Tag Archives: Viticulture

Winemaker Interview – David Ramey of Ramey Cellars

Ramey Logo

Winemaking Aristocracy

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David Ramey, his family and staff were tremendously welcoming.  Hospitality is one of those seemingly inconsequential things, but a little goes a long way…  This visit was about more than the wine and more than the education.  I will remember the interview, because of the way my wife and I were greeted, made to feel at home and offered a real opportunity to know the winery, its product and the people.  I came away from the nearly two hours spent together, with a rather in-depth understanding of the philosophy and style of winemaking at Ramey Cellars.

Personal History

David has been working in wine production for decades and today he is one of the most well-respected elder statesman of the Northern California Wine Industry.  He received his MS in Enology from UC Davis in 1979, before it had developed its reputation as one of the leading wine science institutions in the world.  David then did his harvest internships with Jean-Pierre Moueix in Pomerol (Petrus) and later Lindemans in Australia.  His career began with a position at Simi Winery, where he would become winemaker, as with Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd later, before starting Ramey Cellars.  David leverages almost 40 years experience in producing premium and ultra-premium wines in the product he brings to market today.

Winemaking Philosophy

David and I discussed many winemaking strategies.  He helped me to understand how a consumate winemaker can begin with a vision and use it to drive the final product.  I found his viewpoint fascinating. Let me provide a peek into contrasting David’s approach with current trends…

Younger winemakers looking to make premium wines seem to be gravitating towards small production estate wineries.  They are trying to emulate the classic “winegrower” concept that is seen often in Europe. I like the word “winegrower”.  It acknowledges the role of terroir, and fruit quality WITH winemaking experience and skill.  As a Sommelier trained in the last five years, this seems to be the current direction formal wine education is taking us.  After speaking with David, I am not so sure this is entirely the correct path.  For those that have been following my blog, in a previous post, I explained the three primary philosophies I have identified in winemaking:  1) Focus on growing the BEST fruit,  2) Focus on the Chemistry,  3) Focus on the winemaking technique (see more at this link: LINK).   David is both feet in with #3.

Focusing on Winemaking

David works with the viticultural consultant Daniel Roberts to partner with his fruit producers.  He and Daniel source the fruit from several of the oldest farming families in the Napa-Sonoma area, depending on the quality they produce.  This is to ensure he can spend his time focusing on the winemaking, rather than the vineyards.  Initially, I was trying to reconcile this thinking with my training, then I tasted through the wines and it became clear, but more on that later.

Without pulling any punches, David gave me a run-down on fact versus fiction – Ramey style.  In his mind, the current winemaking trends in the area were nothing more than recycled techniques and old-world ideas being introduced again as new.  We walked through a long discussion reviewing them, such as:  extended maceration, automated spray pump-over, extended aging on the lees.  It was hard to argue with his interpretation, after the historical perspective provided.  He also was very dismissive of the “better wine through chemistry” concept, although he does utilize some of the technology.

The success of his approach is completely driven by his vision for the final product.  When you have as much experience as David, deciding how to accommodate vintage variation is a challenge, but not a show-stopper.  In 2011, Napa had late rains and a very cool year causing many vineyards to either fail to fully ripen, or mold. I tasted a few of the Ramey 2011’s and they were very good.  This was unlike some other prestigious Napa estate producers (like Shafer) that did not fair as well in 2011.

A conversation with David is a lesson in winemaking.  Tasting the result is his validation.

Ramey Wines

The approach is classic and very Old World. The emphasis is on finesse and balance.  The result is exceptionally refined wines.  The red Bordeaux varietals and Chardonnay stand out.  The couple of others seemed a bit awkward.  David focuses on natural yeasts, extended contact with the lees and a soft touch with the wine during production.  He has very traditional ideas about oak aging.  The result is very classically beautiful wines with great mouth-feel and structure.

Ramey Cellars is also very traditional in other ways.  The majority of their production is sold through the 3-Tier Distribution System…  less than 15% is Direct-to-Consumer.  Another major difference from current trends in premium Napa-Sonoma wineries.  Although, they are currently planning to build a Consumer Tasting Room that is due to open in 2017.  Perhaps an indication that wine & spirits distribution has been increasingly ineffective at promoting individual wine labels?

The Tasting Experience

Tasting so many well-made wines was an amazing experience.  I won’t go through each individually, but try to hit on the highlights.

Chardonnay

The latest releases of his single vineyard Chardonnays were all excellent, in the Burgundy style, with good structure and fabulous mouth-feel.  The Hudson Vineyard was a richer style, better as an aperitif.  The Ritchie Vineyard was more acidic and would be excellent with salads and seafood.  We tasted a couple of the 2005 Chardonnays.  Wow, did they age well.  The Ritchie Vineyard was down right gorgeous.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Blends

The 2012 Cab Franc was a beautiful surprise, soft and spicy with great lift.  The Pedregal Vineyard Cab was the best of the 2011’s in my opinion.  All of the 2005 Cabs tasted were excellent.  The bottle-age produced a 2005 Oakville Cab that was rich and beautiful, without losing its elegance.  David offers an Old-World approach to his reds, with just enough fruit on the attack to make the wines a fusion of Old and New World wine styles.

