Arthur P. Johnson Interview

November 8, 2003

He’s been making some of California's best wines for more than two decades, and at last he’s got his own winery. How does David Ramey make his Cabs and Chards so big, yet so full of finesse? Here he is. Let’s ask him…

I interviewed David Ramey and tasted through his 2001s on September 8, 2003, at his new winery in Healdsburg.  You may want to read this interview in several sittings, so I've broken it up into bite-sized sections. You can read it all the way through or hop to the parts that catch your interest. Click on any heading below to jump to that section:

Part 1. Quite a history

Part 2.  We taste through the 2001 Chardonnays

Part 3. "Man Makes Wine, God Makes Vinegar"

Part 4. "Chardonnay is the red wine of whites"

Part 5. Now about those reds…

Part 6. Okay, how do you do it?

Part 1. Quite a history

If you’ve ever been blown away by a wine from Rudd, Dominus, Chalk Hill, Matanzas Creek or Simi, then you may be a David Ramey fan without knowing it. He’s been quietly turning out beautiful stuff for the past 20 years, including those memorable Chalk Hill Chardonnays of the early 1990s, as well as the Rudd Cabs that critics have been cooing about lately.

In 1996, David Ramey started making his own line of Chardonnay. Now he’s got his own winery in Healdsburg and a killer assortment of 2001 reds to complement the whites.

You won’t mistake Ramey wines for those from Steve Kistler or Helen Turley. The quality is comparable, but he’s definitely got his own style. I won’t insult him by calling it French, but I'd suggest Burgundy and Bordeaux geeks give him a try. He's delivering New World oomph in a deft, classy way.

APJ: Before we get onto your own wines, let’s talk a little history. I know you made some great wines for Chalk Hill and Dominus. Where else?

DR: Well, I started making reds at Simi back in 1980. I was assistant winemaker to Zelma Long. Then I made wines for Matanzas Creek from 1984 to 1989. I was at Chalk Hill from 1990 to 1996, then went to Dominus until 1998…

APJ: I think I can remember exactly where I was the week you left Dominus. I was tasting over at Swanson, and Mel Knox, the barrel broker, came by…and boy is he tuned into what’s going on.

DR: Mel’s a great source of information. He helped me find a new winemaker for Chalk Hill — I’ve been assisting them again lately.

APJ: When did you start for Rudd? I really liked the 2000 — super stuff for that vintage.

DR: I’ve been making their wines from 1998 through the 2001 vintage.

APJ: And when did you move into your own winemaking facility? How does it feel?

DR: I've had it since February first of 2001. It was a pretty tight deal getting the federal government, state government, landlord and former landlord all lined up on the same day. But it feels great now.

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Part 2. Now we taste the 2001 Ramey Chardonnays…

They’re all very impressive. The single-vineyard designates are expensive, but well-priced alongside the competition, and the Russian River Valley Chardonnay is a steal.

Priced in the mid to low $30s, **+ 2001 Ramey Chardonnay Russian River Valley is everything you want in a white for tonight. Big blast of tropicals, followed by apple, almond and wet stones. Has Ramey’s characteristic crispness, but won’t require the cellar time of his single-vineyard stuff. Following the tasting, we sucked down two bottles of this stuff over dinner and a subsequent picnic. Great with goat cheese, salad, snails, crab, pretty much anything we could throw at it. Restaurants should be buying this by the case.

The **++ 2001 Ramey Chardonnay Carneros District comes mostly from Sangiacomo El Novillero Vineyard, with the remaining third from Sangiacomo Tall Grass Vineyard. This one may prove even fuller than the RRV, but needs at least another 6 months of cellaring to smooth out the sharp spots. Lemons and apples on the attack and even more mineral on the long finish.
Taste the ***-2001 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard blind, and you’ll swear it’s got to be Burgundy. (The good kind, I mean.) Displays the basic flavor profile of the Carneros, but packs even more clout and trails longer on the finish. Aromas show a hint of honeysuckle and I would guess this will intensify as the wine matures. It does need time. Give it a couple of years before you think of touching it.

Pardon me if I compare ***+2001 Ramey Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard to a minerally Batard-Montrachet, but that’s about the best I can come up with. Huge — and so backward, it’s practically all finish right now. Opened enough during the hour or so I gave it to convince me more’s on the way, maybe 3-4 years in the future. However, I would guess this wine may develop well for 5-10 years or more. Checking the geek-sheet, I see that the clones here are Wente and Robert Young, which may account some for the structure, but this is one impressive feat of winemaking. Home run.

So how will they age? California Chardonnays are not famous for improving with age, but Ramey’s track record to date is pretty darned good. We tasted a few past vintages:

Underscoring my impression of the 2001, the ***-2000 Ramey Chardonnay Hudson Valley is only a bit more approachable and practically as long. Oak's way back. Minerals R Us.

