A magnificent new gateway resets the winery bar
If you had $2 million stuffed under your mattress, you might buy yourself a Wine Country hilltop. You might raze the old farmhouse squatting at its apex, and bulldoze the old vineyards that ring it.
Perhaps, with your hypothetical $3 million, you’d hire Howard Backen to draw you a building, a building that would both dominate and blend seamlessly into your hill at the same time. Half of that big building would disappear into the soil, so the wines that you stored there would be uncorrupted by light. Down there, in the basement, the rooms would be earth-muffled: a great loamy crater, a cool chamber of secrets. The other half, above ground, would be an assemblage of grand: a vast, airy living room framed by transparent walls, a library to make Hemingway weep, a galley kitchen boasting acres of gleaming gray steel, chandeliers big as houses.
Naturally, your starchitect wants the big building to stand out, so he’ll take your now $6 million and search out old snow fence. That wood—weathered and worn and perfectly gorgeous—looks incredible wrapped across 30-foot ceilings. It’s that wonderful wood that cues your designer. Orlando Azcuy takes one look at that repurposed snow fence and the vision comes clear as Waterford crystal. He sees precisely how your big building must be finished, and with your—let’s say—$9 million, he does just that. Lots of wood, lots of metal, lots of roomy, soft couches. The palette is cool but not cold, all oatmeals and taupes and pockets of white. It is city-chic and country-easy at the same time.
Beyond the clear walls of your very big building are acres and acres of dirt, and it is this—this premium Carneros dirt—that this whole thing’s about. The big building on the hilltop is a prologue to the main act, a grand prologue to be sure, and yet. It’s the grapes that you’ve come for, the grapes and their juice. It’s the wine you’ve been after all along.
So you take your, maybe, $12 million, and you replant your hills. Chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot blanc, syrah, grenache. With the cool breezes coming up-valley off San Pablo Bay, you need your fruit hardy. It’s tended and trained and harvested and crushed to the exacting standards of winemaker Jeff Gaffner. He and his crew run a squeaky clean ship: There’s not a leaf out of place, not a weed. This precision is the ethical standard for the whole operation; aesthetic perfection rules your house.
David Oliver is brought on to manage your building, a tireless workhorse with impeccable credentials. He hires a large crew to follow precise orders: chefs who prepare bites to pair with winetastings, a concierge or three, a little army of tasting- room personnel, the guy who delivers you a picnic to enjoy by the pond.
With the last of your, what, $15 million? you build a huge gate at the bottom of your hill, something to catch the eye of travelers passing. There, at the literal mouth of Carneros, the precise gateway to the famed appellation, the gateway, in fact, to the whole of Wine Country, where hot days become cool nights as bay fog rolls its way upland, where wizened old coots once tended vast flocks of sheep, an animal—you learn later— that is carneros in Spanish, you finally settle on a name for your project, this titanic, inestimable, majestic big building. There are consultants to help you and they cost a few shekels, but together, in the end, you nail it: Ram’s Gate.
Jeff O’Neill is the aspirant who dreamed up this place. An industry entrepreneur with a string of hits on his résumé, he wanted—with a few partners—to remake winetasting. “I hate traditional winetasting,” he says. “Never had one that I liked. We knew we wanted to make world-class pinots and chards, so then we wrapped that in cool architecture and design.” His smile is a flash of blinding white dazzle; his tousled hair is Fabio-thick. In his crisp chambray shirt and expensive blue jeans, he looks—from a distance—like a Ralph Lauren model. Up close he just looks like Ralph Lauren.
He won’t actually say how much his big building cost him—and $15 million is just a wild, off-the-wall, possibly inflated extrapolation—but when asked, another dazzle-flash tugs at his mouth. O’Neill’s not the sort for a rinky-dink, Wines-R-Us operation; he’s a top-drawer, first-class kind of man. But his extravagance is purposeful; he’s got something to prove.
“We have an amazing opportunity to showcase Sonoma, which always sort of feels like it’s in the shadow of Napa,” he explains. Take the food pairings, for instance. “All the beets for the beet salad come out of our garden. We’ve got hives for the honey we serve. It’s a complete experience here,” he says of a Ram’s Gate tasting, “rather than, ‘Can I have your twenty bucks’…”
“… to stand in line,” winemaker Gaffner finishes.
The fine wine business—despite its decorous cachet—can be ruthless and cutthroat. Competition for taste buds in an overcrowded field is blood sport in Wine Country. While Ram’s Gate reveled in heavy foot traffic from day one, nearby wineries grumbled and groused. One of those competitors complained that the big building at the top of the hill was a de-facto restaurant, and a bit of bureaucratic hoop-jumping commenced. “We are not a restaurant,” O’Neill says decisively. “If you’re tasting a flight of wines, it’s paired with small tastes out of a kitchen. They happen to be spectacular, which I think is a little bit annoying to some people, but the food component is strictly marketing to help people really taste the wines. You can taste the wines without the food, but you can’t have the food without the wine.”
And that was the plan all along. Some wineries pair food in an ad hoc kind of way, like some late great idea shoehorned into their protocols. But Ram’s Gate built their big building with that concept up front, as a way to optimally showcase their product.
“We are aiming to provide an authentic experience,” O’Neill says. “Not just a tasting bar with no winery behind it.” So yes, there is grandeur and flash and there are controversial nibbles, there are Fortuny silk chairs and charcuterie machines that gleam like sunshine, there are custom-made fermentation tanks and a labyrinth of lush spaces, but this place is now and always will be about the wine.
“The wine is the standard,” Gaffner promises. “We’re going to be your benchmark.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA