Elite Wine Interview

June 7, 2005
David Ramey: In search of California Terroir

Which renowned winemaker began his career as assistant to Zelma Long at Simi in the 1980s? Need another clue? The man in question has also been in charge of winemaking at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd, some of California's most prestigious estates.

We are talking about David Ramey, of course. On top of the great wines made for the aforementioned estates, David Ramey has been making wine under his own label, both reds and whites, since 1996 and many consider that they belong to California's elite.

A visit to David Ramey's winery in Healdsburg, Sonoma therefore seemed in order. In spite of great achievements in winemaking acknowledged by all, David Ramey, just like his own winery, has remained unpretentious and pragmatic.

Jerome David (JD): David Ramey, please tell me when and where you were born and in what environment?

David Ramey (DR): I was born in 1951, in Seattle, Washington, to a middle-class family.

JD: Did your family have any involvement in the wine business?

DR: No, my parents had no involvement in the wine business at all. My father was a financial analyst for NASA, and my mother also worked for NASA.

JD: Where did you go to school and what kind of studies did you do?

DR: I studied literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and received a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies in 1973.

JD: What did you do after you got your Bachelor of Art?

DR: After Santa Cruz, I was waiter for a year.

JD: That is not exactly the best way to become a winemaker, isn't it?

DR: Not really. I had been enjoying wine, however, reading about it and visiting wineries for the previous 3 or 4 years and one day, during a long drive between Mexicali and Hermosillo, Mexico, it just came to me, "Why not make wine?" It was really a kind of coup de foudre.

JD: When did you get this "coup de foudre"?

DR: It was in 1974, about a year and a half after I finished my undergraduate studies.

JD: So you decided to pursue advanced studies?

DR: Yes, I did. A few years later, I started a Master of Science program and studied enology.

JD: When did you start your Master program and when did you graduate?

DR: Starting it in January 1975 at San Jose State, my first classes were Chemistry 101, Biology 101, pre-calculus etc… After 3 semesters I transferred to U.C. Davis where I spent 3 years. I received a Master of Science in Enology from Davis in 1979.

JD: What was the topic of your thesis?

DR: I studied the effects of temperature, pH, and alcohol on the rate of hydrolysis of ethyl and acetate esters.

JD: Was it ever published?

DR: Yes, in the Journal of Agricultural Chemistry, if I recall correctly.

JD: What did you do once you received your Master degree?

DR: After Davis, I did a stage at Ets. Jean-Pierre Moueix in Pomerol for a few months, for the 1979 harvest.

JD: What did you learn working at the famous Petrus?

DR: (laughing) You know, at that time I was living in another country, speaking another language, learning about another culture… that's the biggest thing I learned, at that age. I think, however, that it began to lay the foundation for how I ended up making Cabernet and Merlot varieties.

JD: What surprised you most about the French culture and the French way of life?

DR: First of all, that good food was an integral part of everyday life. In France you could find a good meal in the most seemingly humble roadside cafes. Secondly, the way wine was also part of everyday life, at both lunch and dinner and occasionally breakfast! And I was quite taken with having the major meal at lunch, with wine, and the two hours allotted for it. To this day I still enjoy a good lunch with a glass or two of wine every day, though not for two hours!

JD: What did you do after working at Petrus?

DR: In 1980, after my first experience in France, I went to Lindemans Karadoc Winery in Australia, also for the harvest. I wanted to go to a large, industrial-type winery just for the experience. The main product was bag-in-a-box Rhine Riesling; the production cost was about 37 cents a liter. (laughing) It was a different approach to winemaking than what I had seen at Petrus and different from what we do now.

JD: Are you talking about Australian cents or U.S. cents?

DR: (laughing) Australian, although as I remember they were roughly equivalent at that time.

JD: These two experiences in France and Australia were internships, weren't they?

DR: Absolutely, they were both internships.

JD: When did you start working full-time?

DR: It was right after coming back from Australia, in 1980, as assistant winemaker to Zelma Long at Simi. I stayed at Simi almost 5 years and left following the 1984 vintage.

JD: Did you work well with Zelma Long?

DR: Yes, Zelma and I worked quite well together in adapting some techniques that were then new to California.

