Tag Archives: Paul Masson

The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray

As California Wine Month comes to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on the men and women who have made California what it is today.

Folks like Agoston Haraszthy, H.W. Crabb, Charles Krug, Josephine Tychson, Louis M. Martini and, in more modern history, people like Andre Tchelischeff, Robert Mondavi, Warren Winiarski, Robert Haas, Donn Chappellet, Fred and Eleanor McCrea and Dick Grace.

Truthfully, the list could go on ad infinitum because the history and story of California wine is truly a patch work quilt of individual dreams and efforts.

But I’m willing to bet that if you asked most wine lovers to list some of the influential figures in California wine history–only the truly old timers and the geekiest of wine students would mention Martin Ray.

Which is remarkable considering the modern legacy of all “the Martians” that came after Ray.

The Invasion of Quantity over Quality

In the link above, wine economist Mike Veseth highlights the dichotomy in thought of two post-Prohibition wine pioneers over what the “idea” of wine should be–a topic he greatly expands upon in his 2011 work Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists.

Philip Wagner, who founded the Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, bequeathed the Wagnerian ideals of wine being an everyday commodity–much like any other food and beverage–that should be affordable and accessible. As Veseth notes, the existence of “Two Buck Chuck” is a very Wagnerian model. However, Wagner’s idea of everyday affordability wasn’t just limited to bottom of the barrel prices.

Photo from Radicaldreamer29. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Martin Ray in the 1960s.

Martin Ray, on the other hand, thought that American wine should aim high and not settle for just being a commodity like milk and grains. Inspired by the great wines of Europe, the original “Martian” was convinced that California had the potential to reach similar heights.

Post-Prohibition Blues

As Thomas Pinney notes in A History of Wine in America, Volume 2: From Prohibition to the Present, the American wine industry was in a bit of a funky, cloudy haze in the years after the repeal of Prohibition–just like many of the wines of that period.

The goal of most post-Prohibition wineries was cheapness and quantity with quality being a distant third. In chapter 4 of his work, Pinney quotes UC-Davis professor Maynard Amerine’s 1940 letter bemoaning the fact that many producers ignore their vineyards until late in the harvest season, letting the grapes go far past their ideal harvest time and producing wines that were “…heavy, lacking the essential fruit quality and frequently have an overripe grape or raisin taste.” Beyond the poor condition of the fruit, Amerine noted, in the winery this often led to the presence of spoilage bacteria.

Amerine’s letter (as quoted by Pinney) would go on to say:

Aside from [Martin] Ray you would be amazed at how few of our growers or vintners have the least conception of these facts. This is one of the recurring reasons for the lack of quality (or even drinkability) of California wines.

— Maynard Amerine’s October 20th, 1940 letter to Julian Street as quoted in Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine in America, Volume 2

Martin Ray was different.

 

A protégé of Paul Masson, Ray grew up near Masson’s vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco.

While today his name is synonymous with low-quality jug wines made by Constellation Brands, Paul Masson was a pioneer in his own right aiming to make high-quality sparkling wines in the style of his homeland of France–even importing his own cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines from Burgundy (likely from his friend Louis Latour’s vineyards).

During the Great Depression, Martin Ray quit his career as a stock broker to join his neighbor Paul Masson at his winery. Falling in love with the industry, Ray bought the Paul Masson winery in 1936.

Seeing the poor quality that dominated the post-Prohibition wine industry, Ray made it his personal mission (a fanatical obsession as Pinney describes) to bring back the quality levels and standards that trademarked the industry in the Pre-Prohibition days of Haraszthy, Krug, Lily Langtry, Tychson, Jacob Schram, Gustave Niebaum and Georges de Latour.

The Best Of Intentions, The Poorest of Results
Photo from the California Historical Society. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US

A 1935 advertisement for California port with a hefty 18-20% ABV.

But he had an uphill battle with the legacy of bootlegging, speakeasies and moon-shining leaving American drinkers with a taste for things strong and sweet.

Many of the California wines that dominated the market were often fortified with brandy and sweetened up with the use of raisins or very late harvested grapes made from Muscat, Thompson Seedless and Sultana. Thomas Pinney notes those three grapes represented nearly half (44%) of the 1941 vintage alone.