And here’s a hint of how you may expect the 2001s to taste given time. ***+1997 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard is shooting off florals, papaya, mango, flint, plus some earthy undernotes that knit it all together. Yet it’s still got a core you can't penetrate. More tricks to come?

Not so ***-1996 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard. This one’s all fanned out in the proverbial peacock’s tail. Even more complex than the ‘97 right now, but I doubt it’s going to get better. Showing a hint of caramel with air.

APJ: I’ve got a friend who adores white Burgundy. I’d love to serve him the Hudson or Hyde, blind. What are you trying to achieve here?

DR: Balance, harmony…deliciousness.

APJ: And what would you say you’re trying to avoid?

DR: Heaviness, coarseness, clumsiness.

APJ: You’ve got a lot of structure here for such a ripe vintage as 2001. How do you achieve that? Do you acidify your whites at all?

DR: I’ve found that, ideally, good vineyard sites don’t require acidification. Hyde doesn’t require it. But I will acidify if necessary — only the juice. If you do that right, you never need to acidify the wine.

APJ: You don’t seem to be afraid of alcohol. These are plenty big.

DR: That’s right and I think it’s a misconception that great Burgundy doesn’t achieve these alcohol levels. White Burgundy will get up to 15% alcohol — in great years. And why should we care about the average year in Burgundy? We should care only about the great years and the great sites.

Here in California, we have no problem achieving the power. We need to bring out finesse and minerality, and that’s certainly part of what I’m shooting for.

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Part 3. "Man makes wine, God makes vinegar…"

APJ: The wines are all very clear. Did you do a polishing filtration?

DR: No, they’re all unfiltered. I know there’s a non-interventionist trend that’s resulting in low-acidity, cloudy wines. But that's not necessary — these wines are all natural yeast, sur lees, unfiltered.

APJ: How often do you stir the lees?

DR: We stir the lees weekly, between the finish of primary and the finish of malolactic fermentation.

APJ: And how long does that usually take?

DR: Well, we don’t innoculate for malo [Editorial note: this means he doesn’t add yeast to trigger the malolactic fermentation], so it often doesn’t happen until spring or even summer. As a result, the wines could receive batonnage for six to eight months.

APJ: So how do you clarify them?

DR: The polished look comes not from filtering, but from fining right before bottling.

APJ: Can you explain for our readers what that involves? So much is being said about filtering these days, and hardly anyone gets into the pros and cons of fining.

DR: Well, filtration is a modern phenomenon, but fining has been done for centuries. We use either milk casein or isinglass. The protein is positively charged — and the tannins in the wine are negatively charged. So if you do it correctly, it takes out both the solids and the excess tannins. That means you get a silky texture on the wine.

APJ: That’s a fascinating point. The way it’s usually discussed when it’s mentioned at all, you’d think fining was just a cosmetic thing.

DR: You know, there’s an old saying — man makes wine, God makes vinegar. There is a role for the winemaker to intervene and do positive things!

APJ: How about your oak program? [Editorial note: I noticed an unusual richness of mineral flavors in these Chards and wondered if that might be connected with less new oak.] How long do the wines stay in barrel, and how much is new?

DR: The appellation wines get 35% to 40% new oak and about a year in barrel. The single-vineyard wines receive 65% to 75% new oak and spend 20 to 21 months in barrel. I haven’t seen the need to use 100% new oak so far.

APJ: What do you do for fun when you’re not making wine?

DR: Hmm. I like to goof off with my kids. I like eating and drinking! I like cooking.

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Part 4. "Chardonnay is the red wine of whites"

APJ: What got you so focused on Chardonnay?

DR: It’s the major white grape in California. Chardonnay has more flavor, texture, complexity, more going on. I know there’s a lot of anti-Chardonnay talk these days. But that's silly. I mean, Sauvignon Blanc is great — but you never open a second bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, do you?

APJ: [laughs] Can't say I have very often!

DR: But with the right menu, you can open three different Chardonnays — you can build up. Chardonnay is the red wine of whites.

APJ: You've certainly got your own style of Chardonnay. Very different from Kistler, for example, which I also happen to love.

DR: A critic once told me "Kistler tastes like a Boterro, compared to Ramey, which tastes like a Modigliani." I like that comparison. That's the intent. I'd like to find a Modigliani print to put up there on the wall.

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Part 5. Now about those reds…

Again, these are sensational. Prices for the single vineyard cuvées aren't cheap, but they may be less than what you're paying for similar (or lesser) quality — and if you're hunting down great 2001s for your cellar, the Jericho Canyon is a must. Everything's relative when you're wine-crazed. If you paid $100 for the 2000 Rudd Jericho Canyon, maybe you'd agree that $80 for the 2001 Ramey Jericho Canyon is a decent deal:

I'll say it again. If you liked the 2000 Rudd Jericho, you’re going to die for the ***+2001 Ramey Jericho Canyon Vineyard, Napa Valley. Same winemaker, same vineyard, stronger vintage — and wow, does it taste good even now. Black and grapey, with compelling aromas of mocha and blackberry. To call it penetrating on the palate would be understatement. Finish lasts at least 30 seconds For those who care, the cuvée is 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 19% Cabernet Franc. 2001 trophy hunters, take aim.

