Ramey Wine Cellars

By Sunny Brown on June 1, 2008

Category: Winery of the Month

David Ramey is a sharp guy. He knows more about the process of fermenting wine than anyone I have ever met. He can spend hours on the intricacies of fining versus filtration, or sulfites over sulfides, or even which soil composition provides the best fruit for the Clone 4 Chardonnay. To some these may seem like hardly the great paradoxes of our time, but it is a good thing he knows so much, because when you work with some of the very best vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties, as Ramey does, you had better know your craft.

Ramey received a graduate degree from the prestigious U.C. Davis in 1979. Unlike many of his colleagues and classmates Ramey didn't immediately land a high-paying gig as an enologist, instead he traveled first to France to work as a cellar rat for the Moueix family of Chateau Pétrus. His next stint was at Lindemans of Australia where tens of thousands of cases of wine were produced not only yearly, but daily. "My main project was Bag in a Box Rhine Riesling," says Ramey. "Except it didn't have a drop of Riesling in it."

"My first real job came as assistant winemaker at Simi. I knew I didn't know how to make wine, so I learned production management instead." Oh, how times have changed. As David's knowledge base grew, so did the quality of his winemaking positions: He replaced Merry Edwards at Mantanzas Creek. He spent a little time back in Bordeaux with the Moueix family, this time as consulting winemaker instead of "Kid who cleans out the barrels," as his unofficial title went before.

But it was a job at a little known winery named Chalk Hill that really got the ball rolling for Ramey. "When I started at Chalk Hill we were selling thin Chardonnay to chain stores for $7.59 a bottle," muses Ramey. When Ramey left Chalk Hill in the mid 1990s the winery was a household name and selling for four times its previous price. David then went back to work for Christian Moueix, this time as winemaker and director of Dominus, the prestigious Napa Valley estate owned by Chateau Pétrus.

But the desire to make wines in his own fashion was always in the back of David's mind. He also realized that "Working for a Frenchman wasn't as much fun as being friends with a Frenchman," so in 1996 Ramey Wine Cellars was born. From the word go David took advantage of his great relationships with grape growers throughout Sonoma, starting with the very first Ramey wine- a Chardonnay from the now famous vineyard of Larry Hyde. Back then the vineyard wasn't quite as famous, and Ramey's ideas on winemaking didn't quite bring the fruit flying in the door. The first vintage of Ramey Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay was a scant 260 cases.

"We put $90,000 into Ramey Wine Cellars the first two years to get the first wine out of the door. The net from the first 260 cases was only $67,000."

But the word on the quality was out, and opportunities began to present themselves, first in the form of a job at Leslie Rudd's Vineyard in Oakville, and then the discovery of two blocks of twenty-five year-old Wente clone Chardonnay that originally were sold under the Rudd label. David moved his winemaking to the brand-new and state-of-the-art Rudd facility and took the Chardonnay for himself when Rudd no longer was interested in making fine, if expensive, Chardonnay.

The rest, as they say, is history. Today Ramey Wine Cellars produces six different Chardonnays, five Cabernets and Bordeaux-styled blends and even two Syrahs from some of the best and most famous vineyards in all of California. Demand has gone through the roof, and the Ramey wines continue to be some of the most highly sought after wines from the Golden State, something that David classifies as "stupid growth." There is now a 10,000 square foot facility in downtown Healdsburg to ferment, bottle and store the wines. Ever the scientist, Ramey has stocked this gleaming new facility with only the most modern of technology.

Ramey often looks to the fine wines of both Burgundy and Bordeaux as models for his creations. In the end he crafts wines that have all of the fruit and concentration of California's more moderate climate but they are mixed with the finesse, charm, complexity, subtlety and texture that are the hallmarks of the greatest Domaines and Chateau from across the pond.

Each of the six Chardonnays in the Ramey line up are given the same treatment in both the vineyard and the winery: all the grapes are grown organically and then given the same regimen of whole cluster fermentation in barrel with a little stirring of the fine lees. Only native yeasts are used, as well as all the wines undergo a full malolactic fermentation before aging for twelve months in barrel and four months in bottle without filtration. The result is a study in the terroir of Northern California as each nuance and difference in flavor from one wine to the next can only be attributed to the soil, the sun, the wind and the rain.

Yet different they are. The 2006 Ramey Sonoma Coast Chardonnay was a lovely mixture of fresh pears and apples on the nose followed by a palate that was big and fruit forward, with a soft butter and butterscotch note on the finish. The texture was silky, mouth-coating and wonderful.

The 2006 Ramey Russian River Chardonnay was more floral on the nose and palate than the Sonoma Coast, with hints of jasmine and honeysuckle mixing with a bright peach essence. Flavors of tropical fruits, ripe pears and a little lemon zest roll together on a silky frame layered with cream. Elegant and full of charm, this wine was in perfect balance.

The 2006 Ramey Carneros Chardonnay was an interesting mix of big and bold and fresh and crisp. Floral and tropical on the nose, the palate was a unique blend of crisp lime-tinged fruit with higher acidity followed by a big, broad mouth feel that hinted at an over-the-top style of Chardonnay. Everything was in incredible balance, with a long velvety-smooth finish to tie the wine together.

