Estate-driven wines shine at the gateway to carneros
Perched upon the rolling hills that define the landscape of the Carneros AVA, where the San Francisco Bay meets the edges of Napa and Sonoma counties, lies Ram’s Gate Winery. As it nears the end of its first decade, Ram’s Gate is entering a heightened era of winemaking excellence. Founded in 2011, the winery has long been recognized for its architectural beauty, refined hospitality programs and sublime culinary experiences. Today, Director of Winemaking Joe Nielsen is parlaying the estate vineyard into a model of thoughtful precision farming and sustainability, while also elevating each wine in the portfolio to its highest vineyard expression. The wine program is backed by the leadership of ambitious managing director Taylr Behnam Cuneo who has orchestrated a world-class wine tasting experience from the winery’s breathtaking tasting room to locally sourced culinary pairings. When put together, Ram’s Gate has all the ingredients necessary to present a holistic winery experience like no other.
VINEYARDS & SUSTAINABILITY
Located at the epicenter of three of Sonoma’s greatest AVAs, the Ram’s Gate estate vineyard borders the Sonoma Valley to the north, the Sonoma Coast to the west and Carneros to the east, and is the proverbial “Compass Rose” of Sonoma. The vineyard surrounds the tasting room where Joe showcases the site’s unique qualities through his experimental farming and winemaking initiatives. Upon joining the team in 2018, Nielsen took a deep dive into Ram’s Gate’s 28-acre estate vineyard though extensive soil studies and is today determined to bring the estate vineyard to the forefront of the brand.
The early morning Carneros fog rolls in off San Pablo Bay and the wind-rich location creates a signature impact on the estate. The vineyard is planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Grenache and Syrah. The Chardonnay vines were planted in 2010 and the Pinot Noir vines almost a decade earlier. While already California Certified Sustainable and Fish Friendly Farming-certified, Joe escalated the sustainable farming approach through soil diagrams and pressure bombs to study the vineyard’s water needs, subsequently reducing water use by 33%. He believes thoughtful land management will lead to better wines and a better place for guests to visit and enjoy the fruits of their labor. He is now driving the estate vineyard and winery towards an even more sustainable future, with the goal of being totally organic in the next five years. Grapes from Ram’s Gate Estate vineyard are used in the estate bottlings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cellar Note Rhone, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Sparkling Blanc de Noirs and Sparkling Brut Rosé.
In addition to the estate vineyard, the team at Ram’s Gate is proud to have long-term vineyard partnerships with some of Northern California’s most cherished sites such as the famed Gap’s Crown Vineyard, the Sangiacomo family’s Roberts Road Vineyards and Carneros’ Hyde vineyards, among others.
Joe starts the process of crafting each Ram’s Gate wine not in the cellar, but in the vineyard. He begins with digging soil pits and diagraming the soils of the site to understand the growing conditions of each vine. Through constant visits to each vineyard site, he and his crew track the physiological phases through the growing season to understand how the year’s harvest will be formed. They become intimately aware of the unique characteristics of each vineyard block. To detect subtle changes in flavor and sugar levels, Joe examines each vineyard row in early spring. As the grapes begin veraison, he tastes the fruit two to three times a week and is thoroughly alert to picking just as ripeness occurs and often picks earlier than neighbors in an effort to achieve better concentration at lower alcohol, while also maintaining maximum flavor and vibrant acidity.
The team at Ram’s Gate approaches winemaking as a way to showcase the complete picture of what a given vineyard can accomplish. Fruit is harvested and handled with care and intention, from selection in the vineyard, to cluster and berry sorting. In the cellar, Joe and the winemaking team isolate small sub-sections of each vineyard and nurture them individually to see how a specific site, often as isolated as a few rows of a vineyard, develops over time. Joe strives to marry each vineyard’s personality with a select set of barrels including specific coopers, forests and toasts. Joe has increased cooperage variety in the cellar by over 120% since joining the team so that each bottling preserves the integrity of the site from which it is sourced.
