If the history of wine could be made into a movie western, David Ramey would be the maverick of the American West.
“I’m a winemaker. It’s all I’ve ever done as a grownup.” says David Ramey in his signature off-handed way as we sit down to discuss his revered winery of 20 years, Ramey Wine Cellars. And sitting before us, a sea of poured wine glasses on the large conference table as we wait in anticipation of tasting through his current and future releases. He takes us through to his lightning bolt moment—that moment of a-ha! in 1974—when he first decided to become a winemaker. It happened to him sitting alone in his ’71 Toyota Hilux pickup truck with no radio in the middle of the Mexican desert. “Just me and the cacti.” Fortified with a degree in American Literature from UC Santa Cruz, it was a moment of questioning that every young college graduate goes through: What am I going to do with my life?
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: What were you planning to do with a degree in American Lit?
DAVID RAMEY: Nothing. All I wanted to do was to be educated and well-read in my culture. I wanted to look at American Literature as the expression of the American consciousness. Starting with the Puritans and then civilization versus the wilderness—it’s themes the great writers like Faulkner wrote about. And then it hit me: Why don’t I make wine? It’s an esthetic statement like literature, like the elements of composition in film. Literary and visual . . . well, that applies to wine too. It makes people happy, and it’s not bad for the environment. But you’ve got to go to UC Davis for that, and that’s only for sons and daughters of industry, who am I kidding?
With that thought, he turned back around towards the American West and, four years later, graduated UC Davis with a Master of Science in Oenology. David was 28 years old at the time.
THE SUN ALSO RISES
Most guys, after approaching their mid-60s, start to unwind, sit in the easy chair and look towards the sunset with a glass of whiskey in hand. Not so with David, as 2014 marked the first vintage for a second label in the Ramey wine portfolio: Sidebar Cellars. Lydia Cummins is officially winemaker of Sidebar, but she and David work as a team. “I’m like the benevolent dictator,” he says, off-handedly, of course. Sidebar allows Ramey to make varieties outside of those that the winery has firmly established itself with: Chardonnay, Cabernet and Syrah.
DAVID RAMEY: This new brand is a little younger and, hopefully, a little hipper. Less expensive, fun varieties—they can come from anywhere, whereas the Ramey brand is only Sonoma and Napa. There’s also a varietal firewall: there will never be a Sidebar Chardonnay, Cabernet or Syrah; and there will never be a Ramey Sauvignon Blanc.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: What’s behind the name “Sidebar?”
DR: Well, it has three meanings. Probably the dominant one would be, say you’re reading an annotated text and the notes are on the side. Two, for a lawyer it’s when the judge calls opposing counsels to the bench. Third, the least common one but the most literal, is at a larger bar there might be a side bar over there. So, it’s a sidebar to Ramey Wine Cellars.
With David still overseeing the winemaking and production at Ramey Wine Cellars, the winery has reached its highest production level in its history, now about 40,000 cases of wine per year, distributed throughout the U.S. and with a market presence in 28 countries. David and his wife Carla have done it without partners or investors—they still own the company completely. That’s certainly a rarity for someone who’s been in the game this long—a majority of family-owned wineries in Sonoma and Napa from the late 1990s have sold out at this point.
A new wine label isn’t all. David recently bought a 75-acre property on Westside Road in the Russian River area of Sonoma, where the winery will conduct all operations, finally allowing them to move out of the two leased facilities they have been using. The new location will have all the same functionality David had while he was at Dominus and Rudd and is a mile south of Rochioli and across the street from Williams Selyem. In other words, three icons of California winemaking will be nicely perched next to each other in the thick of the beatific scenery of the Russian River, where they belong. David is rehabilitating an old hop kiln barn on the property and Ramey Wine Cellars will finally have a tasting room. Think about it: all the success the winery has seen—all done without having had a tasting room.
