined. That choice eventually led to the position of head winemaker at Alta Colina.

The Long and Winding Road

Growing up in Mendocino, not being exposed to “big city life,” Molly spent a lot of time surrounded by nature’s beauty, wandering amongst the giant redwoods on one side and entranced by the Mendocino Coast on the other. Attending Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo, with a love of geology, she majored in earth and soil science; Molly’s goal was to be a farmer, concentrating on organic and sustainable viticulture; she wanted to spend her life in the vineyards.

Molly knew that the best way to get immersed in farming and to learn about grapes and wine would first be to spend time in the wine cellar, learning all she could about wine and winemaking. Her “scientific reasoning” was simple: If she could learn how great wine is made, she could then focus on how to grow great grapes. Molly also knew that once she went into the vineyard, she would want to stay there. How life changes. 

Photo of Maggie, Bob, and Lynn Tillman

It turned out that Molly’s decision to first go into the cellar and learn was her “A-Ha” moment. Once Molly started to make wine, she felt an irresistible magnetic draw, and realized: it wasn’t the vineyard that she knew she couldn’t leave, it was the wine cellar!

For the fifteen or so years before joining the Tillman Family at Alta Colina, Molly’s life was a whirlwind, being fast-paced, while absorbing and learning everything she could in terms of viticulture and winemaking. She put herself on the fast track. It was an exciting time. Studying geology in New Zealand, then entering the Cal-Poly wine program in 2006 (and somehow finding time to play rugby), Molly was always on the move. After graduating in 2009, Molly went to work in the lab at Baileyana in the Edna Valley.

This was followed by an internship at Justin in Paso Robles in 2010, and in 2011, Molly began working at Halter Ranch.  Over the next nine years, Molly was involved in various positions including lab manager, brand ambassador, enologist, and assistant winemaker. Learning virtually all aspects of wine and the wine business, was the real-world, practical education you don’t get in school. Then in 2020, her life took a quantum leap, Molly was offered the head winemaker position at Alta Colina. Having known the Tillman Family for some time, Molly (and Bob Tillman) knew this was the perfect fit, and so it was. 

From starting Alta Colina in 2003, Bob had been the winemaker, (in addition to janitor, field hand, etc.), building up a substantial, respected reputation for his wines.  Bob realized it was time to pull back to oversee all the technical details of the vineyard and winery but needed to find the absolute right fit to carry on the winemaking responsibilities, someone who was in lockstep with his vision. Molly was that person. 

Molly had earned a solid reputation in the wine industry, and just before joining Alta Colina, she had the honor of being named Winemaker of the Month (February) by Wine Business Magazine, Bob wasted no time in getting her on board.

Having complete confidence in Molly, knowing her personally, and observing her growth over the years, adding Molly to the winery family was a natural, comfortable progression and changeover.

Joining a new winery, and being in charge, in the middle of a pandemic presented challenges, but Molly loves challenges. Her new position offered her creative freedom, and in 2020, (being her first vintage), Molly introduced a carbonic Grenache to the Alta Colina line. Pandemic or not-nothing was going to stand still or be held up. As Molly describes winemaking, all that’s involved, and the challenges, she says: “It’s just way too much fun.” Now in her fourth vintage for Alta Colina, it’s going to be great fun to follow (and taste) Molly’s path at Alta Colina.

Molly Lonborg-The Winemaker & Jordan Lonborg-The Viticulturist

Photo credit: Craft & Cluster

I’ve always felt that the wine you drink reflects the person and personality of the individual winemaker. And, to fully appreciate wine, you need to know something about that person. But telling Molly’s story wouldn’t be complete without knowing something about her husband Jordan Lonborg, or as he is referred to by Jason Haas of Tablas Creek-Jordie. 

Molly is a people person, and certainly not shy, especially when it comes to meeting people. It was on a trip to Costa Rica in January of 2006 while hanging out in a local bar, where Molly met a young man from Boston, Jordan Lonborg (but that’s a story for Molly to tell). 

Eventually, Jordie would move to the Central Coast to pursue a career in viticulture, (but truth be told, to be near Molly). Interestingly enough, in 2006 neither Jordie nor Molly were really into wine as a career. Moving to San Luis Obispo, Jordan attended Cal-Poly, studied fruit science, and fast forward to today, is the vineyard manager for Tablas Creek Winery. Quite a fast-track accomplishment at such an esteemed winery and a compliment about his abilities.

As Molly tells the story of their meeting and eventual relationship, she asks Jordie one time “Do you want to be a winemaker?” At that point Molly laughed and said, “It’s a good thing he didn’t, he knows nothing about winemaking…keep him in the vineyards, and out of the winery, he knows how to grow great grapes, but don’t let him make wine.” (Sorry Jordan-this wasn’t an “off the record” comment). When I asked Jordan if he ever wanted to make wine, his answer was “Nope! I enjoy working outdoors.” What a great fit with the winemaker and viticulturist.

Talking to Jordan, he said there’s no question that the reason he became involved with wine was because he met Molly. Following graduation from Cal-Poly, his first job was at the San Bernabe Ranch in King City, then in 2016, Jordan started at Tablas Creek. 

Jordan, like Molly, loves the outdoors and nature. They understand each other’s careers, learn a lot from each other, and are passionate, dedicated, and focused on their careers and home lives.

This husband-and-wife duo love what they do. However, in addition to the “grape babies” (Molly’s expression) that Jordan lovingly tends and raises, and the wine babies that Molly nurtures until release, they have two children of their own, a four-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old to nurture and raise. Their plate is full, yet somehow, they keep their lives well-balanced between work, family, fun, and each other.

Whether it’s growing the best possible grapes or making the best possible wine that reflects the terroir and one’s personality, both Jordan and Molly are extremely well-grounded and focused. Molly says: “Having children puts life in perspective.”  They love what they do, and they love being part of nature, exploring, experimenting, and laughing. As Molly says: “We look around and realize how lucky and fortunate we are.” 

Molly’s wines display her personality. They are vibrant, and full of excitement, yet display an elegance that leaves you wanting more while enjoying the intricacies of her creation. She is always looking forward with passion to what’s next- whether it’s the next vintage or an unexpected challenge. Molly and Jordie truly enjoy life to the fullest: In the vineyard, in the winery, traveling, and enjoying sports, music, and especially their children.

In 2003 when Bob Tillman started Alta Colina he couldn’t have imagined he would be at the cusp of the explosion of the area’s wine industry, being an integral part of creating what is today a well-respected wine region. He has built a reputation of quality earned the respect of his peers, and is more than appreciative of his entire wine family team. 

Talking to Bob about Molly, I asked him to describe Molly. Bob’s reply was short and direct, and demonstrated what he believes she brings to the table for Alta Colina and Paso Robles:

“Molly is technical, detailed, fun, and talented. In ten years, she will be one of the best winemakers around-she will be famous one day.”

If there was ever a perfect fit, it is Molly Lonborg, Jordie Lonborg, and the Alta Colina Tillman family and their wines. This is what happiness looks and tastes like. Cheers!

Don Sonderling is a freelance writer covering California’s Wine Country lifestyle, and culture. He and his wife are constantly sipping their way from Santa Barbara to Napa, focusing on Paso Robles and the Central Coast, where they have explored for about 25 years. Don has earned his WSET2 (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) certification, has completed the Bourgogne Masterclass through the Napa Valley Wine Academy, and is a member of the LA. Wine Writers.

Focusing on the people and unique experiences to be had, Don’s goal is to have people read about California’s amazing wine country adventures, seeing it through his eyes, and say: “I want to go there, try that, meet them,” and enrich the lives of others as his has been, by exploring California’s wine roads.