Wednesday, October 22, 2014

David Ramey Q&A: "Alcohol level is not a political decision"

David and Carla Ramey met at a winemaker dinner
David Ramey has been a major figure in California wine for several decades. After graduating from UC Davis, he did a stint at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux and worked at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus Estate and Rudd Estate before going out on his own with Ramey Wine Cellars in 2002. I think of him as a Chardonnay specialist, making wines with the generosity of California fruit yet without going overboard. But he has also spent a lot of his career making Cabernet. My wife and I met David and his wife Carla for lunch at Bistro Ralph, their favorite Healdsburg restaurant, and talked over a delicious bottle of 2005 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay.

How did you first get into wine?

I was doing an inter-campus visitation from UC Santa Cruz to UC Berkeley. I rented a room from a woman who had a home in the El Cerrito Hills. She led a salon of international people. We had wine in a room with a spectacular view. I grew up as an only child in a house with two parents who didn't talk much. Dinner was at 6 o'clock and was over in 20 minutes. When I discovered wine could turn dinner into a 3-hour conversation, I was moved.

How did you get into the wine industry?

I was on my way to what I thought was (a job) teaching English for two years in Colombia. I was driving through Mexico. I thought, when I'm done (teaching English), what am I going to do with that? I said to myself, Why not make wine? It makes people happy. It's an aesthetic statement. It's not harmful to the environment. This was 1974. In Santa Cruz we were quite eco-conscious. I broke a piñata in Mexico on Christmas Day. Two weeks later I was back at San Jose State in Chemistry 1-A. It took 4 1/2 years to go from Chemistry 1-A to an MS in enology at UC Davis.

Where did you go from there?

Because I hadn't taught in Colombia, I wanted to work overseas, especially in France, because those were the grapes we worked with in California. It's such an odd twist of fate that in Sonoma County with all the Italian families, we ended up making all these French varieties. I opted for Bordeaux. I wrote 14 letters and got seven replies: six no's and one yes from Christian Moueix. So I went to work for him. After I left Bordeaux I worked at a factory in Australia, Lindeman's, where we made bag-in-a-box "Riesling." There wasn't a drop of Riesling in it. It was 50 percent Sultana and 37 percent Shiraz. They had all that old-vine Shiraz that they didn't know what to do with. They carboned it, they pressed it off as white, and then we charcoaled it. Stripped all the color out.

What did you do when you went back to California?

The first job I got was with Zelma Long at Simi, for almost five years. Then I was asked to replace Merry Edwards at Matanzas Creek. I changed the style of the wine completely. The reds had been highly acidified. Because I worked in Bordeaux, I knew the wines there were not that acidic. Haut-Brion would be 3.8 to 4.0 pH. UC Davis was telling people to acidify wines for technical reasons. I said, I'm not going to acidify. I did a comparison block, one with malo(lactic fermentation), and one without. The malo block was so superior. The idea that malolactic is a California intervention, it's such bullshit. All over Burgundy there's malo. So going full malo and not adding acid, that was my change.

Didn't that make your wines buttery?

The compound that malo creates, diacetyl, that tastes like what they put on popcorn. If you leave the wine on the lees and do battonage, the lees can metabolize the diacetyl.  On the North Coast, Zelma and I really pioneered not racking the wine off the lees for Chardonnay. When we started, everybody was doing overnight skin contact for Chardonnay. It made the wines big. People thought the wines would age forever. In fact, it was just the opposite. Those early '80s Chardonnays from California, within 2-3 years, they turned brown.

Most consumers today don't age California Chardonnay. Why do you care how it ages?

I'm a classicist. If I can't show somebody a 9- or 10-year old Chardonnay and have it be delicious, I've failed. It isn't a question of whether the wine tastes better. It's a question of not having the wine fall apart in people's cellars. They have a right to that.

You make Napa Cabernet and Sonoma Chardonnay. Why the unusual combination?

I've always lived in Sonoma County. I worked in Napa for six years. I know Napa Valley. I know Napa Cabernet. It's delicious.

What do you think of the ongoing argument over alcohol percentage?

I've never made hyperbolic wines but I see no need to make anemic wines either. The middle road is the better path. 15 percent is not high for ripe Cabernet. It's what Bordeaux will be in a ripe vintage. It's what some white Burgundies will be in a ripe vintage. You get these guys making 12.5 percent wines now. There's a reason that people in Burgundy have been chaptalizing for all these years. The alcohol adds pleasure to the mouthfeel. It's an ideological thing, alcohol level. It's polemical. Good wine just tastes good. It's not a political decision.

How do you decide when to pick?

With Chardonnay, it's a style issue. Chardonnay is the red wine of whites because of barrel fermentation. You have people who want to throw out what makes Chardonnay great because of excesses by some producers. Is there overoaked, over-buttery Chardonnay at 4.0 pH? Of course. Classically in Burgundy, before global warming, they picked as ripe as they could and chaptalized to their point of balance, about 13.5 percent alcohol. I think in Carneros the point of balance is about 14.1. But I'm not making as much Chardonnay from Carneros anymore. Little by little, Chardonnay is moving west. That's the story of California.

What do you like to drink?

Much to my wife's regret, I have just fallen in love with Tuscan Sangiovese. Chianti's great, but I look for value in Brunello. You can find Brunello in the $45 to $65 range that I consider to be great value. I love the complexity. But I don't get Super Tuscans at all.

How did you meet your wife?

I was at a winemaker dinner in Virginia Beach. I had been sitting with her friend who was a wine buyer for a small chain of delis. Carla was buying the food, but I had to sit with the wine buyer. I'd seen Carla come in, but I didn't talk to her until the way out. It was something in the eyes.

Why did you start the Ramey brand?

When Christian (Moueix) was trying to get me to leave Chalk Hill to run Dominus in 1996, I raised some objections. I said, "You don't make any white wine." He said, "If you want to make a little Chardonnay on the side, that's OK." I knew (grapegrower) Larry Hyde. The oldest block in his vineyard was going to Mumm for sparkling wine. He picked around it and left enough for 260 cases for me. That was my first Ramey Chardonnay. I left Rudd in February of 2002. We've been independent since then. I grew stupidly, from 1500 cases to 7000 to 22,000. Now we're at 40,000. I had to borrow from the bank to do that. At one point we were upside down on our debt to equity ratio. That's when you don't sleep. We've paid it off. We have 15 employees. We're an American success story. We're like a chef-owned restaurant. We don't compromise.

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  1. As one of the 15 employees of Ramey Wine Cellars, I'm honored to work for David & Carla Ramey.

    They are both filled with integrity, passion, common sense, kindness and smarts.

    Great interview. Thank you.

  2. Yes, great interview indeed. I loved David's comments on where he sees Chardonnay in the alcohol spectrum. He is obviously very knowledgeable and very well-spoken. I have never drank his Chardonnay. I am going to head to the bottle shop and remedy that deficiency today!