Winemaker profile: David Ramey

(This is the first of a two-part profile of California winemaker David Ramey.)

In an ideal world, anyone who is passionate about wine would get to spend some time with David Ramey.

He’s whip-smart, seriously funny and refreshingly open about sharing his thoughts and opinions, culled from several decades of making kick-ass wines.

Ramey’s learning process started, but just barely, in the wine program at Cal-Davis. Getting a wine education there means, in his view, that “you get the gold star, so you’re employable. But you do not learn how to make wine at UC Davis. You learn the science that helps you understand the phenological actions.

“That means you can make an engineered product, completely controlled, vs. acknowledging that nature is making the wine. The one is akin to Wonder Bread vs. pain levain from a wood-fired oven. I came out of Davis knowing that I wanted to go to France. Wine was still a mystery to me. If you want to build the Taj Mahal, you ought to go there. 

One major influence there was Burgundy’s late, seriously great Henri Jayer (left), whose overall philosophy on making wine was, Ramey said, that “it’s one-half the grapes and one-half what you do with the grapes. All this stuff about how wine is made in the vineyard, that’s bullshit. 

Not that Ramey didn’t find a bit of BS on the other side of the pond. “The French have two problems: They make crappy wine and say “˜oh, it was the terroir’; then they challenge what we do in California and say “˜oh, but we have terroir.’ Both of those are bullshit. 

And he learned a lot about dirt on those trips. “You do match the grape to the soil to a certain degree,” he said. “You don’t plant cab on heavy river-bottom soil, and certainly no merlot on heavy river-bottom soil. Classically, you want to grow merlot in clay, because it’s an early ripener, and cabernet in gravel because of its elegance and advanced maturity. 

And of course, terroir goes well beyond the soil. “Sometimes it’s just practicality. The reason [some growers in the Rhône] planted marsanne instead of rousanne or viognier is that the shoots are less likely to fall over due to the Mistral [wind]. 

So are Americans starting to understand the importance of terroir? “Yes and no,” he said. “There are a lot of people who like Rombauer chardonnay [sourced from multiple parts of Napa]. But to confuse Dutton, Sangiacomo, Hyde [vineyards] now seems to me as absurd as mixing up Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. So yes, the American consumer has gotten sophisticated enough in some cases. 

Ramey considers the Hyde Vineyard, where he has been buying grapes since 1996, a “premier cru” site and believes that it and fellow Carneros vineyard Hudson “transcend their appellation. 

“People talk about California climate,” he said. “Well, all you have to do is go to the Petaluma Gap and you’ll find places where you couldn’t even do Champagne.

“Cool climate brings out the character in syrah. The Aussies fucked it up. They called itshiraz. They made it sweet. They made it cheap. 

As for his own syrahs, Ramey likes to think of them in musical terms, as “a variation on a theme of Hermitage.”

(In Part 2, Ramey talks about the winemaking process, whether alcohol levels matter and which artists Kistler and Ramey chardonnays evoke.)