Tasting through the 2013 vintage of Ramey Wine Cellar’s six Chardonnays, all of which have yet to be released, one thing is obvious: they are all uniformly stunning. The hallmarks of a Ramey Chardonnay—and make no mistake, these are world class white wines and inarguably some of the greatest Chardonnays of California—are a vibrancy, clarity, focus, richness, and crispness that is uniquely American. The astounding Hyde Vineyard is perhaps the fullest expression of the values David brings to his winemaking. And when you compare the austere, masculine Platt Vineyard to the roundness and ebullience of the Ritchie Vineyard and to the coolness and vibrancy of the Woolsey Road Vineyard, you begin to understand the range of expression the winemaker as artist is capable of creating in the bottle.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hypnotic allure of Ramey’s whites, so it’s easy to forget that they also make great reds. When you think Ramey you don’t think Ramey Sonoma Coast Syrah, but the 2012 Rodgers Creek Vineyard is a stellar cool-climate representation of the varietal—distinctive and a must-have. And then, there are the Cabs. The entry-level Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has long stood as a California classic, and it still shines brightly. The Annum is everything you want in a $100 Napa Cab—structured and complex with alluring texture—but nothing quite prepares you for the monumental 2012 Pedregal Vineyard, just released in September 2015. Borne out of the very rocky soils of a lesser-known vineyard in the hills of Oakville, this Cabernet is David’s crowning achievement amongst a lineup of expressive classics. It’s a shockingly beautiful wine, musical and immersive.
TCR: How do you see yourself as a winemaker?
DR: My wife will tell you I’m an Aquarius, kind of a free spirit. But what I’ve done is always go back and adopt the old-fashioned way of doing something. You come out of school and you have all these chemical-engineering and food processing ways of approaching winemaking, and I thought, ‘Well, jeez, how did they used to make wine 50 years ago in France?’ The only way to make progress is to conduct controlled experiments—not on a 5-gallon scale but on a whole production level. But winemakers are afraid to do that. They’re more afraid of something going wrong than being dedicated to making something go right. It’s silly. You’re not going to make bad wine. You’re just changing one variable. In every instance, except one, the old fashioned way of doing something is better than the modern way.
TCR: You built the winery’s reputation on your groundbreaking Chardonnays. What do you think separates American Chardonnay from Burgundy? What makes American Chardonnay American?
DR: The English MWs (Master of Wine), the traditionalists, want to say that California doesn’t have terroir. That’s just silly. Every site in the world has terroir. I was at a conference in Burgundy on terroir in 2000 and the keynote speaker, Henri Jayer, said, ‘It’s half the grapes, and it’s half what you do with them.’ That’s perfect, that says it all. You have these winemakers in California who say ‘everything is in the grapes, everything comes from the vineyard.’ That’s BS. The winemaking comes later. That’s, like, if you give the same ingredients to three different chefs . . . dude, you’re going to get three different meals. It’s half terroir, and it’s half winemaking. What success I’ve enjoyed, I think, has been due to adapting Old World winemaking. I learned to make Chardonnay from Burgundy, not from UC Davis. We owe this incredible debt [to Burgundy] for establishing the paradigm. But to say that neo-Burgundian wines can’t be produced elsewhere in the world is like saying symphonic conductors cannot conduct Beethoven’s 7th anywhere but in Germany. Every conductor is going to give it their own twist. That’s the way I look at my role. When I make Chardonnay I’m conducting Beethoven’s 7th. And it’s going to have its own inflection because the musicians are Californian instead of French. But, can it belong on the same table? Absolutely.
