The beauty of a wine is not just the grape variety. It is not just about a style of wine. Wine also expresses the place where the grapes are grown. At Ram’s Gate in Sonoma, Director of Winemaking Joe Nielsen voiced, “It is about the personality of the vineyards, each vineyard is unique.” Working with single vineyards in Sonoma County, Joe is focused on working with great sites in Sonoma County to produce wines that speak to where they are from.
Ram’s Gate was founded in 2011. Located where the San Francisco Bay meets the edges of Napa and Sonoma counties, Ram’s Gate sits on a 28-acre estate in which the Sonoma Valley ends on the south side of the vineyard, the Sonoma Coast on the east, and Carneros on the west. Producing primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Blanc, Ram’s Gate focuses on single-vineyard wines.
Joe Nielsen joined Ram’s Gate as the Director of Winemaking in 2018. Prior to Ram’s Gate, Joe studied horticulture at Michigan State. He started making wine at 17 years of age and never looked back. After graduation, he headed west and worked at Merryvale in Napa before joining Donelan Family Wines in Santa Rosa. After a decade with Donelan Family Wines, Joe came to Ram’s Gate and spent the first-year diving into the soils on the estate to discover what was special.
For Ram’s Gate wines, grapes are sourced from the estate vineyard as well as notable single vineyards in Sonoma. Joe delves into each site, finding excitement in the personality each vineyard offers. He expressed that “at Ram’s Gate, I have everything I need to make great wines that are complete, complex and compelling.”
Hyde Vineyard, Carneros
If you are familiar with wine in California, then you know the Hyde Vineyard. A benchmark vineyard famous for Chardonnay, it was established in the late 1970s by Larry Hyde. The large property is approximately 200 acres and is in the Southeast corner of Napa. Hyde Vineyard has both sandy soils and clay loam soils.
Joe’s goal with Chardonnay from Hyde Vineyard is to preserve the minerality. Having worked with the vineyard prior to joining Ram’s Gate, Joe understood how the grapes ripen and decided to start picking earlier in 2018.
The 2018 Ram’s Gate Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay ($70) is a blend of two Chardonnay clones (54% Robert Young and 46% Musqué). The wine underwent partial (27%) malolactic fermentation to give the wine texture. The wine was stirred on the lees to round it out and give weight to the acidity. The wine is aged for 11 months in 100% French oak, 1/3 new. Working with 17 different coopers, the choice of the barrel is not to add oak but to select one that integrates with the wine. The result is a fresh wine with apple, peach, apricot, and lemon curd notes and a lovely mouthfeel and chalky salinity.
El Diablo Vineyard, Russian River
Located on the east side of the Russian River, El Diablo Vineyard is located west of the town of Windsor. Originally planted by well-known grape grower Ulysses Valdez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who gained his citizenship during the Reagan administration. He learned his way up from pruning to foreman. In 2007, he found the property that sits on a little bluff above the river. The owner gave him permission to lease the property and develop it. But once Ulysses planted it, the owner changed his mind and took the property back. An Indian tribe then bought the land from the original owner and they brought Ulysses back to manage the property. Eventually, Ulysses finally bought the vineyard and named it “El Diablo”.
Ulysses did not have formal training or education, but he had a knack for farming. El Diablo is planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in gravelly, sandy loam soils with clay subsoils. Joe only met Ulysses a few times before Ulysses passed away in 2018. Joe noted that Ulysses had a keen eye and the El Diablo Vineyard, managed today by Ulysses’ son, offers him the ability to select Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The Ram’s Gate 2018 El Diablo Vineyard Chardonnay ($70) is sourced from five acres from the panhandle section of the vineyard, which is the warmest section of the vineyard for growing Chardonnay. The grapes undergo partial malolactic fermentation, and the wine spends 11 months in a barrel, of which 35% is new French oak. The wine has a very bright nose of key lime and lemon verbena notes with a little nuttiness. The wine is clean and focused with a tension between rich texture and laser precision. The wine is elegant with bright acidity that dances on the tongue.
The Ram’s Gate 2018 El Diablo Vineyard Pinot Noir is a blend of two clones, the rounder, less tannic Pommard, and more rustic, higher acid and tannic Vosne-Romanee. The clones work well together, combining plushness and focus. The grapes are picked and fermented separately. They are not blended until bottling.
In 2018, Joe started working with whole-cluster ferments, doing 20% whole cluster the first year to play with the final texture. The wine has a classic nose of strawberry, wild berries, and brown spices, with a touch of rose petal. The wine is powerful yet elegant with silky tannins.
Berler Vineyard, Fountaingrove District
Fountaingrove is a new AVA on the western side of Spring Mountain. Joe was looking for high elevation vineyards. The Bennett Valley was too cold, and Moon Mountain was too warm. At the end of his search in 2016, he found the Berler Vineyard, and it was just right. The north-facing 18-acre vineyard sits at 1500 feet elevation and is planted to a single clone of Cabernet Sauvignon in Sobrante loam soils.
Joe was “blown away by the beauty” of the vineyard and began sourcing fruit in 2016 to make a wine with his wife. Instead of starting his own label, Joe brought the juice from the 2017 vintage with him to Ram’s Gate in 2018 and made wine under that label. The Ram’s Gate 2017 Berler Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($115)was picked in late October after a long hang time. The grapes underwent native fermentation and the wine spent 22 months in barrel, 55% new French oak. The wine has aromas of blackberry, wild herbs, California chaparral, and chocolate and on the palate, it has beautiful acidity and lightly gripping tannins.
At Ram’s Gate, Joe Nielsen is showcasing single-vineyard wines that express something unique. He expressed it best when he explained, “Everything we are doing is nuanced but the goal is to have a portfolio that feels like a music album. A guitar can sound similar but the melody changes. Each vineyard brings something unique to wine.”
Allison Levine is the owner of Please The Palate, a boutique agency specializing in marketing and event planning for the wine and spirits industry. With over 15 years of experience in communications, marketing, and event planning, Allison is passionate about the world around her and the diverse people in it. Allison is a freelance writer and contributes to numerous publications, as well as her blog at www.pleasethepalate.com. She is the host of the podcast WineSoundtrack USA where she interviews winemakers and winery owners who share their stories, insights, and some humorous anecdotes. She also co-hosts a wine video series on YouTube called Crush On This. Allison holds a master’s degree in International Communications with a focus on cross-cultural training from the American University School of International Service. She also holds a WSET Level 3 Certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers.