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A new owner for Rabbit Ridge

Rabbit Ridge Winery, the rogue winery that moved production to Paso Robles after a 2001 battle over unpermitted buildings, is selling its Healdsburg tasting room and dormant winery.

Ken Wilson, who owns two other Dry Creek wineries and is developing a third in the Alexander Valley, is acquiring the 45-acre property for just under $4 million. He expects to close escrow today.

"It kind of needs some work, but it's the kind of work that I enjoy doing," said Wilson.

Wilson owns the nearby Wilson Winery and Mazzocco Vineyards, which he purchased in 2005. He is also renovating the historic Soda Rock winery building near Jimtown.

Rabbit Ridge Winery, founded in 1981 by Erich Russell, grew rapidly in the 1990s but ran afoul of its Westside Road neighbors and county planners. They accused Russell of constructing seven production buildings without permits and producing far more wine than he was allowed.

In 2000, the winery was producing about 280,000 cases, but his 1992 permit allowed only 50,000 cases. The operation angered neighbors who complained about excessive noise and traffic.

The county sued, revoked the winery's operating permit and forced Russell to demolish the unpermitted winery buildings. After paying a $500,000 settlement, the county restored the 50,000-case permit.

Russell put the Healdsburg facility on the market, began working on a Paso Robles winery and later moved Rabbit Ridge's wine production to the new 150,000-case facility. The tasting room at the Healdsburg location has remained open.

Later in 2001, Russell also paid a record $810,000 to settle federal charges that the winery misled consumers by selling wines with the wrong labels.

It is unclear why it took six years to sell the 45-acre property. Russell originally listed it for $5.5 million. Wilson said he paid "slightly under" the most recent $3.95 million list price.

Russell declined to comment.

Wilson, who owns more than 200 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County, said he had his eye on the property for some time, but only made an offer after it fell out of escrow.

The facility, which had four separate agricultural-style buildings, is set up for about 25,000 cases, Wilson said.

Wine is not currently being made there, and a fair amount of "deferred maintenance" will need to be done before winemaking can return, Wilson said.

He plans to move Mazzocco's high-end 5,000-case Matrix brand to the facility, and may also create space for other winemakers in an increasingly common "winery-within-a-winery" arrangement, he said.

The vineyards on the property will need to be completely replanted, Wilson said. The listing shows about 22 acres of plantable land.

"It's quite a bit of land," Wilson said. "My feeling is that we're going to need more (grapes). I'm feeling the crunch already."

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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