The nature of the industry and a devastating winery fire were too much to overcome. In 1942, Ray accepted an offer from Seagram’s for the Paul Masson brand and what was left of the winery.

The Sky’s The Limit

However, rather than retire, Ray tried his hand again in his fanatical quest for quality. Purchasing land on the hilltop across from the old Paul Masson vineyards, Ray transferred many of those Burgundian cuttings of Pinot noir and Chardonnay to plant what is now known as Mount Eden Vineyards–2000 feet above the Santa Clara Valley. His widow Eleanor Ray and their daughter, Barbara Marinacci, detailed Ray’s passion and goals in their book Vineyards in the Sky: The Life of Legendary Vintner Martin Ray which is a great read for folks wanting to know about this pivotal time in California’s wine history.

By Radicaldreamer29 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Martin Ray vineyard was renamed Mount Eden in 1972 with the legendary Dick Graff and Merry Edwards making the first few post-Ray vintages. Today Jeffery Patterson tends to these grapes.

Branded under his own name, Martin Ray spared no expense.

His goal was to make Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon that could compete with the best that Europe offered. In the vineyard, he focused on lowering yields and refused to irrigate–believing that excess water diluted the vine’s potential to make great grapes.

After the grapes were harvested, he rushed to get them crushed and fermenting within an hour of leaving the vine in order to minimize the degradation of quality and exposure to spoilage bacteria.

The wines were barrel fermented and then pressed in a custom-built hand press that Ray designed himself to minimize extraction of harsh tannins. He then aged the wines in oak barrels before bottling them unfined and unfiltered. However, rather than releasing the wines soon after bottling, Ray kept the wines back and aged them further in the cellar. Not a single bottle was released until he felt that they were ready for the market. Sometimes this meant holding them back as long as ten years.

Recognition, at last?
Photo a derivative of photos on Wikimedia Commons uploaded by self under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Unfortunately by the time Steven Spurrier was touring California to select wines for his famous tasting, the wines of Martin Ray were fading into obscurity.
S

Ray’s efforts and dedication to quality allowed him to ask for and receive some of the highest prices in all of California at the time–$2 a bottle.  Martin Ray wines were even served at the White House for both Johnson and Nixon.

However, Ray still had the cards against him. Many American drinkers of dry wines were more apt to look eastward towards Europe than to the homegrown products of California. The costs and expenses of his quality-driven style–plus some bad business decisions with investors–caused Martin Ray to lose his winery in 1970. The new owners did allow him to spend his remaining years living in a house below the vineyard.

He passed away in 1976–the same year that the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting took place. It seems both fitting and tragic that the moment when Martin Ray’s passion and vision were actualized was when he left this earth.

That year, American wines truly did compete with the best that Europe offered.  The embrace of American consumers came shortly after.

His life’s work. Finally completed.

Rediscovering Martin Ray

Following the Judgement of Paris, the California wine industry entered a boom period of prosperity and acclaim. In the dust, the name of Martin Ray continued to fade into obscurity until 1990 when a young entrepreneur named Courtney Benham stumbled upon a warehouse in San Jose that contained 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines along with Ray’s letters and winemaking notebooks.

That same year Courtney Benham had founded Blackstone Winery with his brother Derek. Intrigued, Benham inquired with the family of Martin Ray about acquiring the rights to Ray’s name.

Lindsey Haughton and Bill Batchelor of Martin Ray.

In 2001, the Benham brothers sold Blackstone to Constellation Brands for $140 million and in 2003 acquired the historic Martini & Prati Winery in the Russian River Valley to be the new home of Martin Ray Winery.

Blackstone’s winemaker Dennis Hill made the first vintages of the new Martin Ray wines until the 2001 sale. Then Bryan Davison succeeded him. The new winery building in 2003 saw the hiring of Bill Batchelor. The brand expanded to with the introduction of sister labels, Angeline and Courtney Benham Wines.

Batchelor eventually left Martin Ray in 2017 to take over the winemaking operation of Gundlach Bundschu. He was succeeded by his assistant winemaker, Lindsey Haughton who has been with the winery since 2012. Prior to joining Martin Ray, Haughton worked harvest at Heitz Cellars in Napa and studied at Fresno State University. While at school, she worked at Engelmann Cellars.

