the glow of rubissow Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   

Rubissow Vineyard

A New Generation Shines the Light of a Modern Era on its Napa Brand
— An In-Depth Interview with the Hearts & Minds of Rubissow Wines

Steeped in tradition, yet focused on the future. Reverent of the land, yet driven to pushing its potential. Seasoned in experience, yet vibrant with ardor and enthusiasm. Such is the balance struck at the house of Rubissow, the Napa Valley family estate winery that runs on the disciplined vineyard management, erudite winemaking, and savvy sales & marketing of the brother and sister team of Peter and Ariel Rubissow with their partner-in-vine, Timothy Milos. Having remained corporate-free and family-run a full generation after its establishment during the Napa renaissance of the '60s, Rubissow Wines is easily considered a relic among super-premium wine estates. In the interest of peering into the heart of this rare gem, I sat down with the Rubissows and their winemaker in the bright and naturally lit space of the property's charming, contemporary, and ecological guest-house. What I found was a trio of individuals each of whom resonates with one another as they contribute uniquely and collectively to the success of all that is Rubissow Wines.

Roots and Shoots: the Symbols of Rubissow, Yesterday and Today

NM: What is Rubissow?

PR: Rubissow is this vineyard and all its mystery, beauty and challenge. We love this land and want to preserve and steward it well. Rubissow is also our dreams and our hopes and our family's past and our future in one wine. And of course, it's our family name — a Ukranian/Russian name, which is our Dad's heritage. I think that when your name is on a bottle of wine it raises the bar to the highest level in terms of what your commitment is to quality. So, I think we're all very committed to trying to make beautiful wines which respect our past and raise the bar for the future…

TM: For me, I'm thinking not necessarily in terms of Peter and Ariel's name, but in terms of what I do. Rubissow is the expression of this place and these people. It's the wine that's made from the farm that George [Rubissow] found on Mount Veeder, and which Ariel, Peter, and George have been farming for the last 25 years. It is just that; it is just an expression of this land and these people. The house and all the things you see here are all part of what makes it unique, what makes it special. What I do is try to find a lens to focus [all] that through. For me, it's about the vineyard, finding the vineyard's voice, and ensuring that that voice sounds sweet to these people sitting across from me at the table.

AR: To me, I guess it's an emotional thing. Wine is woven into the story of our family history. Our Dad's long walks through Bordeaux vineyards in the past; my own walks through Canadian vineyards in Okanagan Valley; my Ukranian grandfather who, during the time of the Bolsheviks, went down to the wine cellar one evening before dinner and his life being saved by wine somehow, because he happened to be down there when the rest of his family (upstairs) were suddenly eradicated by soldiers... So, here's this 750ml of our legacy; and because it has our name on it, it does have that quality. My father and his father were always concerned with the eternal — like many people are — and both of them tried to think of ways to find the eternal. In making this wine, together as a family, we've found a little of the eternal. It's something bigger than us, but it's also really all of us brought together in one place. What's really exciting is to take our wine to the new level. For twenty years, we worked alongside our father, and now we have this chance to apply all that we've learned, apply our own ideas, and to work with someone very creative and modern, Tim. It's very exciting to recreate something so beloved. We've gone in a very different direction in the way we think, the way we communicate, the way we work as a team.

Co-founder George Rubissow (Credit: Afsoon Razavi)NM: Can you talk a little more about that, about how you're running the business differently from the earlier generation of Rubissow-Sargent? And why did you feel compelled to change the way things were done? Was it a personal choice? Was it a choice that was more relevant for the times, perhaps certain events or specific changes in the industry? What, exactly, incited you to take a different direction?

PR: Our father is in this business with us as vintner emeritus. He's not a person who will ever retire, per se, yet he is retired from day-to-day operations of the [Rubissow wine] business. But he's certainly here with us, ideologically (currently, he's in Paris). I think that with any family business, though, you develop a clear sense of what is working and what isn't. And under an administration, if you will, there are things that work with that particular group and [resonate with] that group. My father and Tony [Sargent] started their [venture in wine] in the '60s, when self-empowerment was happening, the world was wild and psychedelic, and they were both at their peak as free-thinking scientists. So the two of them created this venture in their own funky fashion, "Rubissow-Sargent winery! We'll have a warehouse in Berkeley, a ranch in Napa, and we'll make this work!" Ariel and I were both partners in this from the start, on the vineyard side of things and later on the wine side. So it just seemed natural in this last decade with our father getting older [that we would take over].

"We've all put so much energy and time into this vineyard, into the brand, into the position that we'd established as an under-the-radar, niche, Bordeaux-style producer in Napa."