JD: What were the se techniques you worked on?

DR: Some techniques that were then new to California included the pre-fermentation enzymatic oxidation of phenols in white juice; establishing the importance of controlling temperature of the must when practicing skin contact of white grapes; malolactic fermentation for Chardonnay; barrel fermentation and sur lies aging of white wines; batonage; developing the pumpover irrigator in common use today for red fermentations, which provides a more gentle irrigation of the cap.

JD: That's a lot of learning!

DR: Yes, and that's not all. The other very important thing I also learned from Zelma was production management –the details and specifics of planning the winemaking process from harvest to bottling. This was basically the Mondavi protocol, and I consider myself lucky to have benefited from it. Many winemakers become entranced with the romance of winemaking technique but lack the production management background to get the wine into the bottle without mishap.

JD: Why did you leave Simi?

DR: I left for the usual reason: it was a promotion from being an assistant to being the head winemaker.

JD: What did you do after the 5 years you spent to Simi?

DR: I went to Matanzas Creek where I was the winemaker. When I started at Matanzas Creek, the 1984 vintage was already fermenting. The vintages that I worked on were 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988. I left in April 1989, after about 4.5 years.

JD: After working at Matanzas Creek, you went to Chalk Hill, didn't you?

DR: Yes, but before going to Chalk Hill, I did another stint with Moueix in 1989, also for the harvest. I got married at that time, in Montagne-St. Emilion.

JD: Is your wife originally from France?

DR: No, she is from Chicago, but Christian Moueix had invited us over together and we got married while we were there.

JD: When did the newlyweds come back to the U.S.?

DR: In 1990, after spending a few months in Pomerol, we came back to the U.S., and I started working at Chalk Hill. I was there for almost exactly six years, until February 1st, 1996. From there, I went to Dominus for two years.

JD: I know you were very involved in the creation of the Dominus winery. Could you tell me about your role there?

DR: My official title at Dominus was Executive Vice-President and Winemaker. In addition to general management and winemaking duties, the biggest project I worked on was indeed building the winery.

JD: Were you pleased with the results of this project?

DR: Yes, I think we all were. Helping coordinate the construction of the building from scratch, from bringing in the utilities to managing a team of contractors, that was a big and very challenging project and it turned out really well.

JD: What do you think about the wines made at Dominus?

DR: The wines are well-balanced and elegant. They may not be as powerful these days as some other Napa Valley Cabernets, but that is their stylistic choice.

JD: Was it after Dominus that you participated in the creation of Rudd?

DR: That's right, after working at Dominus, I spent four years at Rudd as Director of Vineyards and Winemaking. Leslie Rudd had started the process of turning what had been the Girard Winery into Rudd, which involved replanting the entire property to close-spaced vineyards, excavating caves, gutting and rebuilding the existing winery, finding new grape sources while the replanted estate vineyards came into production, and developing new wines.

JD: When did you start making wine under your own name?

DR: We started our own brand, Ramey Wine Cellars, in 1996.

JD: When you said: "we started our own brand", does it mean that you have partners?

DR: My wife Carla is my partner and takes care of the financial and administrative side of our business. We are fortunate to have built our business without other partners or investors.

JD: Do you own vineyards?

DR: Not yet, but we'll start looking soon.

JD: So you do have contract with growers or do you buy grapes on the open market?

DR: We have long-term contracts for either entire vineyards or specific blocks, and we work closely with Daniel Roberts and with the owners to farm the way we want.

JD: Who is Daniel Roberts?

DR: Daniel Roberts is our viticulturist. He is a PhD soil scientist who is on retainer with us year round.

JD: Does Mr. Roberts handle all the work in the vineyards or do you work together?

DR: We work together. Daniel looks at our vineyards every two weeks and we discuss the nutrients, the fertilization, irrigation and canopy management. Regarding vineyard practices, generally speaking, we tend to minimize fertilization. When it comes to canopy management, we do not like to pull leaves because we want some protection for the fruit. We do not want to encourage excessive sun exposure, which is a little unusual these days as many growers like to strip the fruit bare, but we do not like that.

JD: What about irrigation?

