By Laura Ness
It’s fitting that David Ramey has a Bachelor’s in Literature because he’s pretty much written the book on crafting fine Chardonnays from distinctive California vineyards. But his influence goes beyond Chardonnay. Ask anyone who has worked with him and they will tell you he’s the genuine article: he works the plan.
Ramey thought he’d pursue a teaching career after obtaining a BA in Literature from UC Santa Cruz. However, he’d had a small taste of the wine world from visiting the Bargetto tasting room in nearby Soquel, and while on a trip to Mexico decided to pursue winemaking. Heart set on attending UC Davis, he first needed to bone up on chemistry, which he took at San Jose State. At UC Davis, he joined fellow liberal arts majors who had similarly eschewed the typical career path of doctor, lawyer, teacher etc., in favor of winemaking.
But Ramey was different. After receiving an MS in Enology in 1979, he decided to head to France, where he interned with Jean-Pierre Moueix in Bordeaux. Asked why, he explains: “Even in 1979, the dominant grapes in California were Cabernet and Chardonnay, so I wanted to go to France to learn their winemaking traditions. The only question was, Burgundy or Bordeaux; I chose Bordeaux. In my level 2 French, I sent letters to fourteen chateaux asking for a harvest job. I got seven replies; six ‘no’ and one ‘yes.’ The ‘yes’ was from Christian Moueix.”
Ramey now speaks really impressive French, says long time client, Alex MacGregor of Saracina. “His accent is not bad for a Yank!”
Then it was on to Australia to work at Lindeman, followed by a return to the US, where he became assistant winemaker at Simi. Then it was five years at Matanzas Creek, after which he returned to France to work at Petrus. Upon returning to California, he became winemaker at Chalk Hill. After founding Ramey Cellars in 1996, he served as VP and winemaker at Dominus Estate for two years, then left to become director of vineyards and winemaking with friend Lesley Rudd at Rudd Estate. Striking out on his own in 2002, he purchased his first vineyard, Westside Farms in 2012. His daughter Claire joined the winery in 2013, and his son Alan followed suit in 2016. Ramey’s popular brand, Sidebar Cellars, debuted in 2014.
The Ramey Family
Ramey considers having his two children join in the family business his proudest achievement, and credits his wife Carla, for being one of the people he most admires in life. Understandably, Ramey also gives a great deal of credit to the formative experience of working in Bordeaux, and points to Jean-Claude Berrouet, longtime enologist at Jean-Pierre Moueix, as a mentor. Pearls of wisdom garnered: Attention to detail; the importance of texture and mouthfeel; the importance of mature, supple tannins; the importance of being nice—Jean-Claude is one of the great gentlemen of the wine world. He also points to the famed Zelma Long, again for her attention to detail; production management (as opposed to winemaking) and the imperative of constant experimentation and improvement.
Ramey’s first employee, Cameron Frey, has been at Ramey Wine Cellars for 18 years and is now Vice President of Winemaking. He says Ramey’s mantra is: “Plan your work and work your plan.” (Every single person interviewed for this piece stated the same.) Frey has learned to identify the point of diminishing returns, avoiding the pitfalls of spending too much time and energy on winemaking tasks that inevitably have very little impact on the final outcome. “To truly master the art of winemaking, one needs decades of experience to know where your energy should be directed,” Frey notes.
“Anybody can make good wine with the perfect amount of sunshine, rainfall, equipment and crew all of which can have their challenges. But when the sun stops shining, the rain starts falling, equipment stops working and your crew goes home sick, many inexperienced winemakers don’t know how to react or sometimes overreact, making things worse. Winemakers like David know how to react and may even find opportunities to capitalize on in the most challenging situations.”
Winemaker Alex MacGregor of Saracina seconds the notion. “’Do the work’ is one of David’s mantras. If you’ve got a thought somewhere back there that a blend could be improved with X, then don’t be lazy: do the work, do blending or fining trials, improve the wine (or in some cases it might not, but you’ve done it and learned in the process).” Among the lessons instilled by Ramey: “Focus on and procure great grapes; hire excellent people and give them latitude; experiment.”
Ramey’s Cellarmaster of 16 years, David Greene, says he learned that attention to detail is especially important in making white wine. “We make a lot, and it is delicate: oxygen is white wine’s enemy. One huge reason our whites will age so well is that we know how to handle them. We are always looking at how we can improve our wines and we take that same approach to the cellar, always improving our techniques and quite often just making ourselves more efficient.”
Why is Ramey so respected in the industry? Says MacGregor, “He was so influential in bringing Chardonnay (Chalk Hill, Simi and now Ramey) to the next level, with native yeast and malo, batonnage and ageing on lees, no filtration, etc. There may have been others playing with some of those concepts, but he used them all, successfully, and at a scale that was extraordinary. He did the same with Bordeaux reds (Matanzas Creek, Rudd), also with great success. To this day, he hasn’t lowered his standards and continues to make some of the finest ‘vins de gardes’ in the world. His consulting work has helped to spread his knowledge and experience, and not just with those grapes, but in my case with Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Zin.”
