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Rabbit Ridge Reaches $500,000 Settlement With Sonoma County

Tim Fish
Posted: July 24, 2001

Rabbit Ridge Winery has agreed to pay Sonoma County $500,000 as part of a settlement to end a three-year legal dispute. As part of the settlement, which was announced on July 24, the owner of the winery, best known for its Zinfandel, asked the county to reinstate its 50,000-case operating permit.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors had revoked the permit in April, after the Healdsburg-based winery repeatedly ignored deadlines to comply with county land-use rules. It was the first time the county has ever revoked a winery's use permit.

Erich Russell, Rabbit Ridge's owner and winemaker, was not available for comment but released a prepared statement: "We are pleased that all outstanding permit and legal issues between Rabbit Ridge Winery and the County of Sonoma have been resolved through the negotiation process."

The settlement follows three years of often-heated legal squabbles. Rabbit Ridge's neighbors along Westside Road had originally complained to the county about excessive noise and traffic. Upon investigation, the county learned that seven buildings had been constructed without the proper permits and that the winery was producing 290,000 cases annually -- far surpassing its legal limit. The county also became concerned about the winery's water use and wastewater treatment.

Russell told the board that he had failed to apply for building permits because his business, which he had founded in 1981, had grown too swiftly. County officials, in turn, complained that Russell was uncooperative. The county sued the winery last year, and Russell countersued, saying the county violated his due process rights.

Things came to a head on March 20 when the board said that it was ready to revoke Rabbit Ridge's permit to make wine. Winery representatives finally agreed to meet with the county and neighbors, and county inspectors also visited the winery, to which Russell had denied access in the past.

Afterwards, the winery reportedly met most of the county's demands -- including the removal of the seven illegal buildings -- but the two sides then failed to agree on a settlement amount. Although the winery asked for more time, the board revoked Rabbit Ridge's permit on April 18.

County officials and neighbors frankly admit they would still like to see Russell and his winery leave Sonoma. There's no love lost on Russell's part. He plans to begin construction in January on a 150,000-case winery near Paso Robles, on California's Central Coast.

Although a winery spokesman denied long-standing rumors that Rabbit Ridge was for sale, many observers believe Russell was unable to find a buyer for the winery while the dispute with the county remained unresolved.


Check our recent ratings of Rabbit Ridge wines.

Read previous news on this subject:

  • April 18, 2001
    Sonoma County Revokes Rabbit Ridge Winery's Permit
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