Through the years it became clear [under my father and Tony] that some things could be done better and some things were working well. But I guess I'm being too diplomatic. {chuckles from the other two} Ariel and I have just a different way of running things than our Dad. So, specifically, the company is different in that the power structure is less dominated by one personality. Now, I think that we all have our own individual roles in this business, and everyone is empowered to make decisions and to voice their point of view. For myself, I particularly wanted to carry everything forward that we've created up until this point. It's very personal for me: we've all put so much energy and time, first of all, into this vineyard, which is a beloved family home, and also into the brand, into the position that we'd established as an under-the-radar, niche, Bordeaux-style producer in Napa. I would just say that everything that we've learned — good and bad — from working with our dad, is now expressed in Rubissow.

AR: I think there's a natural tension [one] might have with a father or mother in wanting to recreate what they've done. But I do think that my father and Tony were in this business for a different reason. They wanted to create this Bordeaux-centric wine and drew all their lessons from Bordeaux and from all the greats of the Napa Valley — the Mondavis and the Tchelistcheffs. It was a different time. When they started, there were [only about] 50 wineries in the Napa Valley. I think that what Dad and Tony wanted was a compliment to their lives. But things have changed, and the Napa Valley has a whole different feeling. And we're more modern in our wines now, and different about how we do business because we're a different style of people.

Young Vine Shoots (Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: Historically, the context of people coming into the Napa Valley in the late '60s and early '70s to start wine businesses was different — I worked for the Andersons early on, but I'm also thinking of Warren Winiarski, the Davies at Schramsburg, Hess — so many people came in and were inventing this place that's now taken for granted. Most of the family wineries are gone or have been purchased or have developed into corporations; there are very few places like [Rubissow] left. Only a few years ago, this was mostly what there were; there were a few big corporate wineries, but mostly [those started by] people who came into wine for a passion, for something different. Now [the question is], moving forward, How do we keep this family-oriented, local, small place as a personalized winery, as opposed to another corporate brand on a shelf? I think that's a big piece of what makes us different from any number of the corporate brands or wineries.

Steady As She Goes: Staying the Course in a Sea of Change

Peter Rubissow (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)NM: That's in large part why I felt compelled to sit down with the three of you. It's immediately apparent — coming onto the property and having interacted with you collectively and individually, in the context of the wines — that this is, in many ways, an heirloom. All of it. There's a legacy here that, as you said, was much more the model many years ago, but which has since seen considerable change happening all around it. How has that been for you, to maintain this vision and a sense of tenacity around your business model and philosophy, in light of all the changes going on around you within the wine industry — even among the neighboring wineries?

PR: We've had to be very creative. The traditional model that Tim was talking about, during early days of Hess and Stag's Leap and people like that — a lot of those men and women who came to Napa (and a lot of them are still coming) had been very successful in other areas of their lives, and they bring with them great resources. And their Napa Valley wine project becomes the retirement cause of their lives, to make beautiful wines…

AR: Or their midlife crisis!

TM: I was thinking it's either a crown jewel or a bauble these days, it seems, with most of the newcomers.

"I think that my father was smart in that he created a fairly humble model. We didn't build a Tuscan villa."

PR: Perhaps it'll always be that way anywhere. I lived in Los Angeles for years and I'm also a musician and have been through the whole thing of being a songwriter and having a publishing contract, and seeing my friends rise to different levels of success. Los Angeles tends to draw people with grand dreams to make something happen, who just throw themselves on the shores of ambition: "Here I am! I'm going to make this happen!" Well, it's the same in Napa; it's not that different in principle. People come here with ambitions and dreams in food and wine. I'm thankful to people like Robert Mondavi, who created this place of beauty and sexiness. People come here to grow a career. People also come here because of the prestige and to create a winery that gets instant credibility because it says 'Napa.' I think that my father came here bought this vineyard a reasonable price back in those days — it was raw land; it had never had a vineyard on it — and put a lot of time and personal resources into the business to develop the vineyards, as did a lot of people around here. As the next generation, we've been putting time and resources into improving wine quality and greening our vineyards and lifestyle, so we are more planet-friendly, rather than into showcasing our success.

AR: I think that my father was smart in that he created a fairly humble model. We didn't build a Tuscan villa. They say the 'best' wineries are ten thousand cases, because that's [supposedly] a 'good' business model. We're [just] two-to-three [thousand]. But I think that he created something humble; he put all his money in the land and in the vines, and he also chose Napa Valley — insisted on Napa Valley, insisted on the mountains. So, all those things were choices that really have benefited us in times of crisis, because we still have a premium product, we have something sacred in the sense that we have mountain Cabernet in Napa Valley on a beautiful piece of land. And there are many peripheral kinds of property being saved and lost these days. Ariel Rubissow (Photo Credit: Bill Bunkhart)But I think this place has a certain iconic quality; it's not only an 'heirloom' but also, in scale, it still feels like a family farm. And I think that you can do handwork on a property like this, you can hand-select — it costs a lot — but you can do it. In fact, Timothy has changed how many times we've put the hands on the vines — you know, selecting out: taking fruit off, taking leaves off, taking shoots off. And that's why we've been able to feel like we can raise the price of the bottle. If you're going to spend that much time, the quality really shows. And one of the things that I've really enjoyed lately from our new wines is going out there and really tasting with people because it's always positive! And I think that being able to pour a wine and never feel like, "Well, I hope that they don't taste this or that!" — which, when we were experimenting and learning on the job in the first few years of the business, happened now and then.

