How a San Carlos nurse won top wine awards (and developed purple hands in the process)

Nicole Ruiz Hudson

Russian Ridge Winery owner Scott Townsend (imbibing at left) and his son Spencer at their tasting room in San Carlos. (Photo by Charles Russo)

The inside of Russian Ridge Winery is comfortably cool compared to the midday heat broiling the industrial San Carlos neighborhood just outside the roll-up doors. A huge skylight illuminates the winery’s interior workspace in a soft bright glow, making it feel more like a tranquil atrium than a cavernous warehouse.

Between huge columns of wine barrels, Russian Ridge owner Scott Townsend and his son Spencer are hustling around a white bin full of dark grapes as they prepare to press their latest batch of Syrah. Scott climbs into a forklift and drives it through a narrow corridor to the next room. A few moments later, he re-parks the vehicle back at its original location.

“There’s a lot of Rubik’s Cube movement that goes on in here,” Scott explains as he jumps clear of the forklift. “Initially the place was huge for us when we first moved in, but every year it gets smaller and smaller.”

Spencer laughs and chimes in— “The joys of a small urban winery.”

In turning out less than 1,000 cases of wine annually, Townsend’s family-owned-and-operated Russian Ridge enterprise is one of the many underdog Northern California wineries that compete with highly mechanized and well-funded vineyard powerhouses which produce in the hundreds of thousands (and even millions) each year.

Located within the concrete lots and sprawling warehouse spaces along Industrial Road in San Carlos, Russian Ridge are neighbors with some very like-minded company — Cuvee Wine Cellars, Flying Suitcase, Old County Cellars — which all continue to hang tough against the Napa elite. Small-batched, locally-sourced and artisanal: these urban San Mateo county wineries operate from a place where the term “hands-on” is more than just a marketing buzzword.

Starting the process on their Syrah, Spencer begins shoveling the grapes into the press one load at a time. As the mound builds higher and higher, Scott smooths them out and comments, “Yeah, my hands will be dark purple by the end of the day.”

Scott Townsend had no idea wine would become an obsession, not only for him but his entire family, when he first met the late winemaker Duane Cronin at their sons’ soccer game in 1997. A full-time nurse, Townsend knew little about wine, but the winemaking process intrigued him. He started spending free time helping around Cronin Vineyards, and he got hooked. Upon smelling the fermentation that first year, he thought, “I’m home.”

Nowadays, Townsend owns and runs Russian Ridge Winery with his wife Joan and their grown son Spencer. It’s tucked into an otherwise industrial area of San Carlos that is burgeoning as a center for urban wineries, breweries and distilleries.The tasting room feels a lot like a friend’s den. Once inside, it’s cozy with wood panels on the wall. One of the family members is very likely to be among those pouring and ready to chat about the wine and winemaking.

Spencer and Scott Townsend work on pressing a new batch of Syrah grapes. (Photo by Charles Russo)

“This was gonna be something for me to do in my retirement,” says Townsend, but the project has grown bigger than anticipated. After tinkering with making wine in an unoccupied in-law apartment, he and Joan launched in 2011, using facilities at Rock Wall Wine Company and Cuvée Wine Cellars for a couple of vintages before landing at their current spot in 2014. The tasting room opened the first week in September, just as they began pressing the first grapes of the vintage. All of this while Townsend continued to work as a nurse.

Spencer seems to have inherited his father’s work ethic and is poised to take the reins. Townsend knew his son was committed to winemaking after a very long day during a crush. Exhausted, he suggested they call it a night and resume in the morning. When Spencer found out it might be better for the wine if they continued without a break, he urged that they press on through the night. “And so the light bulb went off in my head–this kid is serious about doing this.”

On the whole, Spencer has gained his winemaking knowledge much as his father did–on the job. He worked alongside his dad as a kid when he’d volunteer at Cronin, and spent time working at a winery in Australia. He’s taken that knowledge and has begun to apply it at Russian Ridge.

Working together is not always perfectly smooth sailing. “There have been some butting heads,” Scott explains, “father-son situations in the production room once in awhile.” But they’re figuring it out, and the elder Townsend recognizes there’s often more than one way to do things. He is even willing to concede that his son possesses skills which eclipse his own — “he’s a much better person in the sales room.”

Russian Ridge showcases wines that are rich and fruit forward, but balanced. Grapes are sourced from single vineyards around California, including the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, and Napa. Townsend looks for the grapes he uses to have reached full phenolic ripeness, which means they tend to be picked on the later side and can lead to higher alcohol wines. The trick is to find just the right point by paying attention to the flavor in the grapes–I’m going for rich flavors, not necessarily high alcohol, but rich flavors.”

Scott Townsend pours one his port wines (technically, it classifies as a Forte) in the Russian Ridge tasting room. Photo by Charles Russo

The Townsends use several different techniques to achieve the balance they’re looking for. They tend to cold-soak their grapes–a process through which the juice is kept in contact with skins at cold temperatures before fermentation. This helps extract flavor and color without high levels of tannin. They also punch down the cap (grape skins that have floated to the top of the fermentation vessel) four to five times a day to maximize the flavors.

Townsend describes his Petite Sirah as “inky dark and silky smooth,” and the 2013 showed plenty of blackberry and plum flavors, with star anise and a touch of smoke combining with lightly savory touches. The 2013 Merlot also showed more red fruit notes, with hints of white pepper and grilled herbs.

The Townsends currently make wines from eight or nine varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with the intent to experiment further. They also bottle a sparkling wine and a Bordeaux blend called Concerto. They began making a Barbera last vintage and are interested in experimenting with Sangiovese as well. All wines are tiny lot productions of 40 to 200 cases.

Townsend is looking forward to the moment he gets to retire, but for now it looks like the hard work is paying off. Russian Ridge’s wines have received awards at recent San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competitions. Moreover, there’s a growing wine community around them as more winemakers and customers discover the developing wine hub nearby. Retirement might have to wait for a little while yet.

Scott and Spencer Townsend near the entrance to their family-owned Russian Ridge Winery in San Carlos. (Photo by Charles Russo)
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