The Ghost of Martin Ray

martinCourtney Benham tripped over some dusty boxes, and the ghost of an old winemaker slipped out.

It happened one day about 20 years ago, in a dusty warehouse in San Jose. The winemaker was Martin Ray, long since gone but once known as “the father of California fine wine.” He’d left behind some 1500 cases of library wines, some dating back 40 years, and boxes of press clippings, winery brochures, and price lists.

Courtney, who had grown up working in his father’s winery in the Sacramento Delta,  couldn’t let the past disappear all over again. He set out to reinvent Martin Ray Winery, and started by tasting and analyzing the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir he’d unearthed.

Courtney discovered that the keys to the Martin Ray style were two things — hillside or mountain-grown fruit, and “intuitive winemaking”, or knowing when to intervene and when to let the wine alone to create itself.

Judging from the two wines I tripped over, Martin’s ghost is surely resting easy in his grave. First I tasted Martin Ray Napa Valley Merlot 2009, and I said, “Holy Cow!” (or something like that). This is a big, balls-y, lush, seductive Merlot, and I’m guessing the mountain fruit has a lot to do with that.

Let me digress briefly to yack about mountain-grown grapes. The slightly cooler temperatures combined with plenty of radiant heat create more intense flavors and more structure (or tannins) in the wine.

So these grapes sourced from Stags Leap District and Yountville make Martin Ray a Cab-lover’s Merlot. In the nose the aromas are intense with plum and black cherry fruit, and plenty of vanilla (no wonder — it sees a whopping 16 months in French oak). I tasted bold flavors of red fruit, plum, a hint of spice and maybe a little chocolate. It definitely finishes with some tannin and acid, and that’s what makes this a great steak or prime rib wine. And oh yeah — I checked the technical notes and there is 5% of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend.

Martin Ray Napa/Sonoma/Mendocino Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 came out of the gate just as fast. No wonder — its fruit represents some big-name appellations, such as Diamond Mountain, Rutherford, Stags Leap, Mount Veeder, Sonoma Mountain, and Alexander Valley. I could smell the depth and intensity in the heady aromas of blackberry, coffee and vanilla. The flavors were intense and juicy, with layers of dark berries, vanilla and coffee. Twelve months of French oak aging gave it a creamy mouthfeel, but it still finished with beautifully balanced tannins.

I thought both these wine were beautifully made and really fun to drink, but I have to give some credit to Mother Nature. By all accounts, 2009 was a heck of a good year all over California, with plenty of spring rain, moderate temperatures, and an Indian summer that fully ripened the grapes.

But who cares who gets the credit? Just pop the cork on one (or both) of these, and enjoy. And make sure you pour out a few drops to honor the ghost of old Martin Ray. Cheers!

mart ray merlot

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