WineInk: Ram’s Gate
A winery on a journey
What makes a great winery? Well, that depends on your goal.
Some wineries are strictly utilitarian facilities, created to produce wines for the masses. Others are vanity projects designed to make wines that score high marks and win awards. And others still are hospitality centers that profit by entertaining guests with wine as a backdrop. All have their place in the wine chain.
But the most significant wineries are those that embrace wine lovers in hospitality while displaying a dedication and commitment to making the best possible wines. That description came to mind when I spoke with Joe Nielsen, the young, committed director of winemaking at Rams Gate Winery in the Carneros AVA of Sonoma County.
Since its inauguration in 2011, Ram’s Gate has been lauded as one of the most desirable winery destinations in a region known for providing premier wine experiences. Designed by Howard Backen – the Frank Lloyd Wright of wine country architects – the wide-open, sophisticated, wood-clad tasting bar sits atop a promontory overlooking the vineyards and offers up spectacular views across San Pablo Bay towards San Francisco. There is a casual elegance that, coupled with its proximity to the city (it is one of the first wineries one comes to when arriving in Sonoma County, just 30 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge), makes it a must stop for those looking to experience the wine vibe.
But, until recently, producing wines to match the quality of the extraordinary visitor experience has proven a challenge. Not anymore, if the 2018 Ram’s Gate releases are indicative of the maturation of the wines.
“It’s 77 degrees, not a cloud in the sky and there is a cool breeze blowing in my face from the Pacific and I’m looking out over the vineyard,” Joe Nielsen responded when I asked him to describe his view from the winery on a February afternoon as we spoke via telephone.
Sounded good to me.
“It’s perfect if you’re here for a tasting,” he said earnestly, “but as a winemaker I’m worried about when bud break will happen and hoping we get some rain.”
The comment illustrated the intense mindfulness of the 35-year-old Nielsen, who was hired prior to the 2018 vintage to tend to the wines that Ram’s Gate releases. “The question was, could we marry the quality of the experience with quality wines?” he asked rhetorically. “You often see popular brands on well-traveled roads and the wines are not always the best. When I see that amount of energy that went into making this space… that should be our approach to the wines we make as well. We have a world class facility that deserves world class wines.”
Ram’s Gate’s focus is on producing small-lot quality wines sourced from some of the best vineyards in Sonoma County. While they have a 28-acre estate vineyard, which Nielson is transforming using organic principles, they also have contracts to produce wines from Sonoma gems like Gaps’ Crown and Durell on the Sonoma Coast, the Valdez Family’s Silver Eagle Vineyard in the Russian River and the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros. These are prestigious sites and others make wines from them as well.
“Terroir is a blessing, but we do not make wines by recipe,” Nielsen says about the vineyards. “The challenge of these great sites is about refining or defining what makes them special, what nuances they offer, what the vintage and the terroir has given us. I’m a musician (he plays piano) and I’m more interested in writing my own music. That’s how I feel about our wines. While I’m inspired by others, I don’t want to be a cover band, I want to do something that is fresh and innovative from these sites.”
And the aforementioned 2018s are reflective of that ethos.
“Mouth feel and texture are incredibly important,” Nielsen noted.
The 2018 estate grown Ram’s Gate Carneros Pinot Noir, and the Chardonnay from the same vintage, illustrate that intention. There is a fullness and power to both, that makes a statement on the palate. Not overdone, but significant. These are wines that pair well with food and are not overwhelmed.
“Wine is a food product, and texture is what keeps a wine from falling flat,” he notes.
My favorite, however, was a 2018 Syrah from the Hyde Vineyard that was evocative of the Northern Rhône’s Cornas wines, which I recently wrote about in this space. The fruit forward nature, the balanced acidity and the texture of this cooler climate Syrah made it a special bottling.
Nielson knows that time is the most important element in elevating the status of these wines he is charged with producing. He audibly shrugged when asked how long it will take to meet his vision. “It’s a neverending journey,” he sighed.