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Erich began making wine as an amateur while teaching track and field at San Diego High in the early 1970s. During his summers from teaching, Erich worked in the cellar fueling his love for wine. In 1979 he was offered a cellar job at Chateau St. Jean after the winemaker there tasted his wine in an amateur winemaking contest.  Erich soon retired from teaching and began working for Chateau St. Jean, then Simi, then eventually Belvedere before starting his own winery.

In 1981, Erich opened Rabbit Ridge Winery and Vineyards in Healdsburg, named after his college track nickname, “The Rabbit”.  Rabbit Ridge continued growing and producing wine in Sonoma County until 2007 when the facility was sold and all operations were consolidated in Paso Robles on the Central Coast.

Erich began purchasing vineyard acreage in 1996 after becoming enamored by the ideal grape growing climate and soils west of highway 101 in the Templeton Gap.  This steep hilly region with limestone soils and a maritime cooling influence keep it 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in the town of Paso Robles to the east.  Moving to Paso Robles in 1996, Erich began planting over 450 acres of land he has in production today. The new winery crushed its first grapes in 2002, with only the crush pad and upper tank room complete.  Now the 55,000 square foot winery can produce up to 100,000 cases per year, but we choose to produce much less than 10,000.

In 1998, Erich met his wife, Joanne James, a lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, Florida while promoting Rabbit Ridge wines at one of Disney’s top restaurants. Joanne was interviewing with Rabbit Ridge’s wine distributor at the same time and the two met.  Having graduated from Northeast High School and Eckerd College, Joanne was running her own catering business and working as a runway model in St. Petersburg, as well as having a fledgling interest in good wine.  Another common interest is they are both Athletes. Erich was….. Joanne is in the Hall-of-Fame at her high school in track and field and broke state records in the high jump and 330 hurdles. Erich and Joanne were married in 1999 and maintained a residence in Florida until early 2011.  With Joanne’s daughter, Sarah Fleming Garrett’s graduation from Canterbury School, and her move to college, the Russell’s moved to Paso Robles year-round. 

Joanne joined Erich in the business putting her marketing degree to work in an assortment of duties including direct sales, wine club coordinator, government compliance, marketing and designing all of the wine labels and occasionally pouring wine in the tasting room.  In her spare time, she published her own cookbook in 2004, “A Cooks Tour of Rabbit Ridge Winery”.  True in the Italian use of vineyard land, it was a natural step for Joanne and Erich to begin planting both olive trees and lavender.  Joanne and Erich produce extra virgin olive oil under their Passione Divina and Olive Diva labels. Their olive trees are oil-producing Italian varietals. Over the years, Joanne’s oil has won Best in Class, two gold medals, and silver at the California Mid State Fair.

Three Rabbit Ridge wines have been named to the ‘Top 100 Wines of the World’ by Wine Spectator. Food and Wine Magazine named Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel as the ‘Best Red Wine Value of the Year’ in 1999. Additionally, Rabbit Ridge wines have been poured at the White House, and our Zinfandel has been one of the house wines at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and our Chardonnay has been one of the house wines at the French Laundry Restaurant in Yountville, California.

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