By his own words, that would make David Ramey a classicist. And an experimentalist. A free spirit and risk-taker but also a principled dogmatist. A romantic idealist yet a pragmatist. It can all be wrapped up in one word: maverick. A maverick acts on the pure convictions of his belief system. A maverick is iconoclastic and rebellious but smart enough to work within the confines of what is required to function successfully in an industry of commerce—Pablo Picasso had this same quality of awareness; Miles Davis had it too; and so does David’s friend Francis Ford Coppola. “I watch The Godfather trilogy every year with my son,” says David affectionately. It’s clear that this winemaker always saw himself as an artist from the very beginning. The clarity and vibrancy of that personal artistic vision has brought about one of the most essential wine portfolios in American winemaking, and that restless spirit of the artist brings Ramey Wine Cellars to one of its most fascinating precipices in its history: new wine label, new wine production facility, new tasting room, and the start of the process of passing the torch to his own son and daughter of industry—an industry that the young American Lit major once questioned, sitting in his ’71 Toyota Hilux, if he could ever belong.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN
Want to geek out? Just spend some time as the audience while David Ramey speaks technically about the winemaking process and, guaranteed, your wine knowledge and appreciation of wine will expand tenfold. Here’s David discussing the groundbreaking process of making Chardonnays that he introduced to the industry as a young winemaker in the 80s:
DAVID RAMEY: I developed whole-cluster press to reduce the phenolic impact. When I started, everybody was doing overnight skin contact. This gives the wine a lot of body but they don’t age very well. I published a paper on effects of temperature on skin contact in Chardonnay wines—this drew people to cooling the musts. People started shortening skin contact. I did it the way it has traditionally been done in Burgundy: crushing, not destemming, and pumping a short distance—6 or 8 feet—into the press. In 1987 I constructed a plywood hopper on top of the press and I was theorizing: ‘What if we stopped grinding and tearing the skins?’ And, sure enough, we got less solids, lower tannin, more delicacy on the palate. Then people like Helen Turley at Peter Michael started copying this process. It’s common practice now in California, whole-cluster press. Although half the winemakers today probably wouldn’t be able to tell you the rationale behind it.
It all started when David decided to move to France after graduating UC Davis to get a sense of that particular civilization.
DR: I knew I wanted to go work in France. It’s odd. You had a lot of Italian names coming to Sonoma and Napa to make wine—you had Mondavi, Seghesio, Sebastiani, Pedroncelli—but they all made French varietals. We should have had Sangiovese and Nebbiolo and Dolcetto and Barbera over here, in which case I would have gone to Italy. I was deciding between Bordeaux and Burgundy, and chose Bordeaux. I wrote 14 letters to the chateaux out there, and the one ‘yes’ I got was from Christian Moueix at Petrus. I started working there in 1979.
After that experience as an apprentice at one of the most storied Chateaux in all of Bordeaux, David knew he wanted to work in a factory, to gain more practical knowledge of the business side of producing wine, so he moved to Australia in 1980.
DR: All of my colleagues out of UC Davis were getting fulltime winemaker jobs right out of school. And I knew I didn’t want that, because I knew I didn’t know how to make wine. So, I wanted to learn from somebody who did. I learned a lot about the production side first, the business part. After Australia, I was approached to replace Merry Edwards at Matanzas Creek, and I stepped in as a winemaker and grew that brand for five years.
And then came another call from his old friend Moueix.
DR: Christian always had in mind that we would work together again, so in 1989 I went back to Bordeaux in a different capacity. This time I was driving around with [legendary winemaker at Chateau Petrus] Jean-Claude Berrouet taking wine samples. My wife and I got married over there.
When David first got the inkling of wanting to create his own winery, his mentor Moueix said “not yet.” So, Ramey went over to Chalk Hill and proceeded to put the winery on the map over the course of his six years there—changing their style and quality of wines. Honing his marketing skills, David was also traveling a lot and developing the Chalk Hill brand on the road.
After that stint, Moueix asked him to come over and run Dominus. David raised two objections. First of all, there was no winery (it hadn’t been built yet). The permit to build took 18 months to process (compared to the 2½ years on average now). Design, construction—they were ready for harvest in 1997. Executive VP Winemaker was David’s title. Dominus to this day is one of the world’s most revered names in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
The second objection of David’s while at Dominus was that they didn’t make any white wine. Moueix said “Why don’t you make a little Chardonnay on the side, it’s okay.” A light bulb went off. David said to himself, “Yeah, I know how to do that.” (He had made plenty of these at Matanzas Creek, Simi and Chalk Hill.) He had always invested so much into his job, the idea of having a side project never occurred to him.
After Dominus, David took a job working with Leslie Rudd and, once again, over four years, helped create one of the venerable names in Napa wine, the Rudd Oakville Estate. This was to be his last job, however—his mind was set on creating his own winery.
