“…any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not.”—-Michael Pollan
Monday, March 10, 2014
The HoseMaster Visits Ramey Wine Cellars
The first time I met David Ramey, it was 1987, and I was attending the Sonoma County Wine Auction. In those days, the Sonoma Auction was attempting to emulate the Napa Valley Auction, with winery dinners and lunches, a barrel tasting, and a barrel auction. It was something of a four-day drunken brawl for me. I was still pretty new to the wine business. I’d studied wine for many years, but had just begun to work full-time in the business. Remarkably, I don’t think I understood how hard wine people partied. Oh, I have a bunch of sordid stories from that particular auction. After one dinner, a woman I’d met asked me to follow her home for a “nightcap.” Does anyone say “nightcap” any more? She got into her car, I jumped into mine, and followed her some 25 miles to her home. I pulled up behind her on the street in front of her house, excited, of course, and thinking I was about to get lucky. But someone else entirely got out of her car. Nice. I’d followed the wrong car for half an hour. Which made that person pretty uncomfortable. When I realized I’d tailed some perfectly innocent woman home, I threw my car into reverse and hightailed it out of there. I also got turned around heading home to where I was staying and spent a couple of hours lost on the unlit back roads of Sonoma County. I never did see the woman who’d invited me home again. Luckily.
One of the events I was lucky enough to attend was a luncheon at Matanzas Creek Winery where Dave Ramey was the winemaker. At Matanzas Creek, Dave was making some of the greatest Merlots California had ever seen. Famously, Dave Ramey had worked some harvests at Chateau Petrus, and while Matanzas Creek Merlot may not have been Petrus, the Merlots he made there in the ‘80’s were beautiful wines, soulful and thrilling wines, and really set the standard for the heights that grape can reach in California. I was thrilled to meet him, and weaseled my way into sitting at his table at the luncheon. As with much of my Sonoma County Wine Auction experience, I don’t remember much more after that. I’m pretty sure I didn’t follow him home.
I think of Dave Ramey as one of the best winemakers in the state. He doesn’t need the HoseMaster’s approval, and this isn’t news to anyone who loves fine wines. So when his Communications Director, Alexandra O’Gorman, invited me to visit Ramey Wine Cellars to taste wines with Dave and her, I was excited, and damned perplexed. I’m worse than a lowly blogger, I’m a lowly satirist. I have about as much influence in the wine business as Judge Judy. There’s not a thing I can do for Ramey Wine Cellars. But I’m not crazy. I accepted the generous offer and set up an appointment.
I don’t see a visit like this as an opportunity to rate wines. I find that practice fatuous. Sit with the winemaker/owner and be objective about his wines? I don’t believe very many people, if any, are capable of that kind of objectivity. I dismiss reviews I read of specific wines written from those circumstances, as I dismiss reviews of wines done at large industry tastings. It’s not that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re worthless to what your experience of those wines might be if you purchase a bottle and drink it at home. Industry tastings are the speed dating of wine reviewing, all about snap judgments and shallow appearances. Except with wine, you’re way likelier to get screwed. So this piece isn’t about reviewing each wine I tasted, but more about the experience and my overall impressions of Ramey Wine Cellars. I’ve never written a piece like this before, so bear with me. I’m trying to find my way.
When I taste at Ramey Wine Cellars, and I’ve tasted there on several previous occasions, I always come away with my faith renewed in California Chardonnay. I've always found it very difficult to find California Chardonnay that is genuinely compelling. Though I'd certainly call Mount Eden Vineyards' Estate Chardonnay and Mayacamas Chardonnay exceptions to that. And I’ve had a LOT of California Chardonnay. Partly, it’s style. Maybe I’m more particular about Chardonnay than other white varieties. If I am, I think it’s because Chardonnay seems to be the white grape that is the most screwed with by winemakers—the use of ML, of lees contact, of all kinds of oak regimens, all kinds of clones… So many California Chardonnays remind me of those poor little prepubescent girls dressed up for beauty pageants, a la JonBenét Ramsey. They’re someone’s idea of beauty, but, thankfully, not mine.
At my tasting with Dave and Alexandra, there were seven different Chardonnays to taste. Four were from the very difficult 2011 vintage. I asked Dave if 2011 was the toughest vintage he’s had to deal with in his career. Dave is a very articulate, very smart guy, and has a well-earned reputation for not suffering fools gladly. It’s like I have a twin! Dave said that 2011 was very difficult simply because it was such a cold vintage, but that he felt 2006 was a bit more challenging because of how much mold there was in the Chardonnay crop. I remember that year, it was the first year I lived in Sonoma, and there was a lot of mold everywhere. It was moldier than a hoarder’s house in Houston. A lot of the Chardonnays, and Pinot Noirs, from 2006 showed quite a bit of mold in the nose. It took a lot of work, and a lot of talent, to make great Chardonnay in 2006. Not a year to try and make a “natural wine.” Only an idiot would try that. I’m sure some did, but, as Dave Ramey puts it, wine’s job is to taste good. If you claim to be expressing terroir and the wine just tastes like old cheese from a blender, that’s just crap.
Only Nature can make natural things. Nature makes grapes. People make wine. Would you believe someone who told you they made the grapes? I’ve been around wine a long time. I can’t think of a stupider debate than Natural Wines. Humans spend 200 years destroying the planet, and now we think “natural” is better. An undefined "natural" at that. We are a sad race.
It was a pleasure to taste through the seven Ramey Chardonnays. It took us a long time. Dave and I rambled on and on about all kinds of things having to do with wine, and wine writers, and HoseMaster of Wine™. Dave’s very funny, and I was grateful and flattered he likes my stupid blog. He has strong opinions, and isn’t afraid to express them. Eventually, we tasted through all the wines, and along the way I kept learning things. About winemaking, about vineyards, about the business. I should have taken notes, but that’s not why I was there.
