While the spanakopita rests on the counter to cool, George Rubissow suggests a walk through the vineyards. He leads us to the picturesque front porch of his yellow farmhouse, its blue chairs surrounded by spring flowers that tumble downhill toward a breathtaking view of the Napa Valley. We follow him uphill past a small redwood grove to the sustainable vineyards, environmentally-friendly and planted to follow the contours of the property. This is Mount Veeder, an appellation famous for Cabernet Sauvignon, where for nearly a quarter of a century Rubissow and his partner-in-wine Tony Sargent have produced award-winning wines.
“It took three summers of looking at property from Mendocino to Livermore to finally settle on this site,” says Rubissow. “It had the ‘chateau’ quality that I was looking for — distinctive, preferably isolated, and with a ‘clos-like’ atmosphere: cozy, somewhat closed in, but open for sun and air.” His “chateau” was the yellow farmhouse, from the Gold Rush days and in great disrepair when Rubissow took ownership. The land surrounding it, however, was varied and beautiful, and “that was what counted,” he says. It also came with “a splendid view of the Christian Brothers Monastery.”
Rubissow was born in Paris, France to Russian and Ukrainian parents and grew up in New York City. As a young man he studied piano (at one time with Nadia Boulanger in Paris), composed music, and built radios and hi-fi systems. He graduated from MIT with degrees in physics and electrical engineering and years later came to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in biophysics. Since then, he’s worked in science, engineering, and international business, and along the way he became a winemaker. André Tchelistcheff, a seminal figure in California wine history, with whom he enjoyed conversing in Russian, was “a wonderful mentor and very patient.” We visited Rubissow (who divides his time between Paris, New York, and San Francisco) at the family’s Napa estate in February.
Why did you choose Berkeley for your graduate program?
I wanted to improve my knowledge of medical instrumentation, and Berkeley was by far the best school, with very high standards and an interesting program in biophysics. Before I undertook the doctoral program, I was a consulting engineer specializing in hard-to-tackle problems. Among my projects was some extensive work in biotelemetry in a group headed by R. Stuart MacKay, a professor of electrical engineering at Berkeley. He was instrumental in my decision to pursue higher education at Cal. Professor Mackay guided my research and provided support. We gave seminars on biomedical telemetry all over the world together.
Did you work closely with other professors?
Yes. Professor Howard Mel was an inspiring mentor with a broad scientific and cultural background; he also enlarged my appreciation of wine and winemaking. Professor Nello Pace set an excellent example of how to conduct and administer scientific work at the Environmental Physiology Laboratory. Professor Hardin Jones was a great help in structuring my curriculum and finding some funding for my studies.
What was particularly memorable about the Berkeley campus during your graduate years?
Its beauty, the mix of students, and excellent teachers. Living in the Berkeley Hills afforded great “walk out the door” hikes as respites from the hard work. Carillon concerts from Sather Tower, every day at noon. Magnificent performances at Zellerbach and Hertz halls. The opening of the fabulous art museum. Incredibly exciting lectures on basic organic chemistry by Professor Calvin. The Vietnam Peace Movement, the Free Speech Movement, and frequent tear gas confrontations, which on one occasion were so irritating and toxic that I had to move the guinea pigs from experiments I was conducting (on diving and the bends) into special clean air chambers to protect them.
How has your graduate degree helped you?
Initially it opened doors to the scientific and research community, but the amazing thing is that it opened doors in almost all of my activities. It sharpened my ability to grasp, analyze, and act upon complex situations and problems. The doctoral degree commands respect and attention from people normally difficult to reach, and UC Berkeley is recognized worldwide. It also provided me with great insight and confidence.
Tell us how your path turned toward winemaking.
Many factors moved me to go into wine growing. First, good wine was precious and rare. Second, since childhood when I planted radishes and marigolds and to my astonishment they provided a bountiful harvest, I have loved growing things. Third, I appreciate excellence, whether in science, art, music, or agriculture. And wine growing is the quintessence of the agricultural art.
How did you get started?
I picked grapes for Dr. Tony Sargent, a senior researcher at Donner Lab. At first we picked second-crop grapes, which were free, and we made so-so wines. Gradually, we got better grapes, first pickings, and we began winning silver and gold medals for the homemade wine. Then, when I was living in Paris and working in international business, Tony came there on sabbatical leave, and just before he headed back to Berkeley we met in the historic cellars below where he’d been living to taste some wines.
One step led to another, perhaps one sip to another, and soon we were shaking hands, having decided to form a winemaking business together. I would grow the grapes, and he would make the wine. Our goal was to make the best Bordeaux-style wines in the Napa Valley. So we formed the Rubissow-Sargent Wine Company, which is now in the hands of my son Peter and daughter Ariel as Rubissow Family Wines.
How is the mountain important in producing Cabernet Sauvignon?
Mountain vineyards produce higher quality, more intense fruit. They produce less of it and are much more work. When Tony and I got started, because we were biophysicists with biology, engineering, and physics training, we thought we could automate the work, but Mother Nature is much more complicated.
What advice would you give to current graduate students?
Be fiercely passionate about what you aspire to be. Do something that is good. And take some business courses that may help you survive.
- Carbernet Sauvignon Appellations
- Rubissow Wines site
- UC Berkeley Biophysics Department
- Wine-making process
See the video below for a glimpse of Rubissow Wines property and its co-proprietor, Ariel Rubissow
—by Lisa Harrington (originally published in The Graduate magazine, Spring 2009)