19 May 2018
David Ramey has seen a lot of change since he graduated UC Davis in 1979. Ramey learned his craft working in Bordeaux for the Moueix family of Chateau Pétrus and then at the high volume Australian winery Lindemans. While Napa and Sonoma have seen stylistic changes over the years, Ramey is known for his consistently well-balanced wines. "Unlike many of his California contemporaries, David Ramey makes wines of restraint and vibrancy." Jay McInerney wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
Grape Collective talks to Ramey about the changes he has seen over the years and the challenges for young California winemakers today...
Lisa Denning: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in wine?
David Ramey: I have a highly technical degree in American literature from UC Santa Cruz and when I got out, I was a waiter in a Sicilian restaurant in Los Altos. We waited on ex-49er football players like John Brodie. And then I thought I was going to teach English in Columbia for a couple of years. And during the long drive between Mexicali and Hermosillo — I was by myself in a '71 Toyota Hilux pickup truck with no radio — I was thinking, "Well, what am I gonna be, what am I gonna do when I'm done with this?" And it was, in French you would call it a coup de foudre, a lightning bolt, it was like an inspiration.
Well, why not make wine? In fairness, I had been visiting wineries, reading wine books, tasting wine and I thought, "Well, okay, but I can't do that. You have to go to the University of California, Davis for that. That's just for sons and daughters of industry, like Mike Martini." And then I'm driving along, and you know, 10 miles later I was like, "That's not true. It's the University of California. My folks pay taxes for it. Hell, I pay taxes for it." I continued on and I was staying with a family at the time in León, Guanajuato, in Central Mexico, and I all but turned around and came back.
And two weeks later I was in Chem 1A at San Jose State. It took four and a half years from Chem 1A through the Master of Science in oenology from UC Davis. But that's okay, because I wasn't doing anything else. Thank God that coup de foudre happened, because otherwise I don't know what I would've done with my life. So, yeah, the only thing I've ever done as a grown up is make wine...
Let's talk a little bit about corks and other closures. In 2009, you started experimenting with Diam corks. What have you learned since then?
We do constant experimentation on everything, including closures. We've done experiments with screw caps, both the tin liner, and the Saranex liner. The tin liners are supposed to block all the oxygen and the Saranex liners are supposed to let a little bit through. We've tried plastic corks and Noma cork. In '09 when we did the experiment with Diam, we had no expectations. It takes a while, under different closures, to express itself. Unless it's a really bad closure, you don't see that in 12 months. It takes a number of years for it to develop. So every year, before we bottle any particular wine, we open up all the preceding bottlings that we did of that particular wine. We analyze them, we taste them, and we say, "Well, what did we do right? What did we do wrong?" And we try to make a little improvement.
In 2014 it was the Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay that we'd done the Diam experiment on. Wow! It was clear that the Diam was a better wine. So we did more experiments, and very quickly we realized that this technical cork was the way to go.
The raw cork plug manufacturers want to say that the only issue with raw cork is TCA, trichloroanisole, which makes corked bottles and makes the wine smell like damp newspapers in the cellar; musty, moldy. It's very distinctive, especially at higher quantities. The insidious thing is, at very low quantities where it's not distinctive, it does what we call scalping. It scalps the aroma of the wine. So the wine isn't expressing itself as well as it could and if you don't know the wine, you just think, "Oh well, that wine's okay, but it's not particularly good."
But that's only half of the issue. The other half is OTR, oxygen transmission rate. And, for example, we just had lunch at The Modern at The Museum of Modern Art. They have our Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay and half bottles on the list. We had a guest so we ordered two bottles and the first one was a little more mature than I had hoped. It was a little more golden and a little more nutty in the aroma. We ordered a second bottle, and it was perfect. It was just like we bottled it yesterday, or six months ago.
And that's the significant fault of what I now call raw cork plugs. Diam solves that issue by standardizing the OTR. It doesn't mean that there's not going to be a better mousetrap produced by somebody else someday. We have experiments going this coming bottling and it doesn't mean that Diam is going to improve everything. But right now, we think it's the best solution...