DR: Regarding irrigation, everything is site-dependant but, typically, every vineyard starts the growing season with the soil at field capacity without needing any water because of the winter rains. In the summer, the soil progressively dries out and at some point we start drip irrigation maintenance to replace the water lost through evapo-transpiration. It is not excessive, just enough to keep the vine photosynthesizing, and we continue that through the growing season.

JD: Are there specific requirements that you ask of your growers and do you control their farming methods?

DR: We don't need to control every single item, as these are conscientious owner/farmers, and they have been farming their vineyards for decades in some cases. Many of them will have their name on the bottle. Most of my work is done when we choose a site, really.

JD: How many acres do you work on?

DR: Well, let's see… It's probably 100 acres total and right now and they are about evenly divided between red and white varietals.

JD: What do you look for in a vineyard?

DR: That's many aspects to cover! I like a vineyard with a low-vigor soil and limited production. For our vineyards, through a combination of slope, drainage, rocks and a lack of organic matter, the yield is naturally limited, which results in a more concentrated wine. The standard presumption that there is a difference of interest between the grower and the winery, with growers wanting a large crop and the winery wanting a small one, is just not an issue for us. I simply do not have the occasion to ask my growers to drop crop because they are only getting 2 or 3 or 4 tons to the acre anyway, which depends on the site and on the clone, of course..

JD: Could you tell me about the whites you make today?

David Ramey (DR): We make three appellation-level Chardonnays: Carneros District, Russian River Valley and, for release in 2005, a Sonoma Coast. We also make three vineyard-designated wines from the Hyde and Hudson vineyards in Carneros and from the Ritchie vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

JD: What are the main characteristics of Carneros in terms of geology and weather?

DR: The soil of Carneros is predominantly clay because it is old exposed bay bottom. Carneros is probably the warmest area of the three we work with.

JD: What about the Russian River Valley?

DR: Because the Russian River has meandered around hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions of years, it has more gravelly soil in general. Sometimes it is loam; sometimes it is gravelly clay loam. The Russian River Valley is also slightly cooler. There are a lot of variations, however, depending on where you are, but let's say that it terms of maturity it is a couple of weeks behind Carneros.

JD: What about Sonoma Coast?

DR: This is a huge and somewhat gangly appellation, which includes much of the Russian River Valley and extends from the Pacific coast all the way to the edge of Carneros. It's really too heterogeneous to generalize about soils; one can only say that it's the coolest of these three appellations, as it is closest to the maritime influence -the fog. Let's say that maturity comes another two weeks behind Russian River.

JD: How does these differences in climate and terroir translate to the wines?

DR: For the Carneros Chardonnay, for example, compared with those from the Russian River Valley, if all the other analytical specifications like alcohol, pH or acidity are the same, they will have a rounder, broader mouthfeel because of the effect of the clay soil, which gives a broad palate to the wines. There is a combination of richness from fully ripe grapes coupled with the acidity of a moderately cool climate. The Chardonnay from the Russian River will seem to have a crispier acidity compared with those from Carneros, just because of the soil, the terroir. Then, the Sonoma wine has an even crispier impression, again, because the wine comes from a cooler area.

JD: Which varietals do you think are best suited for the Sonoma area and why?

DR: The varietals that fare the best in Sonoma are earlier ripening varieties, which do better in cooler climates, such as Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, and all whites. There are definitely good terroirs for Pinot Noir in Sonoma Coast and in the Russian River Valley and I think Syrah is going to be very successful in Sonoma County. Personally, I think Napa can be a little warm for Syrah. Cabernet in Sonoma tends to make a more elegant, slightly lighter wine than it makes in Napa. It's cooler in Sonoma than in Napa; Napa has another mountain range that blocks the maritime influence so it warms up more.

JD: What main factor explains the difference between a California Chardonnay and a Burgundy Chardonnay?

DR: The weather is the main difference: it's warmer here, and it seldom rains during the growing season. Over a decade, here in California, we may have eight or nine good vintages, while in Burgundy they might only get three or four years when they can get the grapes to fully ripen.

JD: Don't you think that the weather in California is a bit too hot to produce well-balanced Chardonnay?