The Wines

2016 Martin Ray Sauvignon blanc Russian River Valley ($16-20)

100% Sauvignon blanc sourced from vineyards mostly in the Green Valley of the Russian River.

High intensity nose. Very intriguing mix tropical citrus fruit like starfruit and pomelo with richer honeydew melon and subtle grassiness. It’s not as green as a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but the nose is as intense as one.

On the palate, the citrus notes hold court and add a lemony note. Medium-plus acidity is mouthwatering and fresh but doesn’t stray into tartness. Good balance with medium bodied fruit. Moderate finish brings back some of the honeydew notes.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Pinot noir ($23-28)

A gorgeous Pinot that way over delivers for the price.

100% Pinot noir sourced from the Ricioli and Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley and the Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros.

WOW! High, high intensity nose. Mix of dark cherries with red raspberries and some subtle dried floral and earthy notes. With air those earthy notes become more defined as forest floor and cola nut.

On the palate the red fruit comes out more than the dark but feels weightier with medium-plus tannins. Noticeable vanilla oak also brings spices like nutmeg and cinnamon to the party. Medium-plus acidity is very lively and balances the weight of the medium body fruit. Long finish lingers on the juicy fruit at this point. It will become even more complex as the baby fat of oak fades and the floral and earthy notes develop.

2016 Martin Ray Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18-22)

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Dry Creek Valley.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruits of black currants and blackberries. More noticeable oak on the nose with toasty vanilla and some clove.

On the palate those jammy dark fruits come through with medium-plus body weight. Ripe medium-plus tannins holds up the fruit and contribute to the smooth mouthfeel with the vanilla. Medium acidity gives some balance but has me wishing for more. Reminds me a lot of the Justin Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. Moderate length finish continues with the dark fruit and vanilla oak.

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting that the modern incarnation of Martin Ray seems to combine the “Wagnerian” and “Martian” ideals. These wines offer affordable everyday drinking of very good quality.

I know that not every household has $20 wines as their everyday drinkers. But compared to many higher priced $30-40 bottles, these wines certainly make that kind of quality level more attainable.

Compared to many Napa and New Zealand Sauvignon blancs over $20, this Russian River Sauv. blanc is extremely tasty and vibrant.

The Pinot noir, in particular, is outstanding for the price with single vineyard designates from the legendary Sangiacomo vineyard rarely dropping below $35. The Ricioli and Foppiano vineyards in the Russian River Valley also tend to fetch higher prices.

While the Martin Ray lineup certainly does include more expensive wines from the Diamond Mountain District and Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, I don’t think the original Martin Ray would balk at these more affordable bottles from Sonoma.

 

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Who makes your Supermarket Wine? (A Running List)

Sept 2018 update: If I come across new connections that haven’t been widely publish I will update this page. But I’d like to direct folks interested in this info to Elizabeth Schneider’s way more user-friendly and searchable list on her Wine For Normal People blog. It’s also regularly updated and is a fantastic resource that is worth bookmarking.

Beverage Dynamics released their report this month of The Fastest Growing Wine Brands and Top Trends of 2017.

One of the most glaring features of the report is how often you see the names Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo, The Wine Group and more appear in the rankings with their multitude of different brands. As I described in my post The Facade of Choice, when you walk the wine department of your typical grocery store the vast majority of the wines you see are going to be made by the same handful of companies.

It’s important for consumers to be aware of just how artificially limited their choices really are–especially because consumers should have choices when there are over 4000 wineries in California, over 700 each in Washington and Oregon and tens of thousands more across the globe.

Yet the average wine drinker is only ever going to see a fraction of a percent of these wines–especially those of us in the US. This is not just because our archaic three-tier distribution system severely limits consumers’ access to wine but also because of the wave of consolidations among large wine distributors.

Consolidation of Choices
Photo by Tatsuo Yamashita. Uploaded on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

To the best of my knowledge, General Mills and Unilever are not in the wine business….yet.

For the sake of efficiency (and profits) these large distributors tend to focus on the big clients in their portfolios–the Constellations and the Gallos. They can back up a trailer to a warehouse and load in pallets of “different wines” with different labels from all across the globe and then take that trailer right to the major grocery chains. With about 42% of the “off premise” wine (as opposed to on-premise restaurant purchases) in the US being bought at supermarkets, every consumer should take a hard look at how limited their options really are.

