Wednesdays with Winemakers – Chris Russi
Chris Russi has always had an affinity for science and the outdoors. Born and raised in Northern California, Chris began making wine at a young age with his grandfather and family.
After graduating from Santa Clara University with a BA in Combined Sciences, Chris spent a year at the Hastings Reservation in Carmel Valley studying Scrub Jays for the UC Berkeley ornithological dept. He was then offered a position in Healdsburg where he became vineyard/ranch manager at Orsi/Kuimelis Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. He spent three years planting and maintaining thirty acres of vineyard. Here, his science knowledge and farming lead him to Geyser Peak Winery, where he began to hone his cellar skills and lab technique.
With time at Geyser Peak under his belt and a harvest at Peter Lehmann Wines in Barossa Valley, South Australia, Chris enrolled in the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis. Soon after graduation, Chris became winemaker at Christopher Creek Winery in the Russian River Valley, Healdsburg. During his eight years at Christopher Creek, Chris enhanced his palate and mastered his craft. He continued gaining invaluable experience over the next five years while making the elegant, artisian wines of Thomas George Estates.
Also as a professional wine judge, Chris has traveled much of the world evaluating different winemaking regions and the wines their vineyards produce. Proud owner of a small, 106 year-old, head trained Zinfandel/Carignane vineyard which he maintains himself, Chris claims he will never leave Sonoma County, which he considers one of the most diverse growing regions in the world.
Now, at Comstock Wines, Chris is using his diverse understanding of varying appellations of Sonoma County and their ideal varietals to create wines that speak to regional uniqueness.
Why did you become a winemaker?
I was going to be a brewmaster, but I wanted to do something a bit more challenging…
That is a joke for my brewer friends. Truly, I have always had a love for the outdoors, and a mind for science. My passion for winemaking began in the late 80’s when learning about fermentation science at Santa Clara University.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
I would be making brandy…I’ve been practicing every year since 1999.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
Some say I’m a perfectionist.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
Some say I’m a perfectionist.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
During my first harvest in 1995 at Geyser Peak Winery, I accidentally pulled a hose and a 3 inch valve from a full tank, instead of just the hose. Fortunately, I was able to minimize the loss of wine by pressing my butt cheek against the gushing hole until help arrived.
What is your proudest achievement?
I am proud of my education. Not just the courses and diplomas, but what I have learned from all the people and experiences in my life. It helps in keeping level headed as a winemaker.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
The tail end of the 1997 vintage.
What is your favorite saying?
“A promise made is a debt unpaid” is a saying I live by. The quote is from Robert Service, but well over used by my dad.
What is your most prized possession?
Probably my 1990 BMW GS motorcycle…I bought her new off the showroom floor, and travelled the U.S. and Canada many times on it.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
I wet my hair daily, but only wash it once a year or so.
What song best sums you up?
Heart of Gold by Neil Young…always searching for one.
What is your favorite memory?
Sonoma County summers in the seventies.
Which of the five senses is your strongest?
Sense of smell.
What is your biggest motivation?
To live, to enjoy, and to achieve.
Which bottle(s) of wine would choose to be stranded with on the deserted island?
A cold bottle of Condrieu (maybe E Guigal or Cuilleron)…already experienced on a French Polynesian island years ago…truly spectacular.
What is the difference between a good and great wine?
Great wine evokes an impressionable memory that is unforgettable.
Name three individuals you would like to have dinner with?
Nikola Tesla, Louis Pasteur, & John Muir…unfortunately they have all passed on.
Who is your winemaking hero?
Daryl Groom. I worked at Geyser Peak from 1995 to 1998 and he was a mentor that helped get me to Barossa Valley for a vintage, as well as getting me back to school at UC Davis for a viticulture & enology degree. He is not just a great winemaker, he is also a caring humanitarian and philanthropist.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
This is one of my favorite words…a concept I try to achieve in life, and in wine. It is the ability to create oneness in order to minimize the negatives, and maximize the positives.
What is the one thing you want people to remember about your wine?
I want people to remember the experience they had while drinking our wine.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
The comment from customers in the tasting room that they love every wine in the line-up.