Conclusion

If the opportunity arises, try these wines.  Many were very good, but David’s Chardonnays are truly exceptional.  Make the effort to seek them out… if you are interested in sampling what the Napa-Sonoma area can produce when a complete focus on balance and elegance is applied.

I hope I have been able to convey how special the whole experience was and how appreciative I am of having had the opportunity to engage a truly inspired classical winemaker!

(Click on the image below to view a full-size version)

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Winemaker Interview – Jim Duane of Seavey Vineyards

Wine – Liquid Sunshine

 

Napa Estate Wineries Along the Mountain Roads

After 20 years of my wife and I working our way through the 600+ wineries in Napa Valley, we have learned a thing, or two. One of those hard-earned gems is: if you want to find consistently big, complex Cabernet Sauvignon, follow the Napa mountain roads. While the valley floor locations like the Rutherford and Stags Leap areas (AVA’s) produce great cabs too, the most structured wines with highly concentrated flavor profiles are found along the roads to the top of these mountains: Veeder, Spring, Howell, Diamond and Atlas. Our original Seavey Vineyards visit was while on one of these mountain journeys up to Howell Mountain.

Hillside Vineyards

I ran into Seavey wines about five years ago through the purchase of their 2000 vintage Signature Cab from an online retailer. I mention the source in passing, to highlight the additional avenues available for discovery of great wines. When you understand your palate well enough to purchase wine without tasting, sources such as online retailers, flash sites, brokers, and auctions become very viable options. Follow this link for more info on the topic: “What a Waste of Wine & Money?” When you are able to identify and clearly describe wine characteristics you enjoy, it becomes easier to choose wines from critics’ notes and reviews. These hillside locations produce a fruit flavor profile that seems to be a good match for me and it may be for you too. The vineyards are planted on very poor soils, making the vines work very hard to ripen the fruit. The result tends to be highly concentrated flavors.

The Experience

Wines seem to be catalogued in my brain based on memory of place and experience. I enjoy this quirky aspect. When visiting wineries, this idea brings me closer to the whole wine concept of terroir and helps me think of each wine as a living thing with its own evolution. Understanding the “feel” of an estate winery is important, if you want your tasting experience to be memorable. Your first impression at Seavey provides a welcoming atmosphere of farm animals and dogs with beautiful vineyards as a backdrop. The world just seems a little slower here. The employees you meet are relaxed and welcoming. This is quite different from the busy, large production wineries on the Napa Valley floor. The second you drive up, you get that family winery feel. Appointments are necessary, but anyone can call to join them for a paid tasting and potentially get a chance to meet Jim, or Art & Dorie – one of the current second generations owners.

History

The founders of the winery and first owners were Bill and Mary Seavey. The original vision for this property purchased some 30 years ago was to create a semi-retirement ranch/farm escape destination. Bill was a corporate lawyer out of San Francisco looking to slow down. Having done some legal work for a local Napa winery, he arrived at the idea of purchasing some land in a scenic spot where they could raise a few animals and grow wine grapes. When you visit the property now, it still reflects some of that original founding idea. This is a very down-to-earth organization, at a very rustic and scenic site.

Quality vs. Quantity

Seavey produces less than 5,000 cases of wine per year. Tiny production compared to the big brands, but in the world of commercial wineries, this means an opportunity to focus on premium quality. When the focus is not on vineyard yield and volume of wine produced, each vintage can dictate its own best vineyard management and harvest strategy. This allows Jim to follow his passion… focus on the vineyards, improve the quality of the fruit and help nurture the wine to express not only location, but also reflect the quintessential, big Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon the winery is known for.

Interview

Jim and I had an opportunity to discuss winemaking, the winery and his life recently and this is the story.

Jim’s Background Before Seavey

Jim is one of those lucky people who had a pretty clear picture of where he was headed at an early age. Growing up in Utah, he was exposed to an outdoor lifestyle and was taken by it. So, when his father encouraged him to follow his passion, it moved him toward a profession that would allow him to work outdoors. His love of plants and botany then led him to a BS in Biology from Gonzaga. The undergrad years had him immersed in a party lifestyle and experimenting first with brewing his own beer and then later homemade wine. Conveniently, this pursuit also seemed to be of great interest to the women in his life at the time. It offered plenty of motivation to continue exploring winemaking as a profession. It was during these years, that Jim also came to realize winemaking could offer him the path to the outdoor life he coveted.

