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Sunday Morning News

Hard Work and Passion Turn California Man Into Elite Winemaker

Aired January 23, 2000 - 9:45 a.m. ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: There are many factors that go into making a world-class wine. Some of it is the soil and the climate, and some of it is the ability of the winemaker. Rabbit Ridge Vineyard has only been around 20 years, but already it's toasted as one of the finest California wineries around.

To find out the secret of its success, CNN's Larry Woods traveled Across America to Sonoma, California.


LARRY WOODS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the grapes of Sonoma County, California, cultivated and coddled in a vineyard called Rabbit Ridge by this man, prize-winning winemaker Eric Russell.

ERIC RUSSELL, RABBIT RIDGE VINEYARDS: The years when they ripen fully, you get really, really spectacular quality grapes on them.

WOODS: Quality and grapes, and the resulting opus of fine wine, have become synonymous with Eric Russell's name in winery circles these days. For one thing, he serves up a renowned red Zinfandel among his 35 various wines, and secondly, he makes it all happen on Rabbit Ridge with only four to five hands-on year-round employees.

Russell began his operation in 1980 after winning first place in a state fair amateur winemaking contest. At his side of the past eight years has been Suzy Selby (ph), confidante, protegee, alter ego, and herself a promising winemaker who doesn't mind getting dirty.

(on camera): It occurs to me this is hard work.

SUZY SELBY, RABBIT RIDGE VINEYARDS: It is very hard work. It's physically demanding.

WOODS (voice-over): It's also paid off. Last year, "Food and Wine" magazine declared Russell's Zinfandel the best red wine buy in the world. And Rabbit Ridge selections consistently make "Wine Spectator"'s top 100 list.

RUSSELL: There's nothing I would rather be doing. A lot of times I'd rather be here making wine than on vacation.

We really don't get into making wine by chemistry. We kind of make it the old-fashioned way, by taste. And we add nothing artificial to our wine at all. In California, you're allowed to add acid, but we never add acid to any wine. We just let the grapes do their thing, and we try to stay out of their way and hope it's good.

WOODS: They do add one natural potion that they believe gives their wine a distinctive edge, however, and it's being DNA-tested.

RUSSELL: This is Suzy's famous wild yeast, Hannibal.

SELBY: I discovered this in a Pinot Noir vineyard, and we've been inoculating all of the tanks with this. And it's been a very exciting success.

VISITOR: I'm a cab (ph) drinker, and I love this thing (ph). Oh!

WOODS: As wine lovers who stop by the small tasting room on the grounds quickly learn, there is no marketing plan, sales staff, or P.R. campaign touting Rabbit Ridge or its owner. But after a few sips, invariably people inquire about the unique name of the wine.

WINE SERVER: See that picture up there? OK, that's Eric Russell. And when he was in high school and college, he was a runner, and his nickname was The Rabbit. So that's how we got the name.

WOODS: Names have a certain cachet, says Russell, but it's the taster's palate that counts most.

RUSSELL: In the wine business, that's the only advertising that really means anything. My philosophy of building a wine brand is, you build it one bottle at a time.

WOODS (on camera): The philosophy among many entrepreneurs is, bigger is better. I take it you don't believe that.

RUSSELL: We've grown really quickly, so now we're kind of holding in the reins a little bit, and we're not going to get much bigger unless we can really keep the quality up.

WOODS: The pinnacles of success can be traced back to some humble beginnings. Take this old shack here. Seventeen years ago, Eric Russell produced his first two barrels of wine, about 100 cases. This year, he and his crew will bottle 225,000 cases of wine.

(voice-over): Russell believes you don't have to be big to produce and distribute good wine nationwide.

RUSSELL: We have wine that I call Wednesday night wines. They're affordable. And then we have wines that'll stand up to the best wines in the world that are more costly.

WOODS: Price range, $7 to $50 a bottle.

Given the size of his company, I was curious how Russell assessed the wines' popularity. RUSSELL: Must be good karma or something. It's not just myself, but everybody that's involved here, it's like a big family winery, even though we're not family.

SELBY: We've never met a grape that we don't like, and Eric is exceptionally talented at taking good fruit and making it into good wine, and making very interesting blends.

