When Ron Rubin talked about "cupping," there was a moment when tea and wine seemed like fraternal twins of sorts. Both are earthy yet well-groomed, and both are blended with the utmost care.
A cupping (tasting) session for tea -- during which changes are made to the tea blends according to taste -- is for him just like a blending session for wine, and it creates a synergy between his two worlds. Rubin is the vintner of Sebastopol's River Road Winery and the owner of The Republic of Tea based in Novato.
As Rubin puts it, "I'm a beverage guy."
This beverage guy, at first glance, seems like a New Age, health-conscious yogi with an ultra-casual image. He's wearing jeans, a Patagonia navy jacket, brown boots and a black baseball cap that partially covers his gray hair.
"I exercise and I used to run marathons," Rubin said. "The healthy benefits of tea worked with my lifestyle, and it's so close to wine. It's an agrarian product."
Rubin said wine and tea are both about slowing down, "sip by sip rather than gulp by gulp."
Rubin wanted to own his own winery when he was 22, and 40 years later it became a reality when he purchased River Road in 2011.
Rubin studied enology and viticulture at UC Davis in 1971, and his palate soon evolved to the point where he preferred Mondavi and Jordan cabernet sauvignon to Boones Farm wines.
"UC Davis is what really opened my eyes," Rubin said. The backdrop of Wine Country also made quite an impression. "Walking through the vineyard with my then-girlfriend (now wife) Pam was very romantic. Wine is a very romantic beverage."
At River Road, winemaker Joe Freeman calls the shots, while Rubin suggests ideas. Rubin, for instance, suggested the winery make an un-oaked chardonnay and a ros? which are both in the works. The winery produces 40,000 cases, and Rubin wants to increase that to 100,000, with most of the wines in the $13 to $25 for everyday wine drinkers.
"It may take me six to seven years to get there," Rubin said with a laugh.
Right now, Rubin is having fun melding the worlds of wine and tea, knowing they intersect at a healthy lifestyle.
In fact, when Rubin purchased the Republic of Tea in 1994, he wanted to make tea in wine's image.
When Rubin was in Boca Raton, Fla., vacationing in 1992, he went to Borders bookstore and bought the book "The Republic of Tea" and read it in a week.
"I wondered how come nobody did bottled tea like bottled wine, with the right pH and the right acidity," he said.
Rubin contacted the owners and initially wanted to create a licensing agreement, but he eventually had the opportunity to buy the company when it was only 22 months old.
The partners wanted a lot of money for it, but at that time it was only making $1 million in gross sales a year. Rubin wouldn't disclose the price he paid for the company but said gross sales today are $25 million a year.
While the corporate office is in Novato, the production facility is in Nashville, Ill., which makes Rubin a frequent flier, with a home in Tiburon and a home in St. Louis. But he says he always spends the wine harvest in Northern California to keep a close eye on the River Road winery.