David knew a fellow named Larry Hyde; he had bought grapes from him. 1996 happened to be a period of high demand for Chardonnay grapes. Hyde didn’t have any to give, but he carved out a little supply—and that was the start of Ramey Wine Cellars. It all started with 260 cases of 1996 Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay.
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: Was Hyde Vineyard back then considered the prestigious vineyard it is now?
DR: No, not so much. A lot of us had a hand in developing the name.
With the first vintage of Chardonnay in the bottle, David and wife Carla moved to Healdsburg, Sonoma, where they still reside today . . . and the rest is living history.
“Will you ever make a Pinot Noir?” we ask. David Ramey confirms, “Yes, we’ll start out with a Russian River Pinot Noir from the new property (on Westside Road).” What are you drinking these days? “I love whiskey. Brunello is my new favorite wine, much to my wife’s chagrin. I’m buying cases of ‘06, ‘07 and now ‘10s. It can get expensive,” he chuckles. Which brings us to the topic of pricing, which elicits a particularly animated response from the winemaker:
THE CORKSCREWER REPORT: What goes into pricing? What goes into your thinking when you say this is going to be a $100 wine, and this is going to be $65 or $25? Is it relatively arbitrary, or is there a guideline you go by?
DAVID RAMEY: Probably the best answer is . . . SWAG. Sophisticated, wild-ass guess. Let’s be honest . . . your basic accounting standard for the wine business is working off a 50% gross margin. Now, if you’re all direct-to-consumer due to some lightning strike that happened some time ago, that’s not a business model you can plan, that just happens to you, and maybe you’re a 70% gross margin. So, if you’re a 50% gross margin, in a three-tiered system, we sell to our distributors at half of retail price. A $20 bottle of wine, we would sell to our distributor for $10, they sell wholesale to the retailer for $13.50, and the retailer sells the bottle for $20. You know, I’ve been in the business since 1980, and I’m an old-time brand builder. I’ve watched brands lose market presence by an over-reliance on direct-to-consumer sales. I’ve always felt that if you’re not in the top restaurants of the world, you’re not really a world class brand—and that requires distribution. We’ve been invested in distribution from the beginning.
I’m not trying to make the most expensive wine. On the other hand, I’m aware that people regard you as a brand partly in relationship to your pricing. Your pricing decisions are part profitability and part strategic marketing. The other part of pricing is to match the price to your output—the real goal is to make one less case than you can sell in 12 months. The key is this: the right price is whatever the traffic will bear. This is capitalism. This is business, this is America. So, what you really want to know is: has this price been earned in the marketplace? Is this a real price, or is this a bullshit price? We don’t make inexpensive wine. But these are real prices, they’re earned in the marketplace.
One thing for sure is that David Ramey has earned his place within the still-evolving story of American wine. If we all somehow had a George Bailey moment in It’s A Wonderful Life and could see what the world would look like if Ramey Wine Cellars never existed, well, that story would end in American tragedy. As it is, spending time with the legend, the maverick, like we did, we got the sense that here is someone who has arrived at a place, his Gilead, where the past, present and future have arrived at a peaceful confluence. No note of regrets, still a great sense of joy in what he does, and enthusiasm and affection for the prospect of his son and daughter one day running the business.
One of the most iconic final shots in all of film is that of John Wayne’s cowboy character, Ethan Edwards, seen through the doorframe of a house in silhouette—as he walks out into the wide open vista of Utah’s Monument Valley before him—in John Ford’s epic western, The Searchers. John Wayne stands alone, the desert winds blowing dust over him. It’s not difficult to see David Ramey as that character. Swap out Monument Valley with the wide open vista of Sonoma Valley’s golden, rolling hills and farmland, and you get the idea. Here is a winemaker, equal parts scientist and artist, who changed the landscape of American wine with his singular vision of how wine should be. “I prefer wines that are sensual. I want them to feel good,” says David towards the end of our meeting. It’s a seemingly simple statement—which, pretty much, sums up the more than 40-year pursuit David Ramey has embarked on as a maker of wine. This journey still has a third act to play out, but in the meantime, we can all feel good indulging in the vibrant, crisp and rich fruits of labor from Ramey Wine Cellars—not just a great winery but quintessentially American.