A Legendary, Pioneering California Winery Is Going Strong — Again

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Martin Ray was an iconic figure in the state's wine scene, and his legacy is being honored

This is a winery to watch and, more importantly, collect.

When Courtney Benham found 1,500 cases of Martin Ray wine in a San Jose warehouse in 1990, he knew he had stumbled across a time capsule of California winemaking. So moved was he by the discovery that he ended up purchasing the Martin Ray name and library. He relocated the operation from the remote aerie in the Santa Cruz Mountains to a custom crush facility in Kenwood, near Santa Rosa in the heart of Sonoma County. There, he and winemaker Bill Batchelor resolved to make wines that faithfully represented the Martin Ray tradition, but in the modern idiom.

Martin Ray, the man, is an icon of California winemaking. He took over the old Mountain Winery of his mentor, Paul Masson, above Saratoga in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1936. In 1946, he started making wine under his own name on nearby Mount Eden, planting his own vineyards as high as 2,600 feet, using the noble Old World varietals of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and pinot noir. (Most of those vineyards have long since belonged to the unrelated Mount Eden Winery.) In an era when the bulk of California production was anonymous jug wine with purloined French names like "Chablis" or "Burgundy" or sweet offerings marketed as "Sauterne" (without the French "s" at the end) or "port," he fermented his wines dry, as French-style expressions of their constituent grapes and labeled them varietally — universal practice today, but at a time the exception. (Ray retired from winemaking in 1972; after his death in 1976, the winery closed down until Benham revived it.)

Ray's contrarian exactitude produced prodigious wines with legendary aging potential, as Benham and Batchelor are continually reminded as they taste through the stash.

Over 30-day-dry-aged steak and sweet, creamy maque choux at Dallas Chop House, Batchelor recently took me through an impressive collection of the winery’s current offerings, and some interesting wines from their second label, Angeline, as well. Angeline wines are priced lower and produced in larger volume, helping with such prosaic concerns as paying bills. That frees up Batchelor to do “whatever it takes” to make great wine under the Martin Ray label.

The wines are made today at Sonoma’s Martini & Prati winery, where Benham moved his operations in 2003 and which be bought in 2012. In the tasting room, small batch offerings, not in general release, are also offered. Wines made there originate from vineyards in four Sonoma AVAs — Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Coast, and the clumsily named Green Valley of the Russian River Valley — as well as Napa Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

These are the wines we tasted:

Bald Mountain Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay 2015 ($35). This is not from the original Martin Ray vineyard, but from vines farmed at 2,600 feet by the Beauregard family. However, the conditions are similar. Little wonder the wines are racy and minerally with a refined streak to them. It would be interesting to see how this wine ages.

Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2015 ($40) Sourced mainly from Marty’s Vineyard in Dutton Ranch from a mixture of Dijon clones, with the balance from the Hallberg Vineyard. As expected, it is soft, lush, and velvety in mouth feel. The nose is fragrant with raspberries and roses. A good example of Russian River Valley pinot noir.

Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($75). The most enigmatic of these wines, a dark, resolute, tightly bound ball of black fruit — yet delicate and charming in the nose.

“Synthesis” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($50). Blended from multiple sites in Napa Valley — Rutherford, Stags Leap District, Diamond Mountain District, and Howell Mountain — this is 90 percent cabernet sauvignon, 6 percent cabernet franc, and 4 percent petit verdot. That means that it is not monolithically either a mountain or a benchland wine, a fact reflected by its fleshy character. Green cabernet notes in the nose combine with black currant and thyme. The price makes this frankly a bargain as Napa cabernets go.

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In all, this was an interesting tasting that just scratched the surface of how the reincarnated Martin Ray is expressing itself. The wines are already rated 90+ to 100 in critics' notes, and the prices are reasonable. This is a winery to watch and, more importantly, collect.