In some cases, you have more true options in the yogurt section than you do in the wine department.

For a couple years now I’ve been keeping an Excel spreadsheet of the various brands I’ve came across and which mega-corporation they’re made by. This is FAR from an exhaustive list and has room for a lot of expansion. Plus with the way that winery brands get bought and sold almost like trading cards it will probably be outdated by the time I hit publish. If you know of any additions or errors, please post in the comments.

Note some of the names are linked to the companies by exclusive distribution agreements.

Constellation Brands

7 Moons
Alice White
Arbor Mist
Black Box
Blackstone
Charles Smith Wines
Clos du Bois
Cooks
Cooper & Thief
Diseno
Dreaming Tree
Drylands
Estancia
Franciscian Estate
Hogue
Inniskillian
J. Roget
Jackson Triggs
Kim Crawford
Manischewitz
Mark West
Meiomi
Robert Mondavi
Monkey Bay
Mount Veeder
Naked Grape
Night Harvest
Nk’Mip
Nobilo
Paso Creek
Paul Masson
Prisoner
Primal Roots
Ravenswood
Red Guitar
Rex Goliath
Rioja Vega
Ruffino
Schrader
Simi
Simply Naked
Taylor Dessert
Thorny Rose
Toasted Head
The Prisoner
Vendange
Wild Horse
Woodbridge

E & J Gallo

Alamos
Allegrini
Andre
Apothic
Ballatore
Barefoot
Bella Sera
Bodega Elena de Mendoza
Boone’s Farm
Bran Caia
Bridlewood
Carlo Rossi
Carnivor
Chocolate Rouge
Clarendon Hills
Columbia Winery
Covey Run
Dancing Bull
DaVinci
Dark Horse
Don Miguel Gascon
Ecco Domani
Edna Valley Vineyard
Fairbanks
Frei Brothers
Gallo of Sonoma
Ghost Pines
J Vineyards
La Marca
Laguna
Las Rocas
Liberty Creek
Livingston Cellars
Locations
Louis Martini
MacMurray Ranch
Madria Sangria
Martin Codax
Maso Canali
McWilliams
Mia Dolcea
Mirassou
Orin Swift
Peter Vella
Pieropan
Polka Dot
Prophecy
Rancho Zabaco
Red Bicyclette
Red Rock
Redwood Creek
Sheffield Cellars
Starborough
Souverain
Talbott
The Naked Grape
Tisdale
Winking Owl
Turning Leaf
Vin Vault
Whitehaven
Wild Vines
William Hill Estate

Brown-Foreman

Sonoma Cutrer
Korbel Sparkling wine

Delicato Family Vineyards

Black Stallion
Bota Box
Brazin
Diora
Domino
Gnarly Head
Irony
Night Owl
Noble Vines
Twisted Wines
Z. Alexander Brown

Terlato Wines

Boutari
Bodega Tamari
Chimney Rock
Domaine Tournon
Ernie Els Wines
Federalist
Hanna
Josmeyer
Il Poggione
Luke Donald
Markham
Mischief & Mayhem
Rochioli
Rutherford Hill
Santa Margherita
Seven Daughters
Sokol Blosser
Tangley Oaks

Precept Brands

Alder Ridge
Browne Family
Canoe Ridge Vineyard
Cavatappi
Chocolate Shop
Gruet
House Wine
Pendulum
Primarius
Red Knot
Ross Andrews
Sagelands
Sawtooth
Shingleback
Ste. Chappelle
Waitsburg Cellars
Washington Hills
Waterbrook
Wild Meadows
Willow Crest

Vintage Wine Estates

B.R. Cohn
Buried Cane
Cameron Hughes
Cartlidge & Browne
Cherry Pie
Clayhouse Wines
Clos Pegase
Cosentino Winery
Cowgirl Sisterhood
Delectus Winery
Firesteed
Game of Thrones
Girard
Girl & Dragon
Gouguenheim
Horseplay
If You See Kay
Layer Cake
Middle Sister
Monogamy
Promisqous
Purple Cowboy
Qupé
Sonoma Coast Vineyards
Swanson
Tamarack Cellars
Viansa Sonoma
Windsor
Wine Sisterhood

Ste Michelle Wine Estates

14 Hands
Chateau Ste Michelle
Col Solare