Ramey’s Chardonnays aren’t just good, they’re breathtaking. Here’s a list of the ones we tasted:
2011 Sonoma Coast $40
2011 Russian River $40
2011 Platt Vineyard Sonoma Coast $60
2011 Hudson Vineyard Carneros $60
2010 Hyde Vineyard Carneros $60
2010 Ritchie Vineyard Russian River Valley Sold Out
2012 Woolsey Road Vineyard Russian River Valley NYR
The common thread among all of Ramey’s Chardonnays is their ineffable mix of power and great delicacy. And if I think about it, isn’t that, in many ways, the very definition of greatness? Not just in wine, but in most art forms. It really struck me as I tasted the 2011 Platt—it embodies my point perfectly. It’s greatness sneaks up on you. The delicacy, in the Platt’s case, might make you overlook it if you only spent a minute with the wine. Its power and grace slowly dawn on your consciousness the longer you spend with the wine. And, yes, as it should, it just tastes good. You know, I don’t care what Dave might have done to it, what kind of interventions he might have made (isn’t winemaking, in essence, a major intervention? Being minimalist after that seems to miss the point), the wine is gorgeous. I’ve singled it out, but each of these wines was far better than most of the California Chardonnay out there. The next day, I took a few bottles home, the 2010 Ritchie was fantastic! Wow. Sexy and rich, but still refined and intricate.
I asked Dave a question I’m sure he’s been asked often. He was kind enough to suffer this fool for just a moment. I asked him what California Chardonnays he liked. He thought a bit, and the only answer he came up with quickly was HdV. So they can take that to the bank. If you’re someone who loves Chardonnay, you already know Ramey. If you want to fall in love again with Chardonnay, start here. The hardest one for me to like was the 2011 Sonoma Coast bottling. Sometimes, I think, the vintage wins. But even that wine was darn tasty.
We finally got to the reds. Two hours had passed. We talked about everything from Lo Hai Qu, to my Jon Bonné parody, to swapping Chateauneuf-du-Pape tasting notes (I was trying to convince Dave to start making Grenache, or some kind of C-D-P styled wine) to stories about all the characters, charlatans and clowns in the wine business. We had just started in on the reds when Dave needed to leave to have lunch with his wife. It was his birthday. Oh, man, imagine spending your birthday with the HoseMaster. That’s sort of like spending Christmas in the Emergency Room. With your gerbil.
Here’s the red lineup from that day:
2012 Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast NYR
2011 Syrah Sonoma Coast $40
2012 Claret Napa Valley $40
2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley NYR
2011 Annum Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley NYR
2011 Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville NYR
Dave stuck around a few minutes to get my reaction to the Syrah. In 2011, he declassified the Rodgers Creek Syrah and put it into this blend. Dave loves Rhône wines, as do I, and Syrah is the only wine in his portfolio that has its inspiration in the Rhône Valley. For me, Hermitage is the pinnacle of Syrah, certainly in France, and probably the world. 2011 wasn’t going to yield Hermitage in California. But the Ramey 2011 Syrah is beautiful wine, and has that cool climate beauty and power of the Rhône Valley Syrahs. Closer to Crozes-Hermitage, or maybe Cornas, with all that blueberry, white pepper and smoke. I’ve seen this for sale at around $30—that, my friends, is a steal.
After Dave left, Alexandra and I coasted through the reds. The reds brought me full circle back to why I fell in love with Dave’s wines in the first place—those old Matanzas Creek Merlots. He might be better known for Chardonnay, but maybe that’s because that’s such a fallow category in California. His red wines are also brilliant. I was amazed he’d made a Pinot Noir! I think he was too. They grafted some vines at Platt from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir, vines planted 2200 to the acre, which seems a little OCD to me, but there it is. The Pinot Noir had just been bottled, as I recall. I’d guess it will be remarkable with about six more months of bottle age. All the parts were there, just scrambled a bit.
It was a pure pleasure to taste through the reds. When I sat down to a place setting with 13 wines, I flashed on judging at wine competitions. You never get a flight like this in a wine competition. This was one great wine after another. The Claret is beautiful, very open and luscious, demanding to be consumed. Don’t know why, but I kept flashing on Nabokov’s Lolita. I think the Annum was my favorite. Again, it’s that Ramey signature of power and yet delicacy. People tend to say that winemakers need to pick the best fruit they can and then get out of the way. I think that’s naïve and hardheaded. Especially in a challenging year like 2011. Then the winemaker has to bring his best game, and Dave has plenty of game. And, hey, who doesn’t like Cabernet with game, especially venison?
It wouldn’t surprise me if the Ramey 2011 Annum was one of the top Cabernets of the vintage. Way too soon to say, but it has an early lead. Not to take away from the 2011 Pedregal, which might outperform the Annum given some bottle age. The 2011 Pedregal is very intense and very fine. Where the Annum is already showy and promises greatness, the Pedregal is still holding its cards close to the vest. I wish I’d had three days to taste the Pedregal. My hunch is it will be a classic one day.
Consider this piece an indulgence on my part. If you decide to buy some Ramey based on my thoughts, you’ll thank me. Most of you have probably had Dave’s wines at some point and you know how good they are. Well, a revisit is in order.
I owe thanks to Alexandra for setting up the tasting. There’s nothing I don’t like about her. And a big thank you to Dave Ramey, for the wines, for the insights, and for the kind words about this stupid blog.
We now return to our regular nonsense. But, first, go here and buy great wines:
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
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