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Rabbit Ridge Winery - Russian River Valley - Sonom


Rabbit Ridge produces nothing but stellar wines year-in and year-out

We could tell you that we planned it all this way, but the truth is, we aren’t that clever. We do know that Rabbit Ridge is one of California’s great wine producers. We did think it was an opportune time to feature Rabbit Ridge close to Easter. But only after we scheduled Rabbit Ridge into our program did we discover the Chinese New Year that started in March is the “Year of the Rabbit”. In addition, and more significantly, owner-winemaker Erich Russell was just named “Winemaker of the Year” by nationally known and respected wine columnist, Dan Berger. Summing things up, Berger says, “My winemaker of the year for 1998 makes great wine. Rabbit Ridge may not have a lot of international panache going for it, no inky Cabernet Sauvignon that causes critics to veritably sing their reviews, but it offers superb values and wonderful tastes that work beautifully with meals.”

Perhaps just as phenomenal as the quality of their wines, is the manner in which the winery has hopped into the California wine scene during the last 18 years. “We grew the operation slowly and with zero financing from outside sources,” says owner Erich Russell. He and a former partner started the winery in 1981 and literally did everything themselves. From harvesting to crushing, bottling to bookkeeping, sales to shipping. They maintained total control of every aspect, from vine to wine and out the door.

Along the way they produced nothing but stellar wines year-in and year-out. But as a result, it took them twelve grueling years to reach the milestone 10,000 case production-level. Still small by most standards, incredibly, in 1993 Erich and his partner were still literally doing everything themselves, while at the same time producing over twenty different wines.

By 1996 his small winery had impressively tripled in size from 10,000 to 30,000 in just a 3 year span. But then something unimaginable happened. “I thought we would max out our production at around 40,000 to 50,000 cases,” recalls Erich. “Then as an experiment, we introduced a group of “popular-priced” Rabbit Ridge wines that sell for under $10.00 retail,” he continued. Faster than rabbits can multiply, word of these good quality, low-priced wines spread like crazy. “Just like that, we were up to 170,000 cases,” Erich says with a snap of the fingers.

Today, Erich has developed three different quality tiers, differentiated by the label design, but all carrying the Rabbit Ridge name. The biggest chunk of production goes into the popular priced tier with the blue denim color label. “I took off my denim shirt and used it as the background,” he says. “These are the ‘everyday’ casual wines for under $10,” he explains. The white and gold colored label is for the mid-tier “weekend” wines ranging from $12.00 to $25.00. And finally, the upper-tier “Grand Reserve” wines use a platinum-colored label. These are special occasion wines that retail for $25.00 and up.

The superb quality of this mid-tier is what initially started and continues to strengthen Rabbit Ridge’s reputation. Rabbit Ridge wines have consistently won top medals in every major wine-industry competition for years. After more than eighteen years of practical experience, experimentation and fine tuning, Rabbit Ridge has rightfully emerged as one of California’s best premium wineries. Noted wine critic, Robert Parker Jr. recently commented, “This winery continues to impress me with its rich, pure, tasty wines that admirably express the varietal characteristics and offer considerable pleasure. It is hard to find a disappointing wine from Rabbit Ridge.” We too have become big fans of Rabbit Ridge. This is a rare, third appearance in the Gold Medal Wine Club for Rabbit Ridge wines. It has proven to be one of the all time winery favorites among members.

The Rabbit Ridge saga began in San Diego, where Erich Russell was a standout in high school track and field. As a senior and team captain, he had been nicknamed “The Rabbit” by his teammates. He set numerous running records throughout San Diego County, all of which over time were surpassed and forgotten, but “The Rabbit” name stuck.

In college Erich developed a fascination with wines. That led him to undertake numerous fact-finding trips to the wine country to attend every wine event possible. He even tried his hand at home winemaking. In 1974, Erich sent away for winemaking books from the University of California at Davis. Armed now with their how-to textbooks and a lot of ingenuity, he churned out his first batch of wine. “My former partner and I ‘appropriated’ some grapes from an experimental vineyard owned by UC Davis in Temecula,” laughs Erich. “And made the wine in a bathtub!”

By 1977 his wines were turning out so well, he entered a Chardonnay into the amateur division of the prestigious Orange County Fair. To his amazement, the wine won a Gold Medal. That was when he realized he was on to something. “At that point, I figured, what the hell! I’m going for it!” Go for it he did. Within two years time he had searched out and bought 54 acres of land in the Russian River Valley area of Sonoma County and started Rabbit Ridge Winery. “It even had rabbits on the property,” laughs Erich.

Both Erich and his early partner 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.

Today an amazing 40+ different wines are bottled. All are made in small lots, hand crafted by Erich and co-winemaker Susie Selby. (Yes, he finally got more help!) From the obligatory Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, to Rhone-style wines Viognier, Carignane and Syrah, to Italian varietals like, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, Erich has proved himself a masterful winemaker. “We like to make wines that go well with food,” comments Erich. “And the Rhone and Italian varietals are great food wines and they don’t have to be aged a long time before they’re great to drink,” he adds. His great Chardonnays are what built his reputation in the beginning, but today his flagship varietal is most certainly Zinfandel, of which he produces no less than 10 different bottlings from select vineyards across the state.

The growth continues at Rabbit Ridge. Last year Erich bought the former Clos du Bois 16,000 square foot winemaking facility and tasting room in Healdsburg. Part of the facility will be used for Susie Selby’s own winemaking venture and will be open for business by summer of 1999. Erich has also invested his future in the Paso Robles area of central California. “The Zin that can be grown down there is just incredible!” he marvels. He plans to plant vineyards and build a new winery facility from scratch, which should take 2 to 3 years to complete.

This month’s featured wines will give you a good idea why wine enthusiasts are so captivated by Rabbit Ridge. His first Paso Robles area Zinfandel is a beauty—big, rich, full-bodied, with jammy fruit and soft tannins. And his signature Reserve Chardonnay is something to sip and marvel at—rich and buttery, with luscious apple and pear fruit flavors.



Erich Russell - Winemaker

With tongue in cheek, Erich recalls his earliest interest in winemaking originated from watching one of television’s 1970s detective shows, Columbo. One particular episode he was watching took place at a winery where two brothers were feuding about how to run the business. One brother wanted to make jug type wines, the other wanted to make premium wines. Things turned violent and one brother ended up literally blended with a batch of red wine, and the other ended up in prison, aging like one of his wines for the rest of his life! While trying to uncover the crime, the story line had Columbo meticulously learning about the winemaking process, 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 transferred back to his hometown 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 program. Soon he was heading up the entire Reserve wine division, and ultimately became Belvedere’s Vice President. In 1995, he left Belvedere to devote full time to his own endeavors at Rabbit Ridge.

‘The wine business is our life, right now,” says newly married Erich. ‘There’s not much time for anything else.” ‘By employing only 4 or 5 people, it keeps the overhead low, the production small, and the wine prices affordable.” ‘We want to be known for producing top-notch wines consistently, year-in and year-out, at a reasonable price.”

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