Winemaker Tim Milos (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: Part of what modern viticulture and modern winemaking bring to the table — what I bring to the table — is trying to take some of 'valleys' out. By really carefully managing the vineyard and the wines, you have very few failures. You don't necessarily have many more successes, but you have fewer failures. Great wines are aspects of vintage, the vineyard's interaction with that year, those little pieces that you pull out. Every year so far, for example, we've made a Reserve. For me, being able to do that is a great success; it means that everything came together for some piece of the vineyard. We have nothing that's fallen below. In a good size winery — a 50,000 case winery — you may declassify 20%. We don't have the option to declassify large volumes.

AR: … we've been very rigorous every since Timothy came on. We don't pick fruit that we don't like; we just drop it. It's a different level of attention to detail.

TM: When you look at the kind of management techniques that produce the very best wines — in this valley or in Bordeaux or in Burgundy or in Australia, any of the great places that produce wine — it's both having great ground, decent weather (Bordeaux, I can't say has great weather but decent weather), an appropriate climate for the grapes, and then meticulous attention to detail. And that's often what separates average from great.

Turning Over: New Leaf, New Label, New Philosophy

NM: Can you say more about how business as Rubissow Wines is run differently from the previous generation of Rubissow-Sargent? What were the most obvious changes to the business that were implemented with the new label?

PR: In order to gain control of the business and make the decisions on our own, Ariel and I bought the Rubissow-Sargent brand from Tony Sargent and George Rubissow. It was a small-scale transaction, really — the land remains part of our family, so the land wasn't included — but we bought the label, the logo, the name, the equity in the name, all the relationships, the mailing list, the website and wine club members that go with it. Plus, we knew we had to raise the prices. As sales manager for Rubissow-Sargent, I've been told by buyers for years that our rare, mountain-grown wines were underpriced compared to the market. So we knew, going in, that we had to change the pricing. [At the same time,] we thought that if we kept the brand as Rubissow-Sargent, people would balk heavily at that [price increase].

[Taking as an example] our most celebrated restaurant relationships, if I come in one year at New York's Le Bernardin with a $40 retail wine and then come in next year with a $75 retail wine, [the buyer] is going to kick me out the door! Whereas with this new story, Tim onboard, and our completely re-invented commitment to farming, we felt we needed to maximize every chance we had to gain credibility in the marketplace. We figure it's going to take us about three years to get people to understand the difference. Because although most people don't know who Rubissow-Sargent is or was, sommeliers certainly do; we do have a small [but excellent] reputation. It'll just take a couple of years to change people's minds about us.

Vineyard Manager Ramon Pulido (Credit: Afsoon Razavi)AR: One of the joys is that we have consistency in the sense that the '04 was a great vintage with great reviews, and the '05 has gotten equally great, if not better, reviews. Tim has made some amazing wines and we've made some changes in the vineyard to accommodate that. Plus, we now have a much more experienced farm manager in Ramon Pulido…

TM: Ramon is a tremendous resource. He comes with over twenty years of experience, working in the vineyards of Domaine Chandon.

AR: … And one of the reasons that it's different is that I actually have spent many years on this mountain working in the appellation and I know a lot of people, and I was able to arrange it that we share Ramon with another vineyard. And that is the reason we can afford to have him. Because we're too small to actually need a full time manager. But now we have someone at a very high level who's shared with another vineyard, and it has made a big difference in the farming quality — an enormous difference!

Rubissow Vineyard (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: These are the things you do when you're a small producer. At a ten-thousand-case winery, you can afford a single vineyard manager [whereas we can't]. But all those things layer on our ability to succeed; it really is about Ariel's connections.

PR: Ariel used to be the chairperson of the Mount Veeder Appellation Council. At [the Napa Valley with Altitude] event where you first met us and we met you, that was the latest generation of events that we're trying to do with the appellation. And it was a brilliant idea proposed by one of the wineries up in Spring Mountain, to do that. Back in the day, I remember that when Ariel was chairperson of the council, during the Wine Spectator California Wine Experience, there was a Mount Veeder dinner hosted by Donald Hess in San Francisco. And I think because of that, and all the work she did to help launch the appellation, (and because there's a lot of family wineries here, even from back then) Ariel still gets the respect and the residual goodwill of the mountain.

