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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.
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!