I may be underrating the **2001 Ramey Diamond Mountain District. The aromas are sexy as all get out — violet, blueberry, hint of band-aid — and it’s juicy and delicious when you sip it, but some dusty tannins on the finish give me a little pause. The grapes come from fairly high up on Diamond Mountain, above Diamond Creek Vineyard. It’s 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot and 7% Cabernet Franc. I’d like to taste this again over a meal. Five years in the cellar may be all it needs to show well.

Finally, **-Ramey 2001 Claret Napa Valley offers outstanding current drinking. Sniff it and you get licorice, cocoa and cassis on the nose. Flavors veer to blackberry-mocha-milkshake. Made from declassified juice that would have gone into the single-vineyard wines, it’s plummier and softer. 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc and 17% Merlot. Priced at $36. 

APJ: So where is Jericho Canyon?

DR: It's northeast of Calistoga, at the base of Mt. St. Helena and the Palisades. It was planted around 1990-91.

APJ: I wish my knowledge of that area was a little more precise. Anywhere near Château Montelena?

DR: Close. It's east of there, up the Lawley Toll Road.

APJ: Rudd bought their grapes in 2000, right?

DR: Right. I found the vineyard for Rudd and made their Jericho Canyon wine for 3 years. Now it's the same winemaker, same vineyard, different label.

APJ: You know, you made some terrific wines for Rudd, in the toughest vintages of the decade. Would you call 2000 tougher than 1998?

DR: Similar, I guess. And 1999 wasn't that easy either! I'd say the 1999s are really vins de garde. The 1998s are friendlier, and the 2000s are drinking very well right now.

APJ: How long do you think you could you cellar your 2001s?

DR: Well, if I had to point, I'd say 10 years for the Claret, 20 years for the Diamond Mountain and 30 years for the Jericho.

APJ: I know some of my readers will want to pull a cork as soon as they get their stash. How soon could I open the Jericho and really enjoy it? 

DR: I'd drink a bottle right away–within two months–and see for yourself. The deal with supple tannins is that, like the '82 Bordeaux vintage, it's the quality of the tannins, not the quantity, which creates the suppleness. In fact, the 2001 Jericho is the most tannic wine I've ever bottled — yet it tastes great now, especially with meat of any sort or cheddar-type cheese.

By saying it's a 30-year wine, I'm not implying one has to wait that long to enjoy it, but that, given proper storage, it shouldn't go over the hill within that time frame. It is a delicious wine now, and what one gains in potential suppleness or complexity with bottle age is at the expense of fruit. Tastes good now, tastes good later — but different. That's the new mantra.

APJ: Would you decant it? 

DR: Yes, I'd do so an hour or even right before service, since it's a young wine and will benefit from being opened up. In addition, as it's both unfined and unfiltered, you may find a small amount of sediment which would be good to leave behind.

APJ: Tell me about the Diamond Mountain wine. How old are the vines?

DR: They're young vines. This is their fourth leaf, first harvest.

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Part 6. Okay, how did you do it?

APJ: It's got tannin, this is a whole lot juicier than young reds from Diamond Creek. What are you doing here?

DR: Picking ripe, basically. It is a very tannic wine, but the ripeness makes them round and supple.

APJ: And then what do you do?

DR: It's the same basic vinification for both the Diamond Mountain and the Jericho Canyon. One important step is that there's no press wine in either of them. Don't need it — they're naturally dark. These grapes give everything up so easily! So the press wine goes into the Claret.

APJ: And then?

DR: Let's see. Cold soak, natural yeast. Then it heats up and we pump over for about 2-3 weeks. You don't need to push it with these grapes. You get all the fruit pretty easily.

APJ: And what goes into the Claret besides the press wine? Kind of unusual to save the press wine for that.

DR: The Claret gets the declassified free run, plus all the press wine. Yes, the old way would have been to save the press wine for the good stuff.

APJ: How much new oak did you use?

DR: The 2001 Jericho was aged in 50% new Taransaud oak. The Diamond Mountain got 40% new oak, same type. The 2001 Claret received no new oak — the barrels were two to four years old — but it spent the same time in barrel.

APJ: Before we wrap up, what would you say is being done WRONG with California red wine?

DR: At the high end, I don't have much criticism. I think Bob Parker has been a very good influence on red wines — he's spot on. There was an Atlantic Monthly article that celebrated Parker for breaking the Bordeaux cartel. I think that's right. What he's done is shine a spotlight on wines with real substance and real lushness. That's very valuable.

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