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Rabbit Ridge Winery - Sonoma County


Rabbit Ridge Excels with Impressive Array of Wines

How can two guys by themselves operate a small 30,000 case winery, make 22 different wines and be highly successful at it? “We grew the operation slowly over the last fifteen years,” says co-owner Darryl Simmons. “And with zero financing from outside sources,” adds winery partner Erich Russell. The pair attributes 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. As a result, it took them twelve long years to reach the 10,000 case production level. That milestone was achieved in 1993 when we first took notice of Rabbit Ridge Winery.
Since that time they have exploded onto the scene by tripling in size. And the results are not just on the balance sheet, they’re in the bottle too. Rabbit Ridge wines have consistently won top medals in every major wine-industry competition for years. After more than fifteen years of practical experience, experimentation and fine tuning, Rabbit Ridge has rightfully emerged as one of California’s best small, 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. Since featuring their Chardonnay and Merlot three years ago, it remains one of the all time winery favorites among members.

The saga began in 1970, in San Diego, where high school 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 those marks 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 and to every wine event possible. They even tried their 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, the two 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 into the amateur division of the prestigious Orange County Fair. 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 Darryl. Go for it they did. Within two years time they had searched out and bought 54 acres of land 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 30,000 cases a year,

Under the Rabbit Ridge label, an amazing 22 different wines are bottled. All are made in small lots, meticulously crafted by Erich Russell who has emerged as one of the premier winemakers in all of California. 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.

Another label owned by Erich and Darryl is called “Meadow Glen,” which fills a lower price and quality niche in the marketplace. About 15,000 cases of Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot are produced under this brand.

The growth continues at Rabbit Ridge. Last year the winery built a 4,000 sq. ft. barrel room to age their expanding red wine program. Also added were additional tanks for production and a new tasting room for the visitors who are lucky enough to find their way there. “We’d like to level off at 50,000 to 60,000 cases,” says Erich. “I’m getting too old to do anymore than that!” he quips.

This month’s selections feature two sides of Rabbit Ridge wines. The 1993 Sangiovese represents an increasing focus on Italian wines and is their second vintage of this varietal. “It’s one of our top red wines,” says Erich. The 1992 vintage received lots of good press and this one is far better. The 1994 Pinot Noir is a new addition to the Rabbit Ridge line-up and although difficult to make is a fairly mainstream varietal. It was released just in time for the last wine competition of 1995 and earned a solid Silver Medal. Although it is great to drink now, the full character of this wine will develop for years to come. We are confident that after tasting these two wonderful wines that you too, will become long time fans of Rabbit Ridge Winery.



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, Erich and Darryl are partners in a successful, 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 story line 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 transferred 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 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.

Since 1992 Darryl Simmons has been devoting full time to running Rabbit Ridge. The growing time demands at Rabbit Ridge finally compelled him to end a successful stint at Seghesio 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. 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.

‘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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