Rabbit Ridge vintner knows what's in a name
side 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 and Lambrusco.

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 Nugget markets.

-By Mike Dunne-
The Sacramento Bee
Food Editor
(Published March 24, 1999)

Rabbit Ridge Vineyards / 3291 Westside Road / Healdsburg, CA  95448 / 707-431-7128

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