Diana Seyess, whose family owns Domaine Dujac in France, tells us that Ramey consulted with them from 2005 to 2011. She was winemaker at Snowden at the time and his guidance allowed her to take over with confidence. “That alone is to his credit. There are consultants who seek to teach and empower their clients, and there are those who keep their wisdom under lock and key. David was constantly teaching, every time we tasted together. He is always pushing the quality boundary through group tastings. He has an exceptionally insightful palate, and uses it to constantly improve.”
Cellarmaster Greene notes, “David loves wine, everyone that works here loves wine and that passion is what you see in the bottle. There is no stone left unturned when looking at how to improve any of our wines.”
Seyess says the most important lesson learned from Ramey is that native yeast rules. “David taught me a truth I hold dear to this day: after the important choices in the vineyard, the next most important decision for making a wine with life and soul is using a native yeast fermentation.” She notes that the French always use native yeast, but in California, where alcohols frequently push 15%, she was disinclined to do so.
But, she says, “Tasting 20-year old Californian Chardonnay trials of inoculated vs. native yeast fermentations was utterly compelling. The inoculated chardonnay was dead and the native yeast was alive and singing. While I had past experience with native yeast fermentations, I didn’t know for sure how very important they were. He tested it and he proved it.”
Other valuable lessons she learned from Ramey include keeping every vessel in the cellar, whether it’s a carboy, barrel or barrique, completely topped off, and not filled with gas, but with wine. Cellars should be cold: 55°F cold. Says Sayess, “If you can stand around comfortably in a sundress, you are sure to be growing Brettanomyces. No filter in the winery, either. And he doesn’t rent filters. He never filters and yet achieves irreproachable consistency in his wines!”
Jesse Katz, winemaker at Aperture Cellars, is grateful to Ramey for recruiting him from Screaming Eagle at age 25 for his first winemaker position. “David is true to his style and does not conform to trends that some wineries chase. His wines are consistent, beautiful, complex and clean. This is all being done using natural classic techniques like native yeast, no acidification, and no filtration.” He credits Ramey for inspiring him to make wines that have soul.
What is the most rewarding part of being in the wine industry for Ramey? It’s a simple answer, although far from a simple process. “Making a product that makes people happy, yet has an aesthetic element—and that we enjoy ourselves!”
This speaks to the desire for a quality of life that endears Ramey to those around him.
Frey illustrates. “During harvest season, we usually have a casual staff lunch at the picnic table in front of the winery every Friday. Lunch typically extends a little beyond the allotted one-hour break, and when we have hit the two-hour mark, David will interrupt everyone’s conversation and say; ‘Cameron, just how much work do we really have left to do today?’ It took me a few years to figure out the answer to his question, which was clearly telegraphed by the smile on his face. I have learned the correct answer is ‘Just a small amount of cleaning, David,’ whereupon the lunch gets extended with a few more bottles of wine, maybe a few cigars and bourbon to pair with the more stories to share and more healthy bonding conversation. I have learned to work hard but also play hard and believe the balance of the two have a direct correlation to the quality of life. I believe David has cracked the code or at least has come closer than anybody I know. Anyone who has worked with David knows quality of life is number one and sometimes it just takes a little extra time to get it.”
Cameron Frey and David Ramey
Greene adds, “David and Carla promote positive working relationships with growers, vendors, distributors and customers, and their generosity has truly been amazing. So many of us have been here for 10+ years. As owners, they care about their employee’s bank accounts as much as they do their own. This is very refreshing for this day and age when CEOs make so much more than their staff.”
Is there a Holy Grail that motivates Ramey? Is he pursuing a long held ideal, his idea of the perfect wine? “Well, I would say great white Burgundy—but then I would add, immodestly, that I think we’re coming pretty close…”
What makes Ramey’s Chardonnays stand out? Frey says, “All of the wines at Ramey Wine Cellars are true to varietal character. Timeless and classic styles that have been appreciated for hundreds of years.”
Katz adds, “Texture is the key thing that separates the good from the great in wine. His wines have soul and are always complemented by a balanced richness with lots of freshness and brightness as well.”
Cellarmaster Greene explains, “I have been tasting competitive sets of Chardonnays for the 16 years I have been at Ramey, and it used to be that ours would stick out more in a tasting, stylistically. Now I think there are more made in our style. I can’t prove people are following Ramey per se, but I do believe he has had a lot to do with that shift in style.”
Seyess observes, “His wines fall in that sublime sweet spot between paternal law—technical know-how, and maternal creativity—leaving room for nature’s complexities. Those are, for me, where the Holy Grail wines lie. David has refined and championed that tight-rope walk.”
MacGregor says simply, “They are delicious.”