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RAMEY RULES

(November 8, 2003) Heís been making some California's best wines for more than two decades, and at last heís got his own winery. How does David Ramey make his Cabs and Chards so big, yet so full of finesse? Here he is. Letís 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 youíve 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. Heís 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 heís got his own winery in Healdsburg and a killer assortment of 2001 reds to complement the whites.

     You wonít mistake Ramey wines for those from Steve Kistler or Helen Turley. The quality is comparable, but heís definitely got his own style. I wonít 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, letís 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 whatís going on.

DR: Melís a great source of information. He helped me find a new winemaker for Chalk Hill -- Iíve been assisting them again lately.

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

DR: Iíve 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.

Part 2. Now we taste the 2001
Ramey Chardonnays...

     Theyíre 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 Rameyís characteristic crispness, but wonít 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 youíll swear itís 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 thatís about the best I can come up with. Huge -- and so backward, itís practically all finish right now. Opened enough during the hour or so I gave it to convince me moreís 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 Rameyís 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 hereís 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 itís still got a core you can't penetrate. More tricks to come?

Not so ***-1996 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard. This oneís all fanned out in the proverbial peacockís tail. Even more complex than the Ď97 right now, but I doubt itís going to get better. Showing a hint of caramel with air.

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

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