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Rabbit Ridge Winery - Russian River Valley


The Tale of Rabbit Ridge

Slow and steady are the operative words at Rabbit Ridge Winery. Contrary to their winery name, owners Erich Russell and Darryl Simmons have not just hopped into the premium winemaking scene. It's taken more than 10 years of practical experience, experimentation and fine tuning, to slowly and quietly emerge as one of California's best small, premium wineries.

"We've done it all ourselves." beams Erich. "We grew the operation gradually, without outside 'big-company' money." "And the winery has been profitable since day-one," adds Darryl. The pair attribute their operational success to the fact they literally do everything themselves. From harvesting to crushing, bottling to bookkeeping, they maintain total control of every aspect, from vine to wine. The results are not just on the balance sheet, they're in the bottle too. Rabbit Ridge wines have been winning top awards at virtually all the major wine competitions.

The saga began in 1970, in San Diego, where highschool pals Erich Russell and Darryl Simmons were each track stars. Erich, a senior and team captain had been nicknamed "The Rabbit" by his teammates. The running records he set throughout San Diego county were a lasting tribute to his superb running ability. That is, until Darryl broke most of the records three years later! The records may not have lasted, but "The Rabbit" nickname did.

Although they attended different colleges in the San Diego area, the two kept in touch. Over the following few years both, independently, had developed a fascination with wines. Their combined interest in wines, led them to numerous fact-finding trips to the wine country, to every wine event possible and even to home-winemaking. In 1974, Erich sent away for winemaking books from the University of California at Davis. Armed with their how-to textbooks and a lot of ingenuity, they churned out their first batch of wine. "We 'appropriated' some grapes from an experimental vineyard owned by UC Davis in Temecula," laughs Erich. "And made the wine in a bathtub!"

By 1977, their wines were turning out so well, they entered a Chardonnay in the amateur division of the Orange County Fair. And to their amazement, the wine won a Gold Medal. That was when they realized they were on to something. "At that point, we figured, what the hell! Let's go for it!" recalls Darryll. Go for it they did. Within two years time they had searched out and bought 45 acres in the Russian River Valley area of Sonoma County.

Both Erich and Darryl held other full-time jobs to make ends meet, but managed to turn out their first vintage in 1981. "We made two barrels of Zinfandel and two of Chardonnay," recalls Erich, joking, "We didn't want to overextend ourselves." But by 1985, Rabbit Ridge was a bonded winery and on it's way to today's production of 25,000 cases a year,

Under the Rabbit Ridge label, about 10,000 cases are made of Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, a Rhone style red wine blend they call "Allure", and a generic white they name "Mystique." Two thousand cases of Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Grenache are bottled under the exclusive "Clairvaux" label (So named after Bernard de Clairvaux, who became St. Bernard, owner of purportedly the best wine cellar of the Crusades era). And yet another label, Meadow Glen, is home to several lower priced varietals, made from grapes that don't pass the muster for use in the premium wines.

The slow, steady growth continues at Rabbit Ridge. They have a fuzzy target of 30,000 cases a year, but with no specific timetable to get there. Plans are in the works to expand the winery, add more tanks and build a tasting room to accommodate the growing number of visitors who have been lucky enough to discover one of California's best kept secrets.

This month's selections feature two of Rabbit Ridge's best. Chardonnay is without a doubt the wine for which Rabbit Ridge is best known. And Erich Russell affirms that their '91 Rabbit Ridge Estate Chardonnay, is their best ever. In the first competition after it's release, the wine promptly won a Gold Medal. And with most of the 1993 competitions just around the corner, it is a sure bet to pick up a cluster of medals. They are unusually proud of their '89 Clairvaux Merlot too. In what proved to be a difficult year for California Merlots, they were able to style the wine with a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon to woo the judges into yet another Gold Medal. We hope you enjoy this month's featured selections from Rabbit Ridge.



Rabbit Ridge owners Erich Russell and Darryl Simmons

It seems that Rabbit Ridge owners Erich Russell and Darryl Simmons have led parallel lives. Both were born and raised in San Diego. They attended the same high school. Each broke records throughout San Diego County while running on the school track team. Both stayed in town to attend nearby colleges. And each one, independently, acquired a keen interest in wine during the same time period. Now, of course, Erich and Darryl are partners in a successful, up and coming small California winery in Sonoma County, California.

With tongue in cheek, Erich recalls his earliest interest in winemaking, spawned from watching one of the television detective shows, Columbo. This particular episode took place at a winery where two brothers were feuding about the direction they should take the winery. One brother wanted to make jug wines, the other, premium wines. As things turned violent, one brother ended up literally blended with a batch of red wine, and the other ended up in a cell, aging for the rest of his life! While trying to uncover the crime, the storyline had Columbo learning about the basics of winemaking, to which Erich paid close attention.

The show aired while Erich was attending San Jose State on a track scholarship in the early seventies. After two years, he transfered back to his home town and finished up at San Diego State, earning a degree in Environmental Geography. By 1979, Erich had been teaching junior high school and coaching high school track for nine years. During the summer break he headed to northern California. There he landed a temporary job working the harvest and in the cellar for Chateau St. Jean, thinking he would return in time for school in the fall.He never went back to San Diego.

After a year and a half, Erich moved from Chateau St. Jean to Simi Winery. There, he was senior cellarmaster, until leaving for Belvedere Winery in 1987. As assistant winemaker, Erich was hired at Belvedere to upgrade their Chardonnay process. Soon he was heading up the entire Reserve wine division, and ultimately became Belvedere's Vice President. To this day Erich still holds the V.P. position at Belvedere, and helps Darryl run the Rabbit Ridge operation.

Only since December of 1992, has Darryl been devoting full time to running Rabbit Ridge. The growing time demands at Rabbit Ridge finally compelled him to end a successful stint at Sehesio Winery, where as National Marketing Director, he helped grow sales from 22,000 cases to 110,000 in just a few years.

Darryl's journey into the wine business began after his college years at San Diego State, where he earned a Marketing & Management degree in Business. In 1979, he became a broker for Merrill Lynch and later, for Bateman Eichler, where he was involved with putting together financing for several winery operations. That connection eventually led him to Milano Winery where he was hired as General Manager. Three years later Darryl opened his own wine consulting business. And while offering financial guidance and operational expertise to a number of winery clients, he met the owners of Seghesio Winery who convinced him to join their operation full time.

Does it sound like these guys are busy’!’! Erich and Darryl wouldn't have it any other way. "The wine business is our life, right now," says Erich, "There's not much time for anything else." "By employing only each other at Rabbit Ridge, it keeps the overhead low, the production small, and the wine prices affordable." reasons Darryl. "We want to be known for producing top-notch wines, consistently, year-in and year-out, but at a reasonable price."

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