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NOTEBOOK: Russell makes the leap from wine enthusiast to winery co-ownership


Delta Dental of Iowa CEO Jeff Russell has partnered with a longtime friend to launch an Oregon winery — Catalyst Ridge Wines — with the idea of bringing some of the best of the Willamette Valley’s vintages and winemakers’ talents to Iowa and the Midwest. 

Russell, who has been a wine enthusiast for a number of years, says he had many discussions over a glass of wine with his friend and now business partner, Mark Zook. The discussions became more serious as both furthered their wine education — Russell learning informally during numerous trips to the West Coast and chatting with winemakers and tasting room staff, while Zook, who lives in Salem, Ore., has a degree in viticulture and earned a vineyard operations certificate. Russell, Delta Dental’s CEO since May 2013, has known Zook, a credit union executive, for more than 20 years through his previous roles in the credit union industry. 

In 2019, the “fate of geography” connected them with a renowned winemaker, Joe Dobbes, who lives just across the street from Zook’s house in the Willamette Valley. “We came to him and asked him, ‘Would you ever consider making wine for us?’” 

Fast-forward to today, and Catalyst Ridge Wines recently released its 2019 vintage wines, with a goal of representing the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that can be produced in the valley’s special micro-climate. They also had the good fortune that Blossom Ridge, the vineyard owned by Dobbes, has a long-standing partnership with the winemaker Alex Sokol Blosser, which led to a 2017 vintage sparkling wine that Catalyst Ridge is featuring. 

“Our business model is: Make great wine and bring it to Iowa,” Russell said. As noted on their website, Catalyst Ridge plans to use future vintages to bring limited-edition wines made by both renowned winemakers and up-and-comers from Willamette Valley. 

Catalyst Ridge wines can be found at Gateway Market in Des Moines and at WineStyles stores in Greater Des Moines. They’re also served at Des Moines Golf and Country Club, Embassy Club West and Glen Oaks Country Club. “We’ll continue to expand that,” Russell said. “We got a good reception at an event at the Embassy Club West last month.” The wines can also be ordered online through the winery’s website, www.catalyst.wine

Meanwhile, Russell is keeping his day gig with Delta Dental. Asked if the winery is part of his retirement plan, Russell laughed. 

“I’ve told people it’s really my hobby,” he said. “I’m terrible at golf — this is what I do, I’m terrific at building businesses. This is an opportunity that combines a passion with something I love to do.”

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