The Making of 100-Point Wines: Two California Chardonnays from an Iconic Winemaker | Wine Enthusiast
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The Making of 100-Point Wines: Two California Chardonnays from an Iconic Winemaker

If you believe that excellence takes time, then these two 2018 Chardonnays from David Ramey exhibit a winemaker for whom a philosophy of “slow and steady wins the race” has always been true. No flash, no shortcuts, but an accumulation of learned knowledge and experience that come to life in the bottle.

Forty years ago, Ramey committed to learn how to make the great wines of the world. His focus was on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

He earned a Master of Science in enology at University of California, Davis, where his thesis focused on how aromas evolve. Ramey set his mind to discover how to apply Old World techniques to “California’s perfectly ripe grapes.”

Ramey didn’t come from money or have funds from another career. He was never one to pursue bright, shiny things. He’s long worked out of a leased industrial space in Healdsburg. As he says, the magic is in the bottle, not in the building.

Fellow winemaker Jesse Katz once said, “Ramey is not one to do something just because of tradition, and certainly not one to follow a trend…[he’s] not just a brilliant mind in the wine industry. He is a brilliant mind, period.”

When Ramey and his wife, Carla, launched Ramey Wine Cellars in 1996, he had already worked in Bordeaux at Château Pétrus, and made wine alongside Zelma Long at Simi Winery in Sonoma County.

He worked at Matanzas Creek and Chalk Hill Estate, then helped launch Dominus Estate, where he was given the chance to make a little Chardonnay on the side. He also worked at Rudd Estate in the Napa Valley before he officially and exclusively went solo in 2001.

Photograph of smiling winemaker David Ramey of Ramey Cellars with a bottle of his wine and a glass in front of him.
David Ramey / Credit Kelly McManus

He has mentored many and led the way to elevate California Chardonnay to its highest levels. Ramey has been a pioneer in the elimination of skin contact and the use of oxidized juice in whites, as well as an advocate for sur lie aging in barrel, whole-cluster pressing and malolactic fermentation, in addition to native yeast fermentation and bottling without filtration.

Ramey’s 2018s from both the Hyde and Rochioli Vineyards earned 100 points because they show the difficult-to-achieve cohesion between winemaker, grower, vintage, variety and site. All five components reach their greatest heights at the same time.

Ramey has worked with the Hyde family of Carneros since 1996. A Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay was the first Ramey wine, which totaled 260 cases that inaugural vintage.

The Hyde bottling is made predominantly from old Wente clone Chardonnay grapes with some Robert Young clone, itself a Wente selection, from blocks planted in 1997 and 1999, according to Ramey. High natural acidity, elegance and refined fruit are signatures of the site.

In Ramey’s hands, beautiful aromas of toasted hazelnut and stone lead to a palate that shows undeniable minerality paired with lasting acidity. It shows freshness and energy throughout, and it will have years to go in the bottle.

The Hyde Vineyard, situated on the Napa side of the Carneros appellation in California.
The Hyde Vineyard, situated on the Napa side of the Carneros appellation in California. / Photo credit John McJunkin

Ramey’s Rochioli bottling is an equally worthy testament to an outstanding site in the hands of an outstanding producer. It’s a relatively new vineyard for Ramey, as the 2018 is just the fourth single-vineyard designate from the legendary Westside Road Russian River Valley vineyard.

The coveted Rochioli Vineyard is divided into several sections across 140 planted acres, with Wente, Hanzell and Mt. Eden selections of Chardonnay within its Sweetwater Vineyard, Rachael’s Vineyard, South River, Little Hill and River Block.

The Rochiolis began to plant Chardonnay soon after Pinot Noir in 1968. Ramey’s rows are from the Mid-40 and River blocks, planted in 1989, 1995 and 1998.

The wine is a celebration of fresh Meyer lemon and Gravenstein apple woven against an elegant structure and quenching acidity. It allows room for richness, yet never loses its balance nor elegant sense of opulence on the palate.

Ultimately, the wines just have that magic quality that can be elusive to define and translate into words. While these wines are perfection, if you love Chardonnay in any form, David Ramey is an essential winemaker to know and appreciate no matter which of his bottlings you manage to score and enjoy.