Healdsburg Vintner Takes Risks

David Ramey may not be a trapeze artist or a tight-rope walker, but he's a risk taker, a bold and audacious one at that.

Ramey, 62, is the head poobah of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg. He likes being his own boss and prefers khakis to pinstripes. He's tall, 6-foot-1, and casual is his style — a tweed shirt, khakis and sandals that look like a highbrow version of Birkenstocks.

The intrepid guru makes classy wines with his own label, but he's also raising the caliber of other brands in Wine Country, often anonymously. Ramey is the wine consultant for seven brands, in some cases under the radar.

Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, however, is one client who keeps Ramey's name on its materials, and the consultant is turning heads with the winery's top-tier bottlings and the Davis Bynum brand it acquired.

“They just ask for my advice and it's financially well worth it,” Ramey said. “I enjoy helping my clients because they see the results, and it's positive for everybody.”

What's Ramey's high-priced advice? In a nutshell, be a risk-taker.

“What I often find in colleagues is that they're operating more from a place of fear rather than one of progression or optimism,” he said.

Ramey sometimes experiments with a controlled variable — one lot, say, of his total bottling.

“The fear (of my colleagues) is that you're going to make bad wine, that there's going to be spoilage and people will lose their jobs,” he said. “And if that fear is greater than their commitment to making great wine, they'll make safe wine.”

Ramey is not a fan of “safe.”

“How did General Motors get itself in trouble?” he asked. “Through making safe, unimaginative cars.”

Then he added, with a sly grin, “You can't steal a base in baseball without risk. … You can't throw a strike without risking someone might get a hit.”

Is it risky to experiment with 5 percent of the total bottling?

“I suppose … but not really because I'm not going to make bad wine,” he said. “It's still usable wine, just different.”

Ramey produces 35,000 cases yearly, and he has been making wine for 35 years. “You pick up an idea here and there. You set up an experiment and find out what's better,” he said.

The vintner's curiosity led him to France early on, to explore traditional winemaking techniques.

“If you do what I've done, if you've taken the time to learn French, work in France and freeze your toes in Burgundian cellars in February, you'd find that old-world techniques work with new-world fruit,” he said.

Ramey said his colleagues often argue that you can't compare California to France, that it's apples and oranges … but he begs to differ.

“If you're an American chef, that would mean you would have nothing to learn from classical techniques of France or Italy,” he said. “We didn't invent sauces, but we can adapt them for our own food.”

Winemaker Greg Morthole works with Ramey at Rodney Strong, and he says, “While most winemakers are free thinkers, it is hard to get away from dogma, which the industry is filled with. So his experience has challenged the status quo when it seems to part from logic or experience.”

Ramey's wife, Carla, says, “David is the quintessential Aquarian, an individual who does not compromise his convictions … a fresh thinker who is always open to new ideas, experiments and techniques. This curiosity and openness to change has served him well in business.”

Ramey's next big experiment will be making wine in new digs. He and his wife have purchased 75 acres with 42 in vines, the property once home to Westside Farms and a pumpkin patch. Over the next few years, Ramey plans to shift his winery operations in the heart of downtown Healdsburg to the outskirts of town.

He said the owners of Westside Farms were getting older and wanted to downsize. “That said, I don't think you make a lot of money on pumpkins.”

Ramey never imagined he'd be a post-pumpkin vintner or that he would become a renegade winemaker of sorts.

He studied American literature at UC Santa Cruz before he wound up at UC Davis in 1976.

Ramey laughs when he says, “There was a big surge, a whole bunch of us who showed up, liberal arts retreads … we had art degrees but no jobs. But we were all passionate about the great wines of the world.”

The retread discovered the magic of wine when he rented a room in the home of a worldly woman, Jane Clarkin, in El Cerrito Hills. The home overlooked the San Francisco Bay, and Ramey was invited to the dinner parties Clarkin hosted for an interesting assortment of people, including a photographer for National Geographic.

“We would have 3-hour dinners and taste great food and wine, and we would have conversations about interesting issues that mattered in people's lives, which was new to me. I didn't grow up in that. I came to the conclusion that wine made that possible.”

You can reach Staff Writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com

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