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Ramey Wine Cellars — Taste Extraordinaire
There are winemakers . . . , and then there are WINEMAKERS. While thousands of people have occupied the former category, it is only the super talented few that are ever elevated to the latter. Wine lovers and professionals alike know and revere names such as Andre Tchelistcheff, Helen Turley, Mike Grgich, Martin Ray, and Joseph Heitz -- all of whom have entered wine industry folk lore. Not surprisingly, there is a new generation of brilliance being exhibited by younger winemakers as they await their inevitable acceptance as legends. These professionals include such stalwarts as Paul Hobbs, Merry Edwards, Gary Farrel, and our spotlighted individual of the day, David Ramey.
Predicting the future fame of a winemaker is not much different than opining that a basketball coach who turns each team he teaches into a winner, and then a champion, will someday be lionized. Applying this logic to David Ramey proves the point. He worked for Simi in the early 1980's, for Matanzas Creek during the decade it became a player in the fine wine game, and then revived the luster of Chalk Hill, making it one of the most sought after wines in the country in the early 1990's. In 1996 David helped breathe new life into Dominus, and then was the choice of Leslie Rudd to oversee his new endeavor, Rudd Estate. Within three years the Rudd line was winning consistent accolades and high ratings, and Ramey's fame was cemented. Nevertheless, David always had a dream to own his own winery (and from personal observation we think ownership is in fact in his nature). Thus, two years ago he and his wife Carla founded Ramey Wine Cellars, which is already turning out magnificent Chardonnays and red blends under their own label.
Through several wine tastings and a few meals we had made David's acquaintance over the past few years. Recently, however, we had the opportunity to spend a few days with him and learn about the "man," as well as about his wines, which are a direct reflection of his philosophy, his study, his education, his travels, and his patience. A student of French techniques (having spent two years in that country), Ramey is not tied down to any one convention. His wines are distinctly American to our palate, while retaining the characteristics of the great Burgundies and Bordeaux blends. Most importantly, the fruit used by David grows in some of the finest vineyards in the world, which allows him to produce wines that are all beautifully balanced, complex, fruit friendly to the mid palate, and long finishing. Whether one professes to prefer an old or new world style, Ramey Wines will probably suffice. Let's examine them in more detail.
The Chardonnays: David likes to point out that just as there are three great Chardonnay appellations in in Burgundy (Mersault, Puligny-Montrachet, and Chassagne-Montrachet), California can claim the Carneros, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast as uniquely suited for cool climate varieties. His Chardonnays, of which there are four, are made in almost identical fashions -- the distinct differences in them being the result of their particular region and terroir.
-The Vineyard Designates: Coming from cool sited special vineyards now famous for their superb fruit, these wines show great depth of flavor and complexity. Because of the density of the grapes, they are able to absorb more oak than otherwise would be the case, and still not be overwhelmed. Thus, they spend about 18 months sur lies, and up to 21 months in barrels made of 70% new oak before they are bottled unfiltered.
-Hyde Vineyard: The soils under this rolling terrain in Carneros are quite heavy clay, and the vines are 6 - 23 years old. Combining Old Wente and Long Vineyard clones, the ultimate result is classic Burgundian with floral, rather than citrus, aromas. The 2000 and 2001 vintages have received rave reviews from almost all wine writers and sell for $56.
-Hudson Vineyard: This vineyard (west of Hyde) features lighter soil than the Hyde and tends to produce wines that are a bit more muscular. Critics on the whole might even like this one better than the Hyde. We are split. Monty likes Hudson, and Sara prefers Hyde, though both rank in the top 10 Chardonnays we know. Also a $56 price tag.
-The Carneros District and Russian River Valley Chards: These reflect the characteristics of their regions, whether the fruit comes from a single vineyard, or from many. The wines spend 11 months in 40% new oak, and are bottled unfiltered. The Carneros vines grow in heavy clay soils which impart the body and thickness that result in a rich product. Gravelly soil is the hallmark of the Russian River wine, a crisp product with bright acidity and minerality. Both these efforts sell for an excellent price of $36, and also garner a full range of scores in the 90â€™s from most every wine writer.
The Cabernet Blends: These magnificent reds are created from Bordeaux varietals planted on two Napa Valley hillsides, Diamond Mountain and Mt. St. Helena. They are fermented with native yeast, blended early in the Bordeaux tradition, and bottled without filtration. -Jericho Canyon: Made from the vineyard of that name at the base of Mt. St. Helena near Calistoga, this wine has already reached cult status. The soil is shallow clay-loam atop volcanic ash. The wine is lush and elegant, with big fruit that lingers from the mid palate through the finish. We get chocolate and licorice kissed by cassis. The blend is 45% Cab, 26% Merlot, and 19% Cab Franc. Ratings for the 2001 are usually at the 95 level, making the $85 price tag quite attractive. Keep this for twenty years.
-Diamond Mountain District: 2001 is the first harvest from this gravelly clay-loam site, so some Jericho Canyon Merlot was added. The blend is 66% Cab, 15% Merlot, 12% Petite Verdot, and 7% Cab Franc. We tasted raspberries and noticed big tannins as this offering, also rated highly, filled our mouth. Itâ€™s big. The cost is $56.
-Claret: You might think that at $36 this is Davidâ€™s "throw away wine." But you would be way wrong. We think it is one of the best buys you can find in a red, and is full of ripe fruit, good tannins, and an interesting sweetness. Not a smooth, elegant wine, it is, nevertheless, an excellent accompaniment to a meal. Claret is simply an English word referring to a Bordeaux wine, and this is produced from the best lots remaining after making the Jericho Canyon and Diamond Mountain. Cab comprises 56% of the product, Cab Franc 27%, and Merlot 17%.
David Ramey has that amazing touch and talent that can't be entirely taught -- it's an inherent asset. Fortunately for the consumer, David will be bottling over 20,000 cases this year, which will allow for relatively wide distribution. It is also nice to know he believes in trying to keep the costs down as much as possible so we can all enjoy his wine. Inexpensive? No. Reasonable for product and competition? Absolutely. We highly recommend you try these wines at the earliest opportunity. There are few in this class.
Ramey Wine Cellars
202 Haydon St.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
visits: by appointment only
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.