"What do you see?" Ron Rubin asked, standing on the winding path that leads to his eponymous Russian River Valley winery. "What does the path remind you of?"
So began a visit to an unusual winery that is guided by ideas that mingle Eastern philosophy with down-to-earth business practices and a philanthropic ethos to create, in Rubin's words, "a beautiful experience."
The meandering path from the parking lot to the entrance of Ron Rubin Winery is meant to remind visitors of the Russian River that runs through this wine-producing district in Sebastopol, Rubin explained. It's also in keeping with principles of feng shui, the ancient Chinese system for designing harmonious surroundings. It could describe, as well, the path Rubin took to becoming a vintner in Sonoma County.
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Growing up in Illinois, he learned about the beverage business from his father who lead the family business, Central Wholesale Liquor Co. Intrigued by wine, Rubin headed off to UC Davis to study viticulture and wine in 1971 and 1972.
At Davis, his mentor was Dr. Maynard Amerine, the legendary enologist, writer, and professor. Today, when guests come into the winery, one of the first things they see is a book, "The Great Wine Grapes and the Wines They Make" by Ramey Bern, published in 1977 with forward by Amerine. It sits in a place of honor on a pedestal.
Rubin said at 22 he decided he would like to own his own winery one day; it just took 40 years to make this happen. In the meantime, he returned to Chicago to work with his father. He championed the addition of California wines to the company portfolio, bringing on brands like E. & J. Gallo, Jordan Vineyards, Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home, and California Cooler, and he advocated sending salesmen out west to learn about the Golden State wines.
From his father, he absorbed a business principle he continues to practice today: Get debt-free as soon as you can and stay that way. After his father's death in 1989, Rubin managed the company until he eventually sold it. He expanded his beverage world to include Clearly Canadian Sparkling Water, which he distributed through his own company, New Age Beverages. After reading a book about the Republic of Tea, a company based in Larkspur, California, he decided to buy the company. He was on his way back to California.
Rubin was 62, when an episode of cardiac arrest landed him in a critical care unit. He decided if he was going to get his winery, he had better do it soon. He began a search that brought him to the River Road Winery, founded in 1977 in the Green Valley subzone of the Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. He noted an auspicious abundance of the letter R: River Road, Russian River and, of course, his own name.
He bought the winery and set about updating it, inside and out. While an architect redesigned the building, bringing it in line with fen shui to create spaces that “feel right and help us be healthier and happier," Rubin also converted the surrounding vineyards to sustainable farming practices. Ron Rubin Winery is now SIP-certified (Sustainability in Practice), the gold standard for sustainable vineyard, winery, and wine certification, as well as Certified Sustainable by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. What this means in practice is adding wildlife corridors, owl boxes, cover crops, solar-powered and wind energy sources and filtering winery water for reuse; it also means providing competitive wages, medical insurance, and education for employees.
And Rubin did one more thing: He installed a defibrillator, a device that can deliver a lifesaving jolt of electricity to a heart experiencing a potentially lethal arrhythmia, and he provided training for his staff to use it.
"Such attacks can be fatal within minutes, and wineries are often in such remote conditions," Rubin said. "A person could die before an ambulance arrives."
His staff, he said, "are trained to save lives."
He has expanded the defibrillator project into "Trained for Saving Lives," the goal of which is to provide 450 California-based wineries with automated external defibrillators and to train more than 2,500 winery staff in CPR and first aide as well as the use of the defibrillator. To date, 282 wineries have joined his project.
More information about the Trained for Saving Lives https://ronrubinwinery.com/the-dream/#trained-for-saving-lives.
Today, Rubin produces wines for the River Road brand, a tribute to the founder. He also introduced his own line of Ron Rubin wines.
Rubin said making high-priced, hard-to-find wines is not his goal. Rather, he wants to make high-quality wines that are affordable as well as high-quality. “I’m a fan of low-alcohol wines," he said. "I keep the alcohol in check to produce elegant wines that you can enjoy, glass after glass."
River Road wines comprise two series, the Dream and the Heart, sourced from California fruit. Of these wines, the most expensive is a Pinot Noir, at $30; most are in the $14-$20 range. Because his own winery permit limits him to 12,000 cases a year, he produces 100,000 cases of River Road wines at a custom crush facility.
The Dream Series refers back to his own young man's dream, now a reality. The line includes Chardonnay ($17-$29); a Sauvignon Blanc ($10); an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($26); A Red Blend ($10); several Pinot Noirs ($17-$30) and an Old Vine Zinfandel from Russian River Valley fruit ($20).
The Heart Series wines are described as "fun, innovative, break-the-rules, lifestyle wines" and include an unoaked Chardonnay ($14) as well as a double-oaked Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($16), and Ron's Chillable Red and Chillable Pink, both $13.
Rubin conducted a tour of the winery, introducing his eight-person team, which includes a long-time vineyard manager, Alvaro Zamora, and winemaker Ed Morris, who has been on board since the beginning of Ron Rubin Winery. A stop in the lunchroom revealed it is stocked with Republic of Tea products. (Today, Rubin's son Todd manages Republic of Tea.)
Morris joined us for a tasting of the three Ron Rubin wines in the winery's light-filled, south-facing room that opens to a broad balcony overlooking vineyards. The winery sits in the mid-slope sweet spot of the Green Valley “like Burgundy’s Côte d’Or,” Rubin said.
The three Ron Rubin wines, a classic Russian River Pinot Noir ($25 a bottle), and two distinctly different Chardonnays. Pam's UN-Oaked Chardonnay ($15) was created at the request of his wife, who dislikes the oaky style. "It's so popular at tastings," Rubin said of the light, bright, fresh wine. For others who like the oak, there is the Ron Rubin Chardonnay ($25).
A UC Davis article about Rubin, whose many educational projects included seed-funding a crowd-sourced app that enables the public and researchers to access the Maynard Amerine Wine Label and Menu Collection, describes Rubin's life as a "sip by sip, rather than gulp by gulp," style.
For Rubin, whether it's tea or wine, employers or customers, it's about creating a "beautiful experience." And looking out for the heart.