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sidebar cellars: David Ramey cuts loose

I first met David Ramey in 1992, when he was in charge of the cellar at Chalk Hill. He was obviously a winemaker of great talent, and just as clearly his future was going to be brilliant. That’s pretty much the way things turned out. After successful stints at Matanzas Creek, Dominus and Rudd, he founded Ramey Wine Cellars in 1996.

Ironically, David didn’t start out to be a winemaker. He graduated from U.C. Santa Cruz with a degree in literature (I’ve got one of those in the closet, where it belongs). After exploring all the exciting job opportunities his literary degree would offer him, he decided to go back to school. He attended the U.C. Davis enology program and graduated in 1979. It was a special time: his instructors were Ann Noble, Maynard Amerine and Harold Olmo, and his classmates included Cathy Corison, John Konsgaard, Lee Hudson, Gil Nickel, David Graves and Dick Ward. After graduating he did a stint with Christian Moueix in Pomerol.

At Ramey Wine Cellars, David’s approach has been serious in the extreme. He works with fruit from some of the best vineyard sites in California, including Hudson and Hyde. He has won more awards than anyone can count. He is the author of numerous hyper-technical papers on specific winemaking topics. He is committed to “the marriage of Old World methods with New World innovations.”

Against that background, it was baffling to some when he started Sidebar Cellars in 2015, as a way “to have some fun and a little instant gratification while waiting for our Ramey bottlings to mature.” Can a guy who worked for Christian Mouiex actually have fun? The answer appears to be yes: The Sidebar wines are interesting, delightful and a pleasure to drink.

This project has been incorrectly reported as a “second label,” which it is not. There is little vineyard overlap between Sidebar and Ramey Wine Cellars, and not much varietal similarity either. There’s no Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon here, nor are the Sidebar wines made from declassified fruit from the Ramey vineyards. Instead we have California’s only bottling of Kerner, a rosé made from old vine Syrah, a pair of Sauvignon Blanc and a red field blend. The common denominator is energy and verve. These are wines worth seeking out.

                      sidebar cellars tasting notes

As of this writing, Ramey is the sole winemaker in California to be producing Kerner, from a vineyard situated along the Mokelumne River. The grape is a cross between Riesling and Trollinger, developed by August Herold in Germany in 1929, and flourishes in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy. The nose of Sidebar’s 2016 Kerner ($25) reveals floral notes and aromas of melon and white pepper. The wine makes a vivid palate imprint, with suggestions of passion fruit tempered by pepper and spice. It will wake you up and energize you---and if you don’t have any oysters handy, it will inspire you to search for some.

Grown at 1800 feet in Lake County, the nose of the 2015 High Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($16) is musky and herbal, with earth notes and hints of minerals. There’s far more fruit in the mouth than the nose implies: flavors of lemon, lime and grapefruit are highlighted by good acidity, but rest on a strong mineral framework. The wine is elegant and composed, with no rough edges and nothing out of place---a welcome change of pace from the ubiquitous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. As it warms, it becomes fleshier and more generous.

By contrast, the 2015 Ritchie Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($35), grown on 43-year-old vines over volcanic rock in the Russian River, is nearly explosive. The nose is filled with fine-grained whiffs of citrus, melon and suggestions of newly mown grass. The wine is vibrant and edgy on the palate, stopping just short of being electric, displaying flavors of lemon and grapefruit amplified by acidity. Ripe melon notes emerge in the mid palate and carry over onto the finish.

The 2016 Rosé, drawn from an old-vine vineyard in Russian River, has an attractive pale salmon color. With coaxing, the nose reveals floral scents, aromas of cranberries and hints of pepper. The wine is crisp and structured in the mouth, with tart flavors of red currants and faint notes of red cherries. While it is pleasant to drink, it has more character than charm: the mid palate is spicy and flinty, and the mineral and pepper notes are sustained on a moderately long finish.

Black plum, raspberry jam and bramble are prominent on the nose of Sidebar’s 2015 Red Field Blend ($28). The fruit was sourced from a heritage vineyard in Russian River, half planted 65 years ago and the other half 125 years old; the blend is 80% Zinfandel, 11% Alicante and 9% Petite Sirah, an echo of Sonoma’s past. The wine is medium to full-bodied in the mouth, with ripe black fruit flavors, mature tannins and a nice spicy edge. Like the rest of the Sidebar wines, it has a firm palate imprint without being heavy or fat. You can almost taste the dust here, and the wine cries out for barbecue.