The renowned American philosopher Malcom Rebennack once said: “I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time.” And so it was for the once great — heck, I’ll say it, historic — Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery.
History has mostly swept away the memory of Martin Ray. He certainly was in the right place to grow amazing grapes and produce world-class wines. He bought a mountaintop vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains and eventually established one of the most modern winemaking facilities in the world.
But it must have been the wrong time, indeed. Ray started making wines in 1936, right after the failed social experiment that was Prohibition. Ray, who rigorously followed the precepts of the great winemaking houses in Burgundy and Bordeaux, made premium wines. This was truly an oxymoron at the time, as most winemakers had too few resources to produce anything better than sweet, insipid plonk. Thirsty consumers, reeling from the hardships of the Great Depression, offered winemakers little incentive to do otherwise.
Ray, charitably described as a single-minded and stubborn man, persevered for more than 35 years, until 1972. In that year, just as California’s quality winemaking movement got going, Ray’s winery faded away. A group of investors bought a portion of the winery, which became part of Mount Eden Vineyards. Ray died four years later.
That would have been the final chapter, had it not been for somebody actually being at the right place at the right time. In 1990, Courtney Benham stumbled upon 1,500 cases of Martin Ray’s wine library stashed in a warehouse in San Jose, Calif. Not only did he find wines dating back to the 1940s, he also uncovered press clippings and historical items that painted a picture of an innovator born 40 years too soon.
Benham is no “Storage Wars” scavenger. He is a third-generation winemaker and the co-founder of Blackstone Winery, which sold for $140 million in 2001. Benham bought the Ray wine collection, but also acquired something much more significant.
With a promise that he would honor Ray and return the winery to its former stature, he convinced Ray’s heirs to sell the labeling rights to the Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery.
“I thought (the winery’s) history was fascinating,” Benham said in an email exchange with me. “The idea that Martin Ray introduced 100 percent varietal wines at a time when generic wines were the norm, that wines from California could rival the great French wines and could become as sought after as the first growths was compelling.”
Benham has been methodical with the new Martin Ray Winery. He acquired the Martini and Prati Winery, located in the middle of Sonoma County, in 2003. This is now the home of Martin Ray. It still makes pinot noirs, chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons from the mountains of Santa Cruz, but also full-bodied cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley and pinot noirs and chardonnays from the nearby Russian River Valley.
After more than a decade of primping and rehabilitating the winery, Martin Ray wines are beginning to hit their former stride. A recent tasting at the winery showed delicious wines of remarkable depth. This tasting was done blind and, perhaps not surprisingly, two of the three Santa Cruz wines in the flight of 12 wines ranked highest on my score sheet.
Wines of great character are abundant these days in California. Under new management and with a new address, Benham aims to recapture Martin Ray’s greatness in this time.
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 2014 Martin Ray Winery, Bald Mountain Vineyard, Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, Calif.
- Two Thumbs Way Up
- Aromas of vanilla, nutmeg, mango and grilled pineapple. Rich flavors of tropical fruit are buoyed by bright acidity and notes of tart apple and pear with lingering spice flavor.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.