Joe intends for Ram’s Gate wines to capture the right balance of acid, tannin, richness and body, without pulling too much in any one direction. He has introduced a variety of practices in the cellar including whole cluster fermentation with the Pinot Noir and Syrah, native fermentation in the Estate series, and has developed new partnerships with small-production, family-owned coopers in France. He has added a new single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a single-vineyard Syrah and a Sonoma Coast Rosé to the portfolio. Additionally, he created the Ram’s Gate Cellar Note series, individual bottlings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rhône red blend and Cabernet Sauvignon that offer an exploration of the best representation of the vintage for each variety, creating wines as a lens into the cellar while allowing the winemaker to experiment with new techniques and vineyard sources.
While Ram’s Gate began with a focus on producing small-lot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from respected vineyards in Sonoma, its portfolio has expanded to include other varieties which the Ram’s Gate team constructs with the same commitment to making the finest wines. Today, Ram’s Gate produces four distinct series: the Sonoma Coast series ventures into the different regions of the AVA to create complexity and diversity, sourcing from acclaimed sub-AVAs such as Russian River, Petaluma, Carneros and the Sonoma Coast itself. This series consists of the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($46), Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($48) and Sonoma Coast Rosé ($38). The Estate series celebrates the Ram’s Gate Estate and the unique terroir of Carneros with the Estate Carneros Pinot Blanc ($38), Estate Carneros Sauvignon Blanc ($38), Estate Carneros Chardonnay ($76), and Estate Carneros Pinot Noir ($80). The Cellar Note series offers a lens into the cellar of the best representation of the vintage for each variety with a Cellar Note Pinot Noir ($58), Cellar Note Chardonnay ($56), Cellar Note Cabernet Sauvignon ($68) and Cellar Note Red Rhone Blend ($58). The Single-Vineyard series consists of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah sourced from some of the finest sites in Northern California and includes the El Diablo Russian River Chardonnay ($70), Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($70), Hudson Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay ($70), Flora Marie Vineyard Russian River ($70), Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay ($70), Bush Crispo Vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir ($75), El Diablo Vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir ($75), Roberts Road Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($75), Gap’s Crown Vineyard Sonoma Pinot Noir ($75) and Ulises Valdez Silver Eagle Vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir ($80). The winery also produces two Cabernet Sauvignons—Berler Fountain Vineyard Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon ($115) and Bismark Moon Mountain Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($115)—and three Syrahs—Parmelee Hill Vineyard Sonoma Syrah ($70), Hyde Vineyard Carneros Syrah ($70) and Durell Vineyard Sonoma Coast Syrah ($70).
HOSPITALITY AND CULINARY EXPERIENCE
Located just off Highway 121, Ram’s Gate is the first winery on the way to Sonoma from San Francisco. Designed by renowned architect Howard Backen, the tasting room embodies a modern reinterpretation of the weathered farmsteads of old Carneros, complemented by the work of internationally acclaimed interior designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy. Backen’s signature farmhouse aesthetic and keen ability to blend the indoor and outdoor spaces connects Ram’s Gate’s 21,000 square feet to its breathtaking surroundings.
The winery offers a variety of tasting experiences, from casual wine tastings to elaborate five-course meals, developed by the talented culinary team spearheaded by Executive Chef Stacey Combs. Joe and Stacey spend hours in the cellar together, dissecting tasting notes and imagining innovative dishes for each wine ensuring each pairing is based on thoughtfulness and intent. Whether it be chayote squash and coconut alba mushroom with Sauvignon Blanc or turmer-ic spaghettini with calabrese paired with an umami-filled Pinot Noir all are designed to complement the wines.
The Ram’s Gate tasting room is open Thursday through Monday to the public from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., reserva-tions are required. The Wine Tasting is a seated five-flight tasting that offers a look at wines from both the Sonoma Coast and Single Vineyard series ($50 per person). Guests interest-ed in the culinary program should look to the five-course Wine & Food Pairing, a 2.5-hour gastronomic experience paired with Ram’s Gate single-vineyard wines and an in-depth estate tour ($160 per person). At the epito-me of Ram’s Gate’s fine wine and culinary program is The Arbor Experience, an interactive and individualized six-course wine and culinary experience that takes place in the heart of the winery kitchen for up to ten guests ($300 per person).