Realizing a dream in wine

Ron Rubin (left) talks with his winemaker, Joe Freeman, at Rubin’s River Road Family Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County, Calif. 

By GAIL APPLESON, Special to the Jewish Light

SEBASTOPOL, Calif — Although Ron Rubin was in great physical shape and had been running for more than 30 years, he experienced a nightmare that many baby boomers dread: life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia.  Luckily Rubin, who was training for his eighth marathon at the time, was with his son who called 911.

Rubin, who lives in Clayton, was rushed to the hospital where he received cardioversion — electric shocks to the heart — to save his life. He had suffered a type of arrhythmia called ventricular tachycardia (V-tach or VT) that could have been fatal that day. It’s a startling fact that changed his life in many ways, including a decision to fulfill a 40-year-old dream. He wanted to own a California winery.

“You hear stories about people who say, ‘I wish I would have done this or that,’” said Rubin, “I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. It was the right time and I wanted to make it happen.”

Rubin’s V-tach was in 2009 when he was 60. Today he owns River Road Family Vineyards and Winery, located in Green Valley, a sub-appellation of Russian River Valley in California’s Sonoma County. And right now he’s in the process of launching the first label bearing his name, the Ron Rubin 2012 Pinot Noir.


For those of you who’ve seen him walking around Clayton, you’ll also recognize the label’s illustration of the bearded Rubin wearing his familiar baseball cap backwards, proudly displaying the name UCDavis. 

While quite a few people know that Rubin owns the Republic of Tea, what might come as a surprise is that Rubin’s real background is in wine. He studied Viticulture and Enology at University of California in Davis and spent 22 years working for his family’s Mount Vernon, Ill.-based Central Wholesale Liquor Co., where he managed the distribution of wine, liquor and beer.

So what’s he doing in Clayton?

“When we sold the family business, we wanted to move from Mt. Vernon,” he said. “My son was going to be a freshman in high school and we thought it was a good time to start in a new community.”

Since Rubin and his wife, Pam, wanted their son to go to a public high school they visited schools in different communities throughout the United States and chose Clayton, where they moved in 1995. (Their daughter, Julie, had just finished her first year at Indiana University at the time.) The couple now maintains homes in both Clayton and northern California, from where Rubin can commute to both the Republic of Tea in Novato and River Road in Sebastopol. 

Although Rubin’s businesses are in California, he has strong ties in St. Louis where he is a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth and former adjunct professor at St. Louis University. His current philanthropic activities include serving on the board of the Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital and actively supporting Heartworks St. Louis, which raises funds for the National Marfan Foundation. The Marfan Syndrome Clinic at Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital – led by cardiologist Alan Braverman – is one of the largest of its type in the United States.

In fact, after Rubin suffered his V-tach while running in northern California, he chose to return to St. Louis a week later to be treated at Barnes, where surgeons implanted a small defibrillator. 

It was during that time that Rubin decided he would start looking for his winery and the search began while he was still in rehab. For two years he had a wine industry real estate broker search Napa and Sonoma for an opportunity.

“My gut told me to go to Green Valley,” Rubin said. “Napa was Hollywood but Sonoma was more like Southern Illinois. It felt like home.”

His dream came true in 2011 when he purchased River Road, which was founded in 1976. The estate’s vineyards are blessed with sought-after fine sandy loam “Goldridge” soils, named for their golden color. Included with the vineyard purchase was highly regarded winemaker Joe Freeman, who is pictured in the August 2013 issue of Wine Spectator. 

The River Road brand is sold locally at Straub’s and in other parts of the country at the Total Wine & More chain, which has stores in 15 states.

The Ron Rubin brand, which is produced at River Road, is his newest venture and not yet in stores. The label is a gold color that matches the hue of the vineyard’s soil and the text describes Rubin’s “Forty Year Dream.” There’s a double “R” emblem — based on Rubin’s own signature — that reflects the synergy between the names Ron Rubin, River Road and Russian River.

Thinking back on his decision to buy River Road, Rubin takes out his cell phone and shows a photo he keeps stored in its memory.

The photo is of a street sign that’s near the winery. It says “Mt. Vernon Road.”

“When I first saw that, I had to stop my car and catch my breath. I thought of my Mom and Dad,” said Rubin, his voice starting to break.  “How do things like that happen? It’s crazy.”