AR: However, I have noticed the change. I've noticed there's a new group of farmers on this mountain who've bought in, and who are much more private and competitive. I'm not complaining; I think it's a classic way that people start businesses. There's much more of, 'I'm not sharing my secrets!' Whereas in the old days we were all new to it and learning on the job and experimenting on the mountain, so there was more [sharing and dialogue] like, 'Well, what grows best on Mount Veeder? Tell me about that clone!' etc.

"Some people make what they do seem more mysterious. People who are confident in the quality of their work and the land that they farm don't have secrets."

TM: That's always been bizarre to me. Because there are no secrets in this business — that's absurd — yet some people make what they do seem more mysterious and important. People who are confident in the quality of their work and the land that they farm don't have secrets.

AR: I believe in 'paying it forward.' You get out what you put in.

PR: We learned that from our dad; dad was very collegial. He and Tony Sargent were PhDs, brainy guys from UC Berkeley, guys who loved to sit around and talk about ideas…

AR: 'Rootstocks! Phylloxera!'

PR: ... and what's the best of those ideas, what's going to work best. One thing I was thinking, listening to both of you guys, is that I think our greatest teacher here has been the vineyard. All through the years that we've had this, through the school of hard knocks and farming, which is a tough thing to do anywhere, this vineyard is constantly teaching us how to make the best wine. I really mean that physically; in a harsh reality every year, the results that we harvest tell us what we have or haven't done right. During the time of Tony Sargent as the winemaker, we were all figuring it out ourselves. We're a fairly intelligent group of people, but we had really good advisors — André Tchelistcheff was our original mentor… I remember my first day meeting him. It was during the time I managed the vineyard and we were building all the systems: irrigation, trellis, drainage and such. I was pretty nervous. He drove up in his bright, lime-green Nissan 240Z, with the license plate frame that read 'Things Go Better With Wine,' and out gets this very sexy guy in his late 60s. He's a rather small guy, but with a massive personality you know, he was very self confident: "Oh, Peter, what a beautiful place you have here; it's going to make some great Chardonnay!" Um... little did he know our plans were to plant Merlot and Cabernet and maybe Sauvignon Blanc. But my dad - I was pretty young at that point — coached me to not prompt André in any way about what our real plans were. All I knew was that I had a meeting with a celebrated wine consultant and that we wanted to see what André thought about this land and what we should plant here. And that was the first thing he said: "Oh! Incredible place for Chardonnay!" Rubissow Ranch House (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi) Again, when we went over the hill: "Great Chardonnay! Maybe some Pinot over here!" Then I told him of my father's plans to plant the classic Bordeaux red and white varietals. {long pause} By the end of the meeting, he assured me, "You're going to make the best Merlot in Napa Valley, you'll see!" Once he heard our plan, or my bumbling version of it, I think he really got it. And through the years Andre became a close family friend of my father's. He really helped us learn from our land and pay attention to what it is teaching us...

Rubissow Merlot (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: At that point in time, [from what I've learned] in my experience with other properties, the thinking was that Chardonnay would be appropriate for here and for Yountville. The vision of what Napa Valley does and where it does it well has changed dramatically over the last 30-40 years. We see that very well by where the Champagne houses are placed in the valley and where they were planning on making sparkling wine, as great intellects from Burgundy were, in Oakville and Yountville, whereas [nowadays] they're down south in Carneros or in the Anderson Valley. Mount Veeder is great ground for Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot.

PR: It's funny because the palates that I've presented the wines to through the years — sommeliers, people such as yourself, people with a strong interest in regionality — have said, "Oh, this is a Carneros Merlot." I've heard that many times from master sommeliers. And we didn't realize this, ourselves; for years, we were thinking Mount Veeder: "Oh, the map says Mount Veeder!" But in terms of what's really happening — what is the regionality of this [area], what is the sound of music from this particular area of the valley — it's more about the Carneros influence than it is way up on Mount Veeder.

TM: Being at the southern end of Mount Veeder, those are the influences. I've been thinking about this a great deal, about how we have the Carneros climate without the Carneros fog. So, whereas we would [otherwise] get this very herbaceous Cabernet from Carneros — typically because it's just a little bit too cool and doesn't have quite enough sunlight — we have just enough more sunlight, being above the fogline, so that we don't have the herbaceous qualities but we still have the high acids and fruit preservation. The fruit still tastes like fruit at the end of the season, with those fresh, bright fruit flavors.

The Proof in the Pudding: Articulating the Rubissow Style

NM: This is a good segue for us to focus on the wines themselves. Have you ever heard your wines being called Old World or Bordelaise in style or approach, compared to some of those being produced by many of your colleagues, especially in the last five years?