The first wine ever produced by David was from the heavy clay soil of Larry Hyde's vineyard located along highway 12 just to the southwest of the city of Napa. To this day Ramey still sources Wente-clone Chardonnay grapes from this prestigious vineyard. The 2005 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard was an incredible treat in California Chardonnay. Too often it is assumed that great Chardonnay from CA needs to be a fruit bomb and have no guile, subtlety or complexity. This has all of those and much more. Fragrant, floral and lovely on the nose with peach blossom perfume and a little clover honey. The body has crisp acidity, a delicate balance, a wonderfully soft and beautiful feel and a very long finish. Burgundy fans look no further than Carneros, everything you need can be found in this wonderful wine.

Another beauty was the 2005 Ramey Hudson Vineyard Chardonnay. A little bigger and broader than the Hyde Vineyard Chard, this wine offered a nice mix of fresh pears, some floral complexity and even a little minerality on the nose, while the palate followed with hints of white pepper, milk chocolate, creme brulee and a long and rich finish. A wonderfully rich feel coated the mouth, but ample acidity provided finesse and balance to what would have otherwise been an overtly rich wine.

David's Chardonnays also age tremendously well, so if you have patience to throw a bottle of Hyde or Hudson into the cellars for a few years you will be supremely rewarded!

Ramey has given just as much care to the red wines in his line up and their vineyard sourcing as the whites, and it was my pleasure to taste through them and focus on the noticeable differences that each vineyard provided to the resulting wines. They are some of the best Cabernet-based wines that anyone has produced in Napa, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to try them if you have the chance.

The 2005 Ramey Napa Valley Claret is a blend of primarily Cabernet with a quarter Merlot and also splashes of Cab Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec and even a little Syrah- an homage to the wines of Bordeaux that were once "improved" by adding a little Hermitage to the mix. Aromas of cocoa, soft red fruits, a little dry-earth dustiness and hints of French Oak harmonize with a palate that has incredible texture, silkiness and weight. Black cherry and currant notes mix with mouth filling tannins, touches of white pepper and earth.

The 2005 Ramey Napa Valley Cabernet is the first such bottling from David, and it is comprised of fruit from each of his single-vineyard Cabernets. Dark on the nose, with some sweet raspberry fruit but also touches of cedar, dry earth and blackberry jam. The palate has great richness and body, with a long finish of sweet red fruit mixed with firm tannins and ample acidity. Sturdy and structured, this could use a few more years in the cellar.

The 2005 Ramey Cabernet Larkmead Vineyard hails from a vineyard in Calistoga on the valley floor, but the high gravel content of the low-vigor soil provides a wine of considerable body and weight. Cherry-blossom perfume mixes with aromas of cassis, kirsch and dry earth before a full-throttle palate of sweet cassis and luscious black fruit kicks in. This wine has wonderful length, a velvety-smooth feel and some of the most well-formed and integrated tannins I have ever had in a young CA Cabernet. You can feel them, and almost chew on them, and they coat the inside of your cheeks, but they never seem to get in the way or feel hard in any way. Overall, a soft, supple, plush and thoroughly enjoyable wine.

My favorite of the line was the 2005 Ramey Cabernet Pedregal Vineyard. Sourced from a vineyard that sits in the heart of Oakville and counts its neighbors as Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle, this is as good as California Cab can get. The nose seemed to go on for days, with incredibly pronounced fruit, a haunting perfume and amazing depth. A new aroma awaited my nose with each sniff. The palate had everything you could possibly want in a Cabernet: length, body, richness, depth, fruit, tannins, earthy complexity, balance and weight. Complex, smooth and incredibly long, the wine was a seamless journey across the palate from beginning to end. Amazing.

The newest members of the Ramey line of wines were two Syrahs from Sonoma. Though not reviewed here keep an eye out for the supple and delicious Sonoma Coast Syrah which hails from the S.E. side of Sonoma Mountain.

I did get a chance however to try the 2005 Ramey Syrah Rodger's Creek Vineyard and it was dark, earthy, rich, spicy and delicious. Sourced from a vineyard on the west side of Sonoma Mountain, it was big, bold and wonderful. Sweet blackberry and smoke aromas wafted from the glass above a perfume that was a mix of lavender and plum blossom. The palate was packed with gobs of sweet black fruit, a silky texture, and a wonderful weight in the mid-palate that only a well-made Syrah can bring. Fleshy, rich and full of chewy tannins this wine will certainly stick around for a while, so be patient and give it time to grow into something magical.

Today Ramey Wine Cellars is wholly owned and operated by David and his wife Carla. David handles the fruit sourcing and viticultural aspects while Carla tackles the financials, compliance and marketing end of the winery. It is not often that we get to sample the creations of a true superstar of wine when he is at the height of his craft, so grab the next bottle of Ramey that you see, for with one more hack writer such as myself touting his wares, who knows how long they will be around!