Ridge vintner knows what's in a name
Aside from price, American wine drinkers are driven more by varietal
designation on a label than any other bit of information -- not the appellation,
not the producer, not the vintage. If it doesn't say Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay,
Merlot or some other grape that makes up the wine entirely or mostly, that bottle
is going to struggle in the marketplace.
Winemakers shake their heads over this development, in large part because they
are poetic folk who go to great lengths to come up with catchy and fanciful proprietary
names for some of their more favored releases.
Erich Russell, however, is one winemaker not at all rattled by any of this.
For one, he's unconvinced that consumers avoid wine unless it states a varietal
on the label, and he has a track record to back up his view. He makes nearly 40
kinds of wine at his Sonoma County winery, Rabbit Ridge, with several bearing
proprietary rather than varietal names, and production is increasingly steadily
as demand builds for his releases.
"The consumer doesn't need a varietal on the label," said Russell at a wine seminar
in Sacramento earlier this year. "They just want wines that actually taste good.
They don't care if Cabernet, Chardonnay or whatever is on the label."
Russell made his remarks during a blind tasting of wines advocated as appealing
alternatives to wildly popular Merlot. His entry was the Rabbit Ridge 1995 California
Montepiano ($11), a Tuscan-inspired blend of Sangiovese, Barbera, Cabernet Franc
Of all the wines in the flight, it came the closest to mimicking the softness
and simplicity credited for Merlot's popularity, but with an added bonus of shifting
and subdued flavors that make it a more provocative companion at the table. You
get a touch of blackberries, a whiff of mint and a hint of flowers, all set off
against a supple texture and a stroke of oak.
In naming the wine, Russell didn't spend a whole lot of time coming up with something
evocative. "Those were the only two Italian words I could pronounce together,"
said Russell. Together, they translate roughly as "gentle hill," fitting for the
softly rolling vineyards about his winery.
The term also represents the character he finds so appealing in Italian wines,
and which he aims to duplicate. "They're soft, round, taste good and are interesting,"
said Russell. "This is the everyday pasta wine at our house."
In the Sacramento area, the '95 Montepiano is at the Nugget market on Riverside
Boulevard, while the new '96 version can be found at both the Riverside and Davis
-By Mike Dunne-
The Sacramento Bee
(Published March 24, 1999)