After graduating, he escaped for a few years, enjoying some youthful adventure working in the vineyards down-under in New Zealand – before returning to buckle-down and complete his degree in Viticulture and Oenology at UC Davis. Jim credits Alan Tenscher (winemaker at Franciscan) as being his first real inspiration and mentor.  His time spent assisting Alan with research on Pierce’s Disease was where he found his passion for vineyard management. Jim spent his winemaking internship at Robert Mondavi and then a lengthy apprenticeship at Stags Leap Cellars, before accepting the position as head winemaker at Seavey.

Winemaking Style

Seavey has been producing big, bold Napa cabs since their first vintage exactly 25 years ago. Jim joined the team as Head Winemaker in 2011 and has been committed to maintaining that reputation with a very specific eye on improving quality through improved vineyard management. Personally, I am a big fan of this kind of thinking. Jim is constantly tinkering with ideas to improve fruit quality. His current focus is canopy management. Pruning each individual vine to achieve just the right amount of leaf structure to shade the grape clusters. This is labor intensive, time-consuming work and one of Jim’s favorite activities at the winery. Jim’s fanatic attention to perfect sunlight conditions for each block of vines is what ensures the proper ripening of the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit and the development of varietally correct flavors. This is the same idea that led Galileo to coin his famous phrase 500 years ago: “Wine is sunlight held together by water” – or the similar title of this piece: Wine – Liquid Sunshine.  Managing the leaf canopy differently in cooler, or more shaded areas and consequently adjusting harvest time for individual vineyard blocks can be a powerful tool in developing varied flavor profiles in the fruit. A similar diversity in flavors can also be achieved by managing the canopy differently in vineyard blocks with poorer soils, or those with varying water availability. Blending the fruit and/or wine made from different blocks can add complexity, but equally as important, it can also allow a more consistent profile from vintage to vintage. This technique can allow the winemaker to develop a “house style” for the winery by identifying individual characteristics of each block and blending the fruit each year to achieve the complexity and structure required. Seavey has 19 different blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon vines, all in varying growing conditions. Some wineries that perform this kind of block blending will call the resulting wines a “cuvee”. This is a departure from the “vineyard designate” philosophy that other wineries may employ.

Jim works hard to coax more concentration out of the fruit. When you are making a wine intended for bottle aging, one of the challenges is to create a fruit profile that can balance the high acidity and tannins needed for that kind of structure. Personally, I prefer wines where the winemaker pays special attention to texture during the “building” of a wine profile. Tannins can present in coarse, or fine profiles and have a big  impact on whether a wine has the potential to be either velvety, or silky in texture as the tannins resolve in the bottle. I really appreciate that Jim has this in mind and is shooting for a “milk chocolate” consistency.  According to Jim, Seavey is producing wines that should achieve their best presentation when bottle aged for 10 years, or more. Jim works with the well-known winemaker Philippe Melka as a consultant to the winery.

Marketing & Sales

Marketing is critical for small family wineries. When like Seavey, 80% of your sales are direct-to-consumer (source – Jim Duane), finding your audience is critical to success. Some small wineries struggle with this effort. Seavey was fortunate enough to be one of the early small production Napa producers, building a following with early big scores from Robert Parker, Jr. Although, today’s Napa has twice the competition compared to those early days and it has become even more important to understand the demand and continue to tailor product to capture it. Many wineries succumb to the allure of “popularizing” their flavor profile to improve marketability. Most that make that decision, do not succeed in changing their identity. Seavey has done a good job of understanding their core customer, but it will be important for them to stay in touch… 25 years of making wine represents generational changes and feedback will become more important than ever.

 

A Seavey Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview

Caravina is Seavey’s second label. Intended to be somewhat more fruit forward, but still structured for aging. This wine was bottled before Jim became winemaker. I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:

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 2006 Seavey Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Caravina

California, Napa Valley

 Wine Tasting Note:

This is a monster cab. If you are a big Robert Parker fan, this is his kind of wine. Initially, the nose was hot and a bit funky with a very closed flavor profile. For an 8-year-old cab, this wine is STILL drinking very young. After 3 hour decant… Much of the alcohol has blown off now, but is still present. The nose has plum, blackberry, a touch of herbaceousness and menthol. It has a very complex palate of typical Cabernet Sauvignon flavors – black fruit, leather, tar, graphite, dark chocolate and oak. The wine shows a very long bitter chocolate finish. The age has resolved the tannins somewhat and they are now medium-high, but still a bit grainy. The wine is very acidic and would be best drunk accompanying a rare steak. The texture is full, fleshy and soft. This needs more time in the bottle to come together. I am looking forward to popping the next bottle after several more years. This wine has plenty of structure to hold up into the next decade. A suggested prime drinking window might be 2017-2020.

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Filed under California, Napa Valley, Winemaker Interview