TM: Certainly that was the intent of the first [generation] Rubissow-Sargent: to mirror the wines that were made in Bordeaux, in the Graves style. I've not heard reports directly from Peter about the current wines being in that style, but I think that's not an inappropriate comparison. Now, I'm not actively trying to model wines from anywhere; I'm trying to make wines from here, from this ranch, the best that they can possibly be. But because of our meso-climate, because of this cool weather — with the acidity that is retained and the brightness of fruit that it gives — I think that the obvious comparison is Bordeaux, and more so than people who are trying to achieve those results in warmer parts of the valley in, say, Stag's Leap District, Oakville, or Spring Mountain.

AR: I think we also said to Tim, "We do not want and do not like fruit bombs. " I can't drink them, I hate them. I've been in restaurants and drove [the waitstaff] nuts running around looking for wines that have less than 15% alcohol. I think we wanted to be modern and we wanted to have more fruit. But it wasn't until we began farming better and harvesting in very small lots — now we harvest in about twenty different lots sometimes, versus ten or six — that we were able to get [the fruit] riper. At the same time, I think we said to Tim, "We want to honor the Bordeaux-ness of our past." Of course, we loosely use the word 'honor.' What does that mean to Tim? Make what you can of it.

Rubissow TrompettesTM: My charter is to respect what's been done before but to make wines that are more modern in style. Ironically, I actually try to get the fruit as ripe as possible here, as it tends to make wines that are more acidic, brighter, and more centered on minerality. There's certainly more ripe fruit here than there has been in the past. But the wines, by their very nature, are more lean and minerally than if I did exactly the same thing on Oakville or on Rutherford bench; there, the wines would be radically different. Peter thinks I'm being humble, but I really am trying to make wines from this spot to be the very best that we could possibly do here, to be the most expressive wines from this place. As any fruit is reaching its peak of ripeness — that is when the flavors are most expressive and the most interesting. So we really are trying to get the ripest possible fruit.

Rubissow Reserve NM: I don't think this word has been mentioned here yet, but it sounds to me that these wines, in their intent and accomplishment, are very terroir-driven wines.

TM: Absolutely! They have to be.

PR: That is our pure intent.

TM: It has to be about this place, otherwise I don't know what the point of making a wine is.

PR: I just feel my energy level rise up as I hear you say that! Answering your earlier question, personally that's what I'm passionate about: terroir is the only word we really have for it right now.

NM: It seems to be a given for you to make wines that are a full expression of the land and which show the highest fidelity for the message it wants to convey. But let's be honest: there is a number of producers out there whose philosophy is very different — one that actively encourages a great deal of manipulation, even coercion, in winemaking. What is your opinion on that, in general, and how does that interface with your own philosophy? After all, you must increasingly feel that you're… different.

PR: Excellent question. Let me use the example of Boulevard restaurant in San Francisco. I tend to be the one who has 'the read' on the perception of our wines. John Lancaster, the sommelier at Boulevard — great guy, very opinionated, very blunt, very quick in his decisions — the world is coming to him, trying to sell him wine every day. I'm sure he has 20-30 voicemails a day from producers trying to sell him wines. Ariel and I had been calling on John for three years with Rubissow-Sargent. I remember presenting him this '99 Cabernet: "Peter, great to see you; look forward to seeing you again; not what I'm looking for." We got that year after year with Rubissow-Sargent. And he's such a great person that he understood that while this [wine] wasn't his preference, he enjoyed having us in the restaurant. Then, Tim and I met him just a few months ago, [once he had time to try the new releases under the new label], and he was like, "Hmmm, these are all great! These are superb! Which one should I get?" He found them to be very good, across the board. And not to sound cocky, but I think we knew that ourselves.

But this answers your question earlier as to how we were perceived: in San Francisco, we were very much perceived as a Bordeaux [style] house; it's hard for us to sell wine here. Now, in New York, that worked in our favor: all the top sommeliers in New York [knew our wines] and we were in all the best restaurants. Le Bernardin poured our wines by the glass for about two years — they loved that there was this Napa winery doing this [restrained Bordeaux style]. Whereas here, I think we were perceived as being pretentious and inauthentic…

AR: We were [perceived as] doing 'the French thing,' as with the French name [of our proprietary blend] Les Trompettes. "Why can't you just be Californian?!"

Rubissow CabernetPR: … Well, after years of hearing it, that got through to me. But I have so much respect [for the style of the '99 Cabernet]. For me — and this isn't just the salesman talking — I think this is a beautiful wine; it's just so subtle and the fruit is so gentle. This is Tony Sargent's style, personified. So, in terms of what's next, I think that people still think all that about us, especially relative to Oakville or Spring Mountain or any of those areas where they get higher degree days than we do and the grapes can get a little riper, plumper, and juicier than we can get. But Tim has done an extraordinary job, with Ariel and Ramon, of getting as much ripeness as we can out of this vineyard without going into what I call 'brown' flavors. And we really don't want to have brown, port-like wine here — [that style is inappropriate for food, and] restaurants are the core of our business. There's still a perception that Rubissow-Sargent is in the Bordeaux style. I'm okay with that, but I don't talk about it anymore. What do you think?

