Interview with Jim Rickards, owner of J. Rickards Winery.
Jim and Eliza Rickards are the owners of J. Rickards Winery. They are a family owned operation of wine grape farming and wine production located at the northern end of Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. The vineyards have been planted over the past 40 years, augmenting the original 1908 Zinfandel vines. The Winery itself started in 2005, born out of the encouragement of their friends who enjoyed the small lots of hand-crafted wine they’ve been making since 1991.
The team does all their own grafting at J. Rickards vineyards, using the “chip grafting” or “bud grafting” method. While it’s labor intensive, it allows them to go to prospective vineyards at harvest and mark those vines with the best grape production and best grape quality.
We interview Jim Rickards to learn more.
What type of wine do you specialize in?
Jim Rickards: We have more labels of Zinfandel than any other varietal, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and the other Bordeaux varietals we grow on the estate. We also grow and produce several other red varietals to put into our blends labels, such as Petite Sirah and Carignane.
Our white wines include Sauvignon Blanc, grown by neighbors on the south end of the valley, which was our first Sonoma County Harvest Fair Sweepstakes winner. Our second was the estate Ava Rae Rosé of Grenache.
Share a popular tasting experience.
Jim Rickards: When the guests arrive and just expect to taste wine but turns out the tasting includes a tour of the vineyards and facility!
We try our best to take all of our groups into the vineyards and/or tank pavilion so guests get to see the various aspects of grape growing and wine production. During the harvest season, or “crush”, we allow our guest to sample freshly fermenting Juice from the tanks. It is delicious and a little fizzy!
What makes your wine unique?
Jim Rickards: History, sustainability, consistency and creativity all go into making our wine. Our original vineyards were planted in 1908 by Rosa Brignole, matriarch of the Brignole family, who were part of the Asti Swiss Colony wine collective.
It was primarily vigorous pre-Prohibition Zinfandel vines, and there are also Alicante Bouchet, Petite Sirah, and Carignane red grapes, along with just a few vines of whites, Muscato Canelli, Palomino and Golden Chasslis – all picked together as her field blend. Taking Rosa as our example, we have continued the best sustainable farming practices, and are able to try out varietals that interest us, such as Montepulciano and Malvasia Bianca, to see what might grow well for us. That is how the “One Lone Row” of Grenache came to be several more rows and one of our most sought after wines.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?
Jim Rickards: How down to earth and approachable both the wines and the people of J. Rickards are. There’s no pretension – it’s not about us, it’s about the wines.
Describe your winemaking philosophy.
Jim Rickards: Passion – no pretense. Fruit-driven high quality wines. We want the grapes to speak to you.
What’s your personal favorite wine?
Jim Rickards: Old Vine Zinfandel – because it truly represents our history in a glass of wine.
Favorite Wine and Food Pairings?
Sauvignon Blanc with fresh oysters
Los Niños Perdidos, our Port style wine with Blue Cheese
Muscat Blanc (off-dry) with Thai chicken satay
Old Vine Zinfandel with a roast chicken or barbequed anything
Petite Sirah and braised short ribs
How did you get started in the wine industry?
Jim Rickards: From my earliest recollections, I had always wanted to be a farmer. I was probably the youngest person to ever put in a Homestead Act bid, looking for land to farm at age 12. Born and raised in San Francisco, I got my wish after returning from military service in 1969 when I bought a cow and moved to Petaluma. It was the start of my ranching years, leasing property throughout Sonoma County and running cattle. I also raised three children and worked full time at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital as an RN.
So with my free time, I finally decided to buy property and revitalize an old vineyard. In 1976, I found the 60-acre Alexander Valley ranch on the east side of what was known as Chianti Mountain, built my house and made sure my tractors had headlights for working the vineyards at night.
But my true inspiration to make wine was my wife, Eliza, who asked how could I sell high quality grapes without the quality control of making wine? We started making wine after our wedding in 1991 with our friends as support staff.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a winemaker?
Jim Rickards: After a couple of harvests with 18-hour days I realized that I needed help to become the high quality winery that the grapes deserved. I hired Blaine Brazil as winemaker so that I could continue my focus on the vineyard and grapes. Together, we made a great team for making award-winning wines.
What do you love about winemaking?
Jim Rickards: It’s the daily opportunity to walk the vineyards and fine tune the wines from bud break to harvest to fermentation to bottle. The wine really is made in the vineyard. That is where it starts and great grapes equal great wine!
Do you have any winery traditions with your team?
Jim Rickards: In addition to having office and tasting room staff help with production and harvest, both Eliza and I enjoy sharing fresh oysters brought down from our cabin home and oyster farm on Puget Sound in Washington state.
During harvest we have company lunch on Thursdays that everyone takes turns cooking lunch – me, other winemakers who use our facility, staff – all take turns at it. Breaking bread together makes a team that puts the extra effort into making great wines.
How does your team help you as a winemaker?
Jim Rickards: We regularly taste wines together as a group, usually impromptu and casual around a folding table in the center cellar, but always to share how we each individually experience the wines.
We often bring food to share and pair with our wines; and we have several terrific cooks! We really enjoy collaborating and brainstorming about what our guests might also enjoy at our events, what recipes to share in our club brochures, on our website and on social media.