Visit R Wine Cellar Urban Winery in the Strip and you will find vintner Steve Russell pouring samples at his tasting counter and chatting with customers about wine selections. One of the Russell’s four children (ranging in age from 14 to 23) will likely be manning the cash register while a steady stream of visitors drop in. Some are repeat customers, while others exclaim how they just happened by. Everyone has two things in common—they love wine, and they are glad to be there.
That is why Kathy Russell, Steve’s wife, calls R Wine Cellar her “happy place.”
“We always told our kids to do something they were passionate about, to follow their bliss,” she says. R Wine Cellar is just such a business.
Sixteen years ago, Steve left his career as president of Russell Industries, a family business specializing in road construction, to raise their children. This enabled Kathy to continue as president of Nu/Hart International, a Green Tree based medical hair transplantation company with 11 offices worldwide. As their kids grew older, Steve began to pursue his passion for wine.
“It started as a hobby, making small batches in the basement,” he says.
Then Steve graduated to oenology (wine-making) classes, eventually bringing a mentor from California to help him blend their current wine selections.
When they decided to make the jump from hobby to business, the Russells did it as a family. Kathy and Steve, Osage Road, presented the idea at a family dinner at Atria’s in summer 2011. Owning one-sixth of a winery “sounded like fun to the kids,” Steve recalls, and they jumped into their new business with fervor.
Margaret, then 18, designed the label for the bottles as well as the winery’s logo. Now in law school, Thomas, then 20, navigated the legal labyrinth of opening a winery in Pennsylvania. Connor, then 16, was the “key bottle man,” says Kathy. He still mans the bottling machine whenever they produce a new wine. Fiona, then 12, pitched in with labeling, capping and sales, and Kathy, self-described “chief cook and bottle washer,” helped out on the weekends.
“It’s probably more work than they thought,” laughs Steve.
Finally, in May 2012, R Winery opened on Smallman Street. “We make everything on site,” says Kathy with a wave toward the huge stainless steel tanks that line the wall just off the tasting room. “People always imagine a winery with vineyards, but growing grapes and making wine are two different arts,” she says.
As an urban winery, the Russells source the best grapes from around the world and receive them at the Strip’s loading docks. Currently they are fermenting grapes from California, Lake Erie and South America. “We don’t use a lot of preservatives,” says Kathy.
So far the family is pleased with the results. Sales are brisk, and last summer they sold out of Sangiovese. “We produce good wines at an affordable price,” says Kathy. “We wanted wines you could drink every day.”
Steve changes the wine menu twice a year, but he bottles and blends new varietals at least once a month. In the fall, he blends and ferments grapes from North America. In the spring, he does the same with grapes harvested in South America. R Winery’s two signature wines are Fiona Chardonnay and Gluhwein. Fiona Chardonnay (named after their daughter) is “peachy, fruity and fun—just like Fiona,” Kathy says with a laugh. Conversely, Gluhwein is a spicy red wine, best served warm, and perfect for a day on the ski slopes or a wintry Pittsburgh evening. Their wine menu also includes more well-known varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio—all priced between $12 and $18 per bottle. Now in its second year, the Russell family has found the Strip to be a perfect match for their urban winery. “It’s so vibrant on weekends,” says Kathy. Many of their customers live nearby in the Cork Factory or Otto Milk Condos, and the local businesses have been very supportive. Occasionally, regular customers will even pitch in on bottling day.
Looking back, is there anything they’d do differently?