NM: Well, this is the first Rubissow-Sargent wine — from the 'old guard,' I guess you'd call it — that I've tasted. Everything is relative. Yes, compared to the current wines, [the pre-2004 style] is definitely much more austere, subtle, delicate. But again, everything is relative: I still think your new style under the 'new guard' is, compared to a number of other Napa producers, made in a subtler style. We don't have to have one extreme or another; a wine doesn't have to be either reticent and constrained or overblown and obnoxious. And I think that's what you're achieving with this new style. I'm guessing because I don't know a whole lot about the terroir, but these don't seem forced or, in any obvious way, manipulated — though there's a number of other Napa wines, well above the price points of yours, that are!

Autumn at Rubissow (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)AR: … I think we're a very honest wine in terms of what our terroir is.

TM: Wine, to me, occupies a huge range of possibilities. There are wines that are about place. Then there are wines that are just commodities, that you would drink with no more thought than you would soda pop. And my expectations of those wines are very different. If it's wine from somewhere that's about something, then there are tools you don't use because they muddy the expression of that place. If you're trying to make consistent 'soda pop,' then all tools are available, because what you're delivering in that instance is just sound wine to a consumer that doesn't necessarily say anything about anywhere. It just says 'red wine with dinner — think no more of me than that.' But if it's wine that's about something, about some place, then it needs to express that in all its forms.

Modern Methods: a New Generation of Tactics and Techniques

NM: Can you go into a little bit more detail on that? I'll start by asking a more direct question that all of you can answer, though I'll focus on Tim and his arrival for the 2004 vintage. What would you say about your winemaking approach and style was among some of the more obvious changes to the Sargent style, beyond what we've already discussed about the cool restraint of Rubissow's 'old guard'?

"If it's wine from somewhere that's about something, then there are tools you don't use because they would muddy the expression of that place."

TM: The first and simplest answer is aggressive work in the vineyard, with a different eye towards what produces high-quality, consistent wines. The second is picking in smaller lots, really sub-selecting out — and not just based on a vineyard block — more aggressively than [Rubissow-Sargent] had in the past. And third is more of a modern approach to cooperage; we use a bit more new wood than they had in the past. Those are the biggest differences. Aside from that, I do longer cold soaks, I think, than Tony [Sargent] did. Most of my winemaking techniques are standard, neo-classical methods. But there are some spins on everything we do, based on my experience and by seeing what works to produce the wines that we're after. We tend to go for very long cold-soaks — two, four, sometimes six days — until we start wild fermentations, and then I do inoculate [with cultured yeasts]. Fermentations usually take a couple of weeks. In terms of what Tony did, I think it was very little cold-soak, straight fermentation, typically pressed after dryness.

PR: [Tony Sargent] didn't start cold-soaking until '99 and this ['99 Cabernet] was one of his first experiments in cold-soaking because before then he thought it was a kind of voodoo. About the same time [under Sargent], they started sprinkling over the cap instead of doing a straight pump-over, and that started to make the wines a little more approachable as well. For him, those were radical techniques because he was extremely naturalistic.

Dusk at Rubissow (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: I do extended macerations fairly consistently. We do fairly gentle handling with much more aggressive fruit sorting in the vineyard and then again in the winery. We tend not to crush the fruit but go to tank whole-berry (or slightly broken), then cold-soak for quite a while. The idea of all this is to gently but thoroughly extract the fruit. [As far as pump-overs,] we do almost everything with sprinklers; it's a gentler extraction. I'm not looking for massive tannins —there's tremendous amounts of tannins in the wines already — but these long soaks give much more color, much more body to the wines.

PR: I would add that there is some intentionality; I mean, we are expressing the vineyard here. That's a very clear tactical choice about the way that we're conducting the orchestra. We are trying to have a more balanced tannin profile in these wines than the Rubissow-Sargent wines had.

NM: When you say more 'balanced,' do you mean that with the deeper fruit extraction the goal is to have slightly a more assertive tannin profile?

Vines at Rubissow (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: Well, actually much softer [and riper] tannins. There are two things that are happening: because the fruit is riper, the tannins are less aggressive, so I can extract more from the berries without overwhelming the wine. I'm looking to make as much from that fruit as possible. So, the subtlety comes from them not being too ripe. Very rarely do I have to acidulate these wines, and I only do that for [microbiological] safety with the pH. Typically the pH of our fruit come in between 3.4 and 3.6, and then post malolactic they come in between 3.6 and 3.7; it's a very stable range. Often in Oakville or Spring Mountain or Howell Mountain, they have to acidulate to reach these levels. So, my tendency is not to manipulate. My goal is to express this place. I do that by not intervening, by doing as little as possible to guide the fruit through the process, and letting it tell us when it's ripe, when to press, when to inoculate, which barrels to put it in, and for how long.

