Sonoma Winter WINEland 5: Martin Ray

(Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4)

At MARTIN RAY WINERY, located in the heart of the Russian River Valley, we were greeted with an enticing Martin Ray 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Russian River ($20), full of everything that makes this such a delightful lunchtime grape, especially on what was, Winter WINEland be damned, a spring-like kind of day. Grapefuit, lemon, lots of green (what kind of green? Cut grass! Lime! The British Gooseberry!) shone through, and if I didn’t get much acidity it was probably because the sun had already warmed up the wine. Sauvignon Blanc appears to thrive in the RRV and I only wish we could have tasted Mueller’s offering as well, especially given that it’s Mueller’s only un-oaked wine.

But as we progressed along a trio of tables set up outside Martin Ray, it became apparent that this was all the Russian River wine we would get. Martin Ray (named for a mid-20th Century California wine pioneer) produces its wines from multiple sources across a wide number of Californian AVAs, and for Winter WINEland, the company chose to focus on four Cabernet Sauvignons from up and down the State.

It was hard to find fault in the Angeline 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, especially given its $16 price tag. (Angeline is Martin Ray’s budget line of wines.) From vineyards in the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys – the AVAs that, along with Russian River Valley, form the Northern Sonoma Wine Road and thereby the Winter WINEland festival), and the result of what was reportedly a tough season, with late spring rains and, for Sonoma, comparatively cool temperatures, it was more or less everything you’d ask for in a wine of this price from this region. Coming in at a touch under 14%, it offered just enough cherry and anise in amidst the oak finish to produce a forward, luscious wine that should be on everyone’s best buy list.

If it seemed like the jump up to a trio of $55 wines could not possibly represent a similar leap in quality, well… maybe you should have tasted the wines. The Martin Ray 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains, from two distinguished vineyards in an esteemed AVA to the south of San Francisco, was simply stunning, a contender for best red wine of the day. When my tasting partner asked me to describe it, I had to admit that the winery’s notes rendered my own unnecessary: “Inviting, elegant aromas of red cherry fruit and cedar with a background of black cherry, vanilla and cherry pie lead to lush flavors of cherry and cedar, finishing with a soft whisper of toasty oak.” We took our time with this one, believe me.

Given that the Santa Cruz Mountains aren’t everyone’s immediate first choice for California’s best Cabernets (though the world-class Ridge Monte Bello hails from there), it was good to move on and compare the Martin Ray 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, produced from select vineyard blocks within one of Napa’s most famous (and expensive) sub-AVAs. This proved to be a very big, full-bodied wine with enormous structure, generally belying the tough vintage though perhaps speaking to both the power of Stags Leap grapes and the result of low but concentrated yields in a cool year. And, of course, to solid wine-making techniques. A dark, almost inky color, it gave up both blackcurrant and blackberry, along with a rich coffee element; luscious and rich, the spicy oak was equally evident. I imagine this wine could improve over many years.

The Martin Ray 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Mountain, a sub-AVA of Sonoma Valley, again showcased the benefits of growing the King of grapes on high elevations (1400 ft or so above sea level) where, once the morning fogs move on, allow for warm but not excessively hot days. I found this to be the most forward of the three upscale Cabernets, which may be the product of the vineyards but could also be the result of the exceptionally generous growing season. (The four Cabernets on show hailed from four different vintages, which made a horizontal comparison impossible.) There was more plum and chocolate to this wine, and while the cedar and vanilla spice from the 26-month oak ageing was as evident as in its equally pricy partners, it’s the kind of treatment that a big bold northern California Cabernet deserves. These were not wines I had set out to taste, necessarily, but my experience was that much better for them. With their minimally intrusive, hands-off (but hand-picked, of course) production techniques, Martin Ray clearly excel at producing wines that are true not just to their component grapes, but to their terroir. Now, if only I could afford to stock up on them….



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October 2021