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Visiting Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma Carneros

Can a winery set upon a hill be hid? Not on a lonely hill in the nearly treeless Carneros, it can’t. Perched at the entrance to the Sonoma Carneros wine region, Ram’s Gate soon found itself in the enviable position of being almost too popular after it opened in 2011. What could be expected from a stylish establishment that welcomes visitors with a flute of sparkling wine, runs the fireplaces through midday and employs talented chefs to serve up high-class food pairings like duck cassoulet with Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? Well, winds of change have altered the program a little at Ram’s Gate—to your benefit, I think. Here’s the latest word on why you should visit this innovative Carneros winery, and what to expect.

Bust Through the Gate

Set on a hill across from Sonoma Raceway off Highway 121 (Arnold Drive), Ram’s Gate was designed in the rustic-opulent, fancy-barn style for which architect Howard Backen is renowned. Everywhere you look, the focus is on the view outside or the seating possibilities inside. Gas fireplaces blaze, a demonstration kitchen invites the culinarily curious, and doors—very tall doors, a Backen fondness, I’m told—lead to further possibilities.

On my first visit to this joint, I was impressed, but perplexed. It had lovely, glossy magazine-worthy interior design and vistas, and sumptuous food pairings, but how does a winery making just a few thousand cases maintain this exclusive, private club setting? Turns out, that’s exactly the point: It’s all about the club. Ram’s Gate operates on a direct-to-consumer model, with wine club members being the key to success. Club members get access to wines, food pairing programs, and special rooms when they visit. I’m told by my guide that some have been loyal from the very beginning—and many club members stop in every single weekend. On the other hand, operating on an open-door basis for a horde of last-call winetasters wasn’t the ideal situation for their exquisite small-plate food pairing program.

The good news is that if you’re not a joiner, you can still make an appointment to tour Ram’s Gate and enjoy a guided food and wine pairing or a picnic by the pond; the main difference is that the à la carte menu has been discontinued (except for club members), and starting September 1, all visits to Ram’s Gate, including walk-up wine tasting at the bar, will be by appointment only.

Take a Sip, or a Sip and a Bite, or Four

A good way to get acquainted with Ram’s Gate is via their “Palate Play” ($90) experience, which includes a tour and seated food and wine pairing. Seems pricey—until you get to the food and wine. In the cellar, there’s plenty for a former cellar rat to appreciate—it’s so spotless, from the dark, mood-lit barrel room to the shining oak vats of the fermentation room upstairs. And it’s such a small, intimately scaled operation that you may have a conversation with someone who makes this possible—here’s assistant winemaker Jesse Fox, formerly of the renowned Harlan Estate, giving the tank room floor and extra go-over before harvest starts!

On to the guided food and wine pairing: scheduled for set times during the day, depending on the number in your group, these may put multiple parties together at the table with the host—conversation ensues. Four to five wines are poured, vineyards and appellations are detailed, and four food pairings arrive direct from the chef on a divided tray. The menu changes with each season; recently the lineup included a scrumptious prawn, a morsel of crispy-fried game hen with waffle and Fuji apple slaw, beets with crispy kale, and duck cassoulet with bacon and huckleberries. Huckleberries! Paired with:

2011 Carneros Chardonnay ($36), which has a long, golden apple finish; 2011 Ulises Valdez Diablo Vineyard Chardonnay ($64), adding Meyer lemon to the baked apple crisp notes; 2012 Bush Crispo Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($70), a wine of deep, cool red lingonberry fruit with licorice overtones.

And finishing with the 2012 Roberts Road Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($68), with its mix of savory aromas and strawberry fruit.

Vit Geek Corner

Careful students of viticulture may notice that the head-trained, staked Chardonnay vines directly in front of the winery’s terrace are not a wine grape that is normally trained in this manner (Zinfandel would be more common). What, is this some new development in viticultural know-how?

No, and yes. Ram’s Gate just does this for the sake of aesthetics—it looks cleaner than a bunch of end posts and steel wires. However, I’ve been told that a scientific investigation has suggested that the optimal balance of shade and sun exposure results from exactly this kind of simple system.

Hit the Track

When there’s a race on at Sonoma Raceway, also known as Sears Point, it’s right across the highway—the whine of the engines can be heard from the terrace at Ram’s Gate. On the quieter side, hike and birdwatch nearby at the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Up the road, poke around antique furnishing and mull over (and climb over, in some cases) art installations at Cornerstone Sonoma

Ram's Gate Winery: 28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, CA 95476. Open Thurs–Mon, 10am–6pm. By appointment only. Tasting fees start at $40. All prices listed in this article are subject to availability and change. Please call the winery directly at: 707.721.8700.

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