PR: I've seen a lot of writing about this recently, in the press, among some of the bigger publications: who's making the wine — the vineyard or the winemaker? I'm sure we all have opinions about it… Tim is having a strong influence on the wines, yet it still is the vineyard that we're expressing here. Although Tim has said that essentially the wine is made in the vineyard, for me, it's about a 50/50 equation: we're taking the best ingredients that we can get at the market and are making our own expression of that.

AR: And one of the fun parts is that as the grapes have gotten better, Tim and I have tasted some new things in the vineyards. Like this year, we had this moment in the Perfecto Block where we just looked at each other and said, "Oh, my god!! What is this?!" That particular fruit was a combination of violets and Concord grape juice — like when you're a kid and you're drinking grape juice and there's that moment of intense grapeness — but with the deep violet quality. It brings out that kid in you, where you're like "Wow, that's good!!" And though I don't know if the flavor itself was new, it was the first time it was strong enough to knock my socks off. That's the fun of the vintage, too, because each vintage has a different surprise in it. Plus we have so many small blocks; in each place we find these little treasures of flavor. And it has surprised us — the things we used to make the reserve out of, we don't make the reserve out of anymore. Things have changed.

PR: My dad and Tony evolved a system of tasting through the vineyard, their own system of evaluating ripeness leading up to harvest. Depending on how close we are to harvest, weekly and ultimately daily we'd be walking through the vineyard, tasting the grapes and literally getting a feel for what's happening with the vines. I remember when Ariel started to do that alongside Dad, and then later having arguments with Tony [Sargent] about ripeness. Ariel went from helping with this and being a smaller voice, to eventually be the voice and someone that I completely deferred to, because often at that time of year I'm on the road for peak sales season. There's a complete trust here. Ariel has a great palate and a great sense of smell as well. So, these two guys [Ariel and Tim], along with Ramon, are really out walking and tasting the vineyard and feeling it and knowing it. And, by the way, Tim doesn't do any [brix-measuring] chemistry on the vineyard…

AR: The chemistry is on his tongue.

NM: Right; during Vineyard Days, you had mentioned that [Tim surmises brix and gathers a sense of when to pick by tasting grapes in the vineyard, rather than relying on instruments] and I know that it raised a few eyebrows. How closely do you work together as winemaker and vineyard manager? How would you describe that relationship?

Reservoir at Rubissow (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: I rely greatly on Ariel's palate. In walking the vineyard, we'll talk back and forth; it's very collaborative in that sense.

AR: That's what's fun about it. I have the historical palate and I have learned all the methods of the past — in fact I just wrote an article about this and am trying to get it published, this history of our tasting methods. But I did often feel that my palate was quite different from my father's and from Tony's (and then we had other people involved). And I think perhaps I was less sure of my palate, so I was insecure. And it's not that Tim and I always agree, but we are not necessarily competitive about it. In the old days, there was some of that between the Rubissows and the Sargents: my dad and Tony were both scientists, so there was a bit of competitiveness around who knows more science and who has more basis for their opinions. But that was part of the fun for them; that's why they had so much fun doing this, because they could apply their view of life to this new thing, this farm product, this wine.

Sunset on Rubissow (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)AR: (con'd)  But Tim and I have rarely disagreed, though sometimes I want him to think again. I trust this vineyard. I feel like it's a tough place. The vines are tough; even when they might not have much water, I still have faith that they're going to pull out a little more flavor now and then. And sometimes he's like, "Oh, well, look at them; we've got to pick!" or "I don't taste much change in the past three days, so let's pick!" And I'll insist, "Let's just wait a couple of more days." We've had a few of those [conversations], and now I think that we've learned that the vines are amazing. I have tasted some of the changes. And sometimes it really has been worth it to wait, while other times [it turns out that] we waited too long.

TM: It's good to have that back-and-forth. And there have been times when it was just the opposite, where Ariel will say, "This has got to come off the vines" and I'll say "Ariel, just wait."

PR: Tim has brought a high level of standards to the requirements that our fruit has to have, and that was very palpable for us when he came on board.

AR: The other thing is, too, that our fruit is different than it used to be. Tony and I and Dad had some very difficult decisions because we had problems with some of our fruit. We had some very uneven ripening in Cabernet Franc often. So, we'd be tasting these pink berries or even green berries, and we'd be like, "Well, what are we going to do? When are we going to pick?" But all of that has been handled by farming now. This cordon pruning has evened things up dramatically, along with the fruit selection. So the difficult choices are less difficult because the fruit is more even and better. I mean, there was always good fruit, but now it's easier to decide because it is more consistent.

TM: Really great winemaking is about great land and great farming, and then not blowing it.

"Really great winemaking is about great land and great farming, and then not blowing it."

NM: Exactly! Because it all starts in the vineyard, right? Whatever picture you have in your mind as to the potential of those grapes, it can only go downhill from there.

TM: Good winemaking can ameliorate difficulties, but that will never make it greater than its potential.

Message in the Bottle: the Flow of Rubissow

NM: We've talked about the evolution from grape to glass, from a perspective that's uniquely Rubissow. I think it's safe to say that there's a message in the wines that you produce, a message coming from the vines, from the soil, from the earth. And you, collectively as stewards of the land, are bringing that message forth, channeling and conveying it. In closing, can you tell me in your own words: what is that message? And I'd like each of you answer that question.

AR: Should we draw straws? {laughter} In the world that we're in right now, I think we're all having a crisis about what means something to us, and what's worth fighting for. And so I think that's my message: you've got to hold on to the things that are really special and unique. And also, quality. I think we're getting a lot of positive feedback right now about the quality of our decisions. I feel that doing something like this says what I feel about what we should be doing: something that honors the land, something that takes care of our family and community, and that is also respectful and sustainable.

Rubissow's Franciscan Vineyard (Photo Credit: Afsoon Razavi)TM: What's become really important in the last few years is being aware of what [we] eat, drink, drive, wear, and where all this stuff comes from. All the choices we make have global ramifications, even just on a day-to-day level of paying attention — every time you make a choice, every time you buy something, you [should] want to know where it's from. Well, I know where this [bottle of Rubissow wine] is from. And I think anyone who comes to us will know that there's no mystery as to how the wine was made, that it was made with intent, from a place, about a place, unique to that place, and considerations of what it took to put it in the bottle have all been made. That's part of our message, that this is about somewhere and there are people you can meet who do this.

"There's a lot of pretentiousness around wine, but we just want to make something really beautiful and we're trying to be excellent about it."

PR: Why have I given these best years of my life to this project, and why have I, with Ariel, given now an even greater commitment to it? Wine is such a curious thing, compared to other things… I'm constantly fascinated and intrigued by the adventure of this business. I think to a lot of people the wine business looks incredibly romantic and sexy, and it is — but that's just the tip of it. Behind the scenes it's got to be one of the most brain-racking, financially-roller-coastering businesses that you could possibly ever want to get into… But for us, for me, this is important: the family name on the bottle… There's a lot of pretentiousness around wine, but we just want to make something really beautiful and we're trying to be excellent about it. It brings me an enormous amount of satisfaction that, I feel, we've really achieved it. That keeps me going; it's a constant pursuit. And then there's the next vintage… there's always the next vintage.

Among the Rubissows and their team is a synergy of talent, insight, passion, and intensity that left an indelible impression on me, still unfolding in my heart and mind. It comes across clearly and resonantly not only in speaking with them, but in experiencing their wines. That to which they've devoted so much of their time and energy comes through in the bottle with such precision, power, poise, and panache — a testament to the transcendence of their collective vision. Therein lies the true allure in the evolution from grape to glass, the natural result of an unwavering dedication to raising vines and coaxing from them the mellifluous message of their mother earth beneath. To learn more about these wines and how to get them, visit Rubissow online. To learn more about the talent behind the label design and vineyard photography, visit Afsoon Razavi online. v


Tasting Notes of the Rubissow Portfolio

If I were to make a broad statement about the wines of Rubissow (based on my having tasted though them during this interview and then more carefully on my own in the days following), I feel it's safe to say that, overall, they are unmistakably Napa in their culture. More specifically, their collective personalities demonstrate a great deal of subtlety and elegance along with weight and verve, making them sumptuous in their youth — though clearly crafted to age quite gracefully for some years to come.

  • 2005 Merlot: Aromas of ripe, juicy plum, and vanilla come through intensely on the palate, lush and soft, with fresh acidity and ripe, thick, grippy tannins.
  • 2005 Trompettes: Aromas of ripe, red currant, plum, bramble, subtle tobacco, dry leaf, and vanilla coming through intensely on the palate, with fresh acidity and ripe, dense, chalky tannins.
  • 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon: Pronounced, alluring aromas of black currant, white pepper, bramble, forest floor, and herbaceousness, coming through intensely on the palate, lush, full, and soft but with beautifully balancing acidity and ripe, velvety, talc-like tannins.

These three wines are all imminently drinkable now. However, with time, their rich fruit profile and tannin structure will fully integrate to produce wines of extraordinary elegance, astonishing power, and beautiful harmony.

2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: The most sensational wine in the Rubissow portfolio. Pronounced, alluring aromas of black currant, bramble, and ripe plum over damp leaf, all come through intensely on the palate, lush, full, and soft but with beautifully balancing acidity and ripe, smooth, and supple tannins, all culminating in a luxuriously long finish. This wine, though seductively approachable in its youth, is crafted to weather the test of time and will more than likely age gorgeously and gracefully (for at least ten, perhaps fifteen, years) as the fruit components integrate further to produce even greater nuance and complexity.