DR: There is a standard tendency, particularly among the French, to want to generalize about California, and that would be wrong. The Alexander Valley is not a good place to grow Chardonnay in my opinion, nor is the Napa Valley –they are too warm– but I think that Carneros, Russian River, Sonoma Coast, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino and all the coastal valleys along California right down to Santa Barbara county can be quite cool. In fact, there are places that are too cold to ripen grapes. In the Petaluma wind gap to the west of Petaluma, there are no grapes there. It is too cold to ripen grapes. So how can one generalize and say that California is too hot? I could also take the other perspective and say that much of the time Burgundy is too cold to properly mature the grapes.

JD: Many Europeans feel that a Chardonnay with 15% Alc./Vol. may be a tad excessive. What do you think?

DR: I have been told by many of my Burgundian colleagues that in great years and in great sites, Chardonnay in Burgundy will make 15% naturally. There is a tendency to think analytically about wine and that is almost never the right way. There is always a balance to each wine. One wine can seem high at 14% alcohol because perhaps the tannins are elevated and that accentuates the alcohol. Another wine that has a very delicate structure can carry 15% alcohol and it does not show at all, particularly if the acidity is there.

JD: Let's move on to your red wines now. Where do they come from?

DR: We make three red wines, Claret, Diamond Mountain District and Jericho Canyon, which are all Napa Valley hillside Cabernet Sauvignon blends. Claret is a blend from the lots remaining after we have made our two vineyard wines. Our Diamond Mountain District red comes from an 11-acre gravelly clay-loam vineyard located above Diamond Creek Vineyard. The vines are planted up and down the hill, instead of being terraced. Located northeast of Calistoga, near Mt. St. Helena, our Jericho Canyon comes from a steeply terraced 40-acre vineyard. There is 18 to 24 inches of pretty poor clay loam on top of volcanic ash and rock, so there is excellent drainage, both downhill and through the soil and subsoil. Both the Diamond Mountain District and Jericho Canyon vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, with some Petit Verdot as well on Diamond Mountain. With the 2004 vintage we also started making Syrah and are working with two new Cabernet vineyards in the Napa Valley.

JD: What are the differences between these wines?

DR: In terms of the wine, the Diamond Mountain is broader with more non-fruit complexity: spice, cocoa, nuts, and coffee, while the Jericho Canyon vineyard at the base of Mt. St. Helena has more black berry fruits.

JD: Do you have a favorite?

DR: (laughing) Not fair! Although the most expensive is the Jericho Canyon… that says something.

JD: What makes your Jericho Canyon stand out?

DR: The Jericho Canyon vineyard is in an area that is actually cooler than the middle of the Napa Valley so the fruit spends more time on the vine and develops excellent color. The vines are mature enough; they were planted in 1990 and 1993 so they are entering their prime years. The Jericho Canyon has a good combination of richness and fullness balanced with elegance and finesse. It tends to be well-balanced, seamless, with good complexity. It is an intriguing wine for people who enjoy wine at both the sensual and intellectual level.

JD: How do you vinify your whites and your reds?

DR: We vinify the whites just as they do in Burgundy and the reds just like they do in Bordeaux.

JD: Do you think that Bordeaux and Burgundy are still the references when it comes to winemaking?

DR: They're still models definitely worth paying attention to, and I, and many others, have learned and benefited from the centuries of artisanal winemaking technique that have been developed there. Most of these techniques work on the same grape varieties in other parts of the world. So from the purely winemaking perspective, I think that's true. On the other hand, these days one can find the same grapes more fully ripened in other parts of the world, and those richer, plusher flavors and textures are enjoyed by many people.

JD: For you, what factor explains the difference between a California blend and a Bordeaux blend?

DR: In this case too, I think it's the weather that is the main difference. Bordeaux might get 3 or 4 good vintages in a decade, but here in California we get 8 or 9 good vintages. As in Burgundy, I think it's the ripe grapes that make the difference.

JD: Do you prefer to vinify red wine or do you prefer to work on white wine?

DR: Both are very satisfying. I like the blending that goes into the reds, though. Assessing the maturity of the tannins at harvest is challenging, and managing extraction during fermentation is interesting.

JD: What was your best vintage, the one you feel was the most accomplished and why?

