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Palatable pairing

He's a self-taught master winemaker and the founder of Rabbit Ridge Winery and Vineyards. She was looking for a new career and found one to suit her tastes by his side. Together, they produce some of the most sought-after wines in the world.

Joanne James found her message in a bottle. A bottle of wine, as it happened, from a very good year.

The former model, who was a stay-at-home wife and mother for five years until her divorce in 1997, had, by the spring of 1998, just a year left before she would complete a degree in marketing from Eckerd College.

James, 38, began casting about for a post-graduate career.

"I was ready to start working; I wanted to go into pharmaceutical sales," she said. "I was told I was too flamboyant.

"I had always loved the wine business. So some friends suggested I call a distributor they knew for a job interview. When I spoke with him he said, "I'll be in Orlando for a day. Come over for a meeting.'

"

The job interview, which happened in late May of 1998, was going so well that he suggested they continue it on the way to the airport, where he was picking up two winery owners flying in from California.

James said she was concentrating on landing the job and barely remembered meeting the two men, Todd Williams (brother of actor Robin Williams) of Toad Hollow Winery and Erich Russell of Rabbit Ridge Winery and Vineyards.

Russell, however, remembered her.

"I thought, "Wow, what a beautiful woman.' There was just something special about her."

He called several days later and asked her out.

"Will you be in St. Petersburg?" she asked.

"I thought maybe we could go somewhere," he said.

First date: the South of France.

"It was like a fairy tale," said James, who had never been to Europe.

That was May 1998.

They were married Jan. 22 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Snell Isle.

The couple now commutes between the Rabbit Ridge Winery in Sonoma County and St. Petersburg, where her 6-year-old daughter lives in a joint-custody arrangement with her former husband.

They have a new house in Sonoma, which she is decorating, and are renovating a waterfront home on Brightwaters Boulevard.

Joanne James was looking for a job and suddenly had a new life.

The wine business, for all its superficial glamour, is hard work.

Like Joanne James, Erich Russell, 52, never thought about it as a career.

Russell, who grew up in San Diego, was a middle school math teacher and track coach who knew nothing about wine.

"I first got into wine because of a Columbo episode on TV," he said. "This guy was teaching Peter Falk all about winemaking. I got so into it."

He made his first bottle of wine in 1974, when he was 27, "from one of those goofy wine kits" popular in the 1970s, he said. It was undrinkable, "so I went from there to making fruit wine. It was almost as bad as the kit wine," Russell said. "I made wine for three years before I could drink anything I made."

Everything changed when he began collecting wine grapes from an experimental vineyard near his home in San Diego.

In 1977, he produced a chardonnay that won the gold medal at the California State Fair for amateur winemakers.

Two years later, he took it to a lab to have it analyzed. By chance, Dick Arrowood, a respected winemaker working at the time at Chateau St. Jean vineyards in Sonoma, tasted it. Arrowood liked it so much, he offered Russell a summer job.

"Why not?" Russell thought.

As fall approached, Russell was packing up to return home and to his teaching job.

"You know," Arrowood said, "You have real talent. You should stay."

Russell initially scoffed at the idea. "I had a profession," he said. "And they wanted me to be one of the field workers."

But something made him take a chance. A big chance.

He was divorced and had no children, so Russell, then 32, quit his teaching job ("They wouldn't give me a leave of absence"), sold his house in southern California and used the profit to make a down payment on 45 acres in Sonoma.

He named it Rabbit Ridge because "Rabbit" was his nickname, given to the fleet-of-foot long distance runner by his track teammates at San Jose College.

"I lived in a trailer on the land, I had never farmed anything," he said. "The first 10 acres I planted by myself, with a shovel, before and after work at the vineyard."

He sent away to the University of California at Davis for every textbook that pertained to growing grapes and read them all.

By 1984, he was working at Simi Winery.

"It was like going to college," Russell said. "Simi was very experimental."

The first vintage under his Rabbit Ridge label, in 1981, was four barrels _ 200 cases _ of zinfandel and chardonnay, made at another winery because he did not yet have facilities on his property.

"I started out very, very small and avoided disasters," he said.

He continued to work for other wineries while working his own land and producing Rabbit Ridge vintages. By 1984, he could afford to build his own winemaking facility at Rabbit Ridge.

Belvedere Winery hired him away from Simi, where he had become Senior Cellar Master in 1987.

He was promoted to vice president and winemaker at Belvedere in 1989.

He built a Tasting Room at Rabbit Ridge in 1993, "which was very important because it gives you a lot more exposure. It allows the public to come to your winery and taste your wine and, more important, to buy it."

Not only was the public buying it, he was getting the attention of food and wine writers.

"By 1992," Russell said, "we started getting lots of great press."

He started working full-time at Rabbit Ridge because he had to.

"In 1994," Russell said, "Robert Parker, a wine writer, named Rabbit Ridge one of the top 10 wineries to watch for in the '90s in an issue of Wine Spectator. Belvedere wasn't named. They fired me a week later."

Today, Rabbit Ridge produces 200,000 cases of wines yearly, "with more varieties of wine than any other winery," Russell said.

From the Rabbit Ridge cellars flows an inventory that includes classics such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and, his favorite, zinfandel, as well as special blends, called proprietary blends, that Russell has developed and named.

Lee Neal, owner of PicPac Liquors locally, said he cannot keep Rabbit Ridge in stock.

"I've sold fine wines for 18 years," Neal said. "Erich makes great wine, period. Whether they're 35 bucks or 10 bucks, they're worth the money he's asking. His Winemaker's Reserve is the best zin (zinfandel) I've ever had."

Others admire Russell's wine, too: Rabbit Ridge wines have been served at several state dinners at the White House.

Three years ago, Russell bought 320 acres in Paso Robles, which is halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, for a second vineyard site.

He has 40 employees, but most of them tend the vineyard; Russell still supervises every phase of the winemaking, personally blending all Rabbit Ridge wines.

His easygoing manner belies a consuming passion for his work which usually stretches his days to 18 hours on the job.

"He hardly ever sleeps," said his wife. "He works until 2 a.m. at the computer, then he's in the winery by 5:30 when the bottle sterilizing begins."

Still, it is a life whose rhythms, determined by the land and the seasons, they both love.

"I'm proud that I was never owned by a bank," Russell said. "I paid for everything myself."

That he happened to be in Orlando on the same day as James was unusual because he does not take the time away from his business very often for marketing or promotional junkets such as that one.

"What are the odds?" Joanne James Russell asked.

After the trip to France, they flew back to California to see the emerging Paso Robles vineyard.

"That's where I fell in love," said James, "with him and with winemaking. I got to see the first plantings, how it all begins. I've never felt so comfortable."

James passed on the sales representative job.

They work together at Rabbit Ridge though she considers St. Petersburg her primary residence and spends about two weeks of every month here with her daughter.

Via computer link with Rabbit Ridge's main frame, she handles all the company's invoicing and much of its marketing.

She is overseeing the rollout of a new product, Rabbit Ridge vinegar, which is scheduled to go on sale in the fall, and has written a Rabbit Ridge cookbook, which she hopes will be published in a year.

He loves Italian wines, so the couple is looking at vineyards in Italy, perhaps to purchase.

"I was focused on finding a job," said Joanne Russell. "But I found a wonderful husband."

Erich Russell, whose life, like his wife's, appears to be a series of serendipitous moments wherein new doors open, shakes his head as he remembers Peter Falk playing the bumbling detective Columbo on television, and the personal epiphany he had on that life-changing night.

Then he chuckles.

"What's funny is that Peter Falk really likes Rabbit Ridge wine," Russell said.

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