By Virginie Boone
Plenty of grape growers have had former or concurrent careers. Not a lot of them have been intensive care nurses. Jim Rickards of J. Rickards Vineyards and Winery in Cloverdale has had a long career as such over the last 40 years, while planting and growing a vineyard on the east side of the Alexander Valley.
Long devoted to sustainable viticulture, he also serves on the Sonoma County Winegrowers Board of Directors.
When Jim and his wife Eliza came across the 60-acre site in 1976, Jim had already served in the military (where he had done much of his medical training), run a cattle business in Petaluma he had to give up because of ongoing drought, and started to work full-time in local hospitals, doing his tractor work in the vineyard at night and taking viticulture courses from Santa Rosa Junior College when he could.
The site already had old-vine Zinfandel planted in 1908, vines the Rickards have continued to maintain. They can be traced back to the Brignole family, natives of Genoa, Italy, who had been part of Asti Swiss Colony and planted an Italian field blend on the property seven feet apart, which would have been plowed by horses and mules.
Josephine Brignole Camaur lived from 1914 to 2018 and was born on the Brignole Ranch, where J. Rickards sits now. The ranch was originally owned by industrialists in San Francisco and managed by Josephine’s father, Giovanni. Her mother, Rosa Rocca, who immigrated to America in 1904 at the age of 16, was able to buy all 360 acres of it in 1919.
Josephine and three older siblings lived and worked on the ranch for many years. Rosa sadly died in 1940 from botulism caused by consuming the poisonous bacteria that lurked in some canned figs.
After graduating from Geyserville High School and Santa Rosa Junior College, Josephine, who had also been poisoned but survived, married Cesare Camaur in the chapel at Asti in 1941. The ranch was sold soon after and the Camaurs lived in Dry Creek Valley for the remainder of their years, raising one son, Richard, and tending a small vineyard and rose garden. Josephine lived to be 103. She published a brief history of her mother’s life, “The Rosa Brignole Ranch,” in 1996, which can be accessed through the Sonoma County Library.
The Brignole Zin is joined by some of the classic grapes of the time, like Carignane and Golden Chasselas. The Rickards honor the family by still calling the old vine portion the Brignole Vineyard.
While the Rickards continue to sell a lot of their grapes, including the Cabernet Sauvignon to neighboring Silver Oak and Zinfandel to Passalacqua, they started making their own wine in 1991, building a winery on site in 2005. They also built their own house and have long grown much of their own food.
They’re at about 5,000 cases/year these days and still invite friends to help bottle a special red wine blend once a year during Family Bottling Day, a ritual that started in 1993 with the first vintage.
Jim and his team do their own grafting rather than going with prepared stock; they’ve hand-grafted every one of their 54,000-plus vines on the property. Juan Favela has worked with the site since 1990, while husband-wife team Jorge Alcazar and Aguida Arias Carillo have been core members of the vineyard crew since 2003.
Jim is a great storyteller who loves entertaining visitors at the winery. He’ll be on hand during Winter WINEland this coming Saturday, the same day the Good Stuff show on KSRO will air our conversation with Jim. Tune in at 1 p.m. PST or listen to the podcast of the show.