WOODS: Passion in pursuit of excellence, says Ms. Selby, is not a vice, only an opportunity.

SELBY: You have a combination of art and science, and you're working with your hands. It's still intellectual. My gratification really comes from what I do in the cellar. And you're creating something.

WOODS: Joanne (ph) Russell, a former model-turned-homemaker plus bookkeeper for her husband's enterprise -- they've been married one year, by the way -- says Eric has been very patient teaching her about the industry and good wine.

JOANNE RUSSELL, ERIC RUSSELL'S WIFE: I'm really able to spot cork wines, wines that are off. And I like that, that sometimes he asks my opinion, What do you think of this wine? What are you tasting? And that always makes me feel really a part of what he's doing.

WOODS: As for opinions, she confided that the president and first lady have served Rabbit Ridge at the White House and liked it a lot.

JOANNE RUSSELL: Oh, yes, Hillary loves the Zinfandel, the reserve Zins, and they're -- they've so far been at two of their bigger dinners. And we have framed plaques and letters signed by everybody.

WOODS: From Rabbit Ridge to the nation's capital. That's a good run, Eric Russell, a mighty good run.


PHILLIPS: Is it too early to sample wine right now?

WOODS: A little, yes. We'll wait till noon.

PHILLIPS: OK, very good.

What a neat story. And the wine is even served in the White House!

WOODS: Yes, yes. Apparently Mrs. Clinton heard about the wine from friends. And, of course, that's always the best way to learn about wine, I guess.

But she had the staff call, and the story goes that Eric was talking to the staff, and Eric's got a dry sense of humor. He's a really neat fellow. And he said he didn't have any in stock, so he went home to his cellar and he got four of his reserve Zinfandel, and he said, "Now, you understand, this is -- that my highest alcohol in -- input content on this wine," so he said, "Be careful, don't let Bill drink too much of it."

And there was this dead silence at the other end of the line. And he said, "You still want the wine?"

PHILLIPS: Right, and that would be -- yes.

WOODS: Yes, he's -- yes, that was a yes. And that is quite an honor, when you think about it, small little wine like that.

PHILLIPS: Now, he said something very interesting. It's the taste, not the chemistry. They make it the old-fashioned way.

WOODS: Yes. They do. Yes, a lot of wineries, I found out, do use a lot of chemicals, you know, and that's fair. But they -- he doesn't do it. He does it very slowly. And I think one of the things they've found is this Hannibal yeast, as he's nicknamed it, you know, it's a natural byproduct, and they're getting great results from it.

There are many ways to make wine. He likes to do it very slowly, very methodically, the old-fashioned way, no additives. That's the key word.

PHILLIPS: And you're saying there's sort of a neat love story between those two too.

WOODS: Well, yes, there's a love story with his love for the winery. He hand-planted every one of those vineyard -- vines 40 years ago.


WOODS: Twenty years ago, I'm sorry, at 40 acres. And so he works with his hands all day long, and he really -- I've never seen anybody get so much into the job, into the profession. The love story ancillary to that is, he met Joanne, he was in St. Petersburg. Joanne is divorced, and she and her ex-husband have joint custody of their child. And he was looking around for someone to add to his staff. She interviewed with him. Eight months later, she married him.


WOODS: And it was a quick romance. And they just fell in love very quickly. He called her from California and said, "Would -- next time, would you like to go out on a date?" She said yes. And they went to the south of France.

PHILLIPS: Oh, what -- and tasted wine.

WOODS: Well, yes, this guy's got great style...

PHILLIPS: He's got class. WOODS: ... yes, he really knows how. And that's -- that is a kind of a nice love story. They go back and forth, but they've worked that out. It's a transcontinental love affair. And he's doing quite well, as you can tell.

PHILLIPS: Terrific. Well, once again, it's a pleasure, Larry. Thanks so much.

WOODS: My pleasure. All right, thank you.

PHILLIPS: All right, you bet.

And if you have a story idea for Larry, you can write him at Larry Woods at Across America. It's One CNN Center, P.O. Box 105366, Atlanta, Georgia 30348. He's here, write him a letter.


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