DR: I would say that 1998 was our most accomplished vintage for having been deemed successful in a challenging year, a year that was regarded poorly.

JD: What are the qualities you feel a good wine must have?

DR: For me, a good white wine must have that combination of richness and finesse, power and elegance. I think the qualities that a great red wine must have are the same as a great white, but additionally it should have smooth, supple, silky mouthfeel, despite substantial tannins.

JD: Do you still do consulting for other wineries today?

DR: Yes, I do. I consult for Benziger, for their estate wines only, Tribute and Sonoma Mountain Red. I also consult for Saracina, in Mendocino County; Dierberg in the Santa Ynez Valley; Niebaum-Coppola Estate, for Rubicon; Landmark; Audellsa; Lancaster Estate; Snowden Vineyards in Napa; and recently, Rodney Strong, for a new, small, high-end winery-within-a-winery. My consulting is purely advisory, I suggest ways to make the wine, but am not responsible for making it; they all have winemakers and staff.

JD: What wines from Sonoma and Napa do you like?

DR: In Sonoma, I like the wines from Andy Smith of DuMOL (also Larkmead in Napa); Pax Mahle; Ted Seghesio; Paul Draper of Lytton Springs; Luc Morlet at Peter Michael. In Napa, Craig Williams at Phelps; John Kongsgaard; Charles Thomas at Rudd; Bob Levy at Harlan; Steve Test at Merryvale; Michael Havens.

JD: Are there any vintners or winemakers in Bordeaux and Burgundy whose wines you like?

DR: Of course. I admire the work of Dominique Lafon, Pierre-Yves Colin, Pierre Morey, Bernard Morey, Aubert de Villaine, Francois Jobard, Thierry Matrot, the Carrillons, Jean-Claude Berrouet, Chateau Pavie. What I like about their wines, again, when the vintage allows the grapes to mature, is that combination of richness and elegance.

JD: I think that all the people you just mentioned believe in the idea of terroir. Do you think of yourself as a "terroiriste"?

DR: Absolutely! One can only make good wine from good sites!

JD: How would you define terroir?

DR: I would say it is the combination of ground, climate, plant materials, and man's interplay with them.

JD: It took about 10 centuries for European vintners to determine where the terroirs were. How long do you think it will take for vintners in California to map out their terroirs?

DR: We have made extraordinary progress in the last forty years; another forty years should see us advance as much again; and in one hundred years the learning curve will flatten.

JD: On average, how many bottles of red wine and how many bottles of whites do you produce annually?

DR: We currently produce around 18,000 cases, or 216,000 bottles. In the 2002 vintage it was two bottles of Chardonnay to one bottle of Cabernet blend, but we're shifting toward red and this year, 2005, we'll be about 60% red.

JD: Do you export your wine and if so where?

DR: We export to the UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.

JD: With all the things you have done and all the things you have achieved, what makes you dream today?

DR: (laughing) There are three possibilities, I would say. One, we would like to buy some ground, plant some vineyards and build a winery. Secondly, I won't be happy until every wine buyer in America realizes that they should be drinking our wine. Finally, our brand, Ramey Wine Cellars, is a fairly serious, traditional brand. I would like to start another brand down the line, something a little more fun, something with screw caps and modern packaging and lower price points, maybe Gruner Veltliner, Albarino, Tempranillo — some more quaffable wine. It is a dream.

JD: And now, David, the traditional question: if you had to go to Elite Wine's deserted island, what bottle would you take with you?

DR: There are several bottles that I would like to take. How many can I bring with me?

JD: Only one.

DR: …It's hard…Then, without naming names, a Chateauneuf du Pape from a ripe vintage.

JD: (laughing) Well, you are not getting off the hook that easy. I need a name and a vintage.

DR: Ok…1989 Chateauneuf du Pape Les Cailloux André Brunel. Wait… did I say 1989? I was actually thinking… I can't decide…I meant to say 1998, yes, I would take a bottle of 1998 Chateauneuf du Pape Les Cailloux by André Brunel. That would be my choice.

JD: Could you tell me why a Châteauneuf-du-Pape?

DR: I really like the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. I especially like the combination of sweetness with acidity, richness with elegance, and complexity.

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