February 28, 2011Today we had the chance to spend almost three hours sitting at the foot of the great wine sage, David Ramey, tasting his wines and listening to his explanation of what makes great wine. I have met Dave a few other times, always over lunch, and know that he is outspoken and opinionated, but I also feel he is the best winemaker in America. No one else does as good a job of making red and white wine, that not only drink well young but also age. I summed it up for my franchises before the visit this way, “when it comes to wine, if Dave Ramey told the sun wasn’t coming up tomorrow I would go out and buy batteries.”The Ramey winery is nothing fancy. Sitting on the edge of Healdsburg it looks like all the other neighboring commercial warehouses except you smell the heady nose of wine in the parking lot. We immediately go to their conference room where nine wine glasses await. He started with his history, as a kid with a literature degree waiting tables in Mexico in the late 1970’s. By his own admission he was directionless when he discovered wine and decided it might be fun to learn more about making it. A science BS and UC Davis Master’s degree later he embarked on a career that would carry him to France, then he worked for Simi, Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd. After leaving Simi, at each stop he was charged to either build the wine program or fix one that was really broken. During these years I crossed his path several times, admiring the wines but never knowing the genius behind them.What I love about Ramey wines is their amazing sense of place and balance. Dave sources grapes from several vineyards and firmly believes that a winery must have a hierarchy of what goes into each one. His process for making the appellation Chardonnays, Russian River and Sonoma Coast, is similar for both wines so the character of each region shines through. His single vineyard wines receive a little different treatment, and the process of selecting the sites is more precise, but the character shines through. I won’t bore you with individual tasting notes but if you love Chardonnay that works with food, or red wines that drink young and age well, you should discover Ramey wines.Lunch was a quick stop in Oakville Grocery on the square in Sonoma for a sandwich on our way to Napa and a visit to the production facility of The Other Guys. As the producers of Hey Mambo, Plungerhead, White Knight, Pennywise and Moobuzz, this is a very important producer for us and also one that produces a lot of wine. I felt it was important for the franchises to see what a big production winery looks like and this one, as part of the Don & Son’s empire, bottles over 2 million cases per year. The production manager, John Nicholette, showed us around the facility and allowed us to take way too many pictures of cool, wine geek toys like cross-flow filtration devices, the bottling line and their “unitizer”, which is used to wrap and prepare cases for shipping, sans pallet.After almost two hours of learning the ins-and-outs of aging, storing and bottling wine we jumped in the car and headed to The Bounty Hunter, a retailer of small production, mostly California wines. This store is now mostly restaurant as most of his retail trade is mail order, but we ordered a couple of bottles of their private label wines and talked shop. After a bottle of Pinot Noir and a Cabernet blend we moved across the street to Back Room Wines, another retailer who specializes in small production Napa wines as well as a really nice selection of imports. We stopped to drink a bottle of 2007 Domain de Trevallon, one of my favorites from Provence, before leaving to visit the local Trader Joes.I personally have never understood the allure of this business and this trip did nothing to change my mind. We always hear about how cheap the wines are at TJ, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a steal and most of their lower end are private labels, which rarely excite. After determining that the Whole Foods next door had a much better selection we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.We finished the night at Carneros Bistro, with August Sebastiani (President) and Keith Casale (CFO) of The Other Guys. The food was excellent, the wine was flowing and conversation was lively; thank heavens for only a half mile drive back to the our hotel, MacArthur Place.