California Chardonnay According to David Ramey
“Some people say, ‘Why shouldn’t California Chardonnay be something else entirely, instead of like the whites of Burgundy’ and there’s no reason why it can’t be,” says winemaker David Ramey. “If you can reinvent the wheel, go ahead and do it. But the techniques of Burgundy evolved over thousands of years,” he continues.
“Someone once said that tradition is the result of experimentation that has succeeded. When it comes to California Chardonnay, I find myself fairly ecclesiastical on these matters. Trying to reinvent the wheel is just an ego quest.”
If anyone could have succeeded in such a quest to reinvent what Chardonnay could be, David Ramey certainly possesses the skills to do so. At the age of 64, and still going strong after 35 years of making wine, Ramey is one of California’s most accomplished winemakers and consultants. Few winemakers can boast having done their first winemaking internship at Château Petrus. Ramey’s resume also includes working as an assistant winemaker to the Zelma Long at Simi Winery before holding head winemaker positions at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus, and Rudd Winery.
It was while at Dominus that Ramey first had the opportunity to begin his own brand. “Christian Mouiex was trying to get me to come work at Dominus,” recalls Ramey, “and I told him that I was interested, but pointed out that he wasn’t making any white wine. He said that if I wanted to make a little Chardonnay on the side, that was fine with him. Up until that point the thought of a side project hadn’t actually occurred to me.”
Ramey and his wife pulled some money together, and in 1996, they convinced Ramey’s friend Larry Hyde to give them a little bit of Chardonnay fruit from his oldest block, and Ramey Wine Cellars was born. The next year, they added another Chardonnay made from Lee Hudson’s vineyard in Carneros.
Ramey soon left Dominus to help Leslie Rudd take the old Girard winery and turn it into what would become Rudd Vineyards and Winery. Girard had been making Chardonnay from several locations, including Napa’s Carneros District, and so Ramey created a Carneros and a Russian River line of Chardonnays for Rudd. In the process he found what he believed to be some of the best sources for Chardonnay in California, including the Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.
“We went from crushing about 20 tons of Chardonnay in 1999 to about 120 tons in 2000,” recalls Ramey, who was excited about the quality of what he had been able to source.
The only problem was, Leslie Rudd didn’t particularly like Chardonnays, nor did he want to be making wine from vineyards that he didn’t own and farm himself.
“It really scared the pants off the sales manager at the time. He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to sell it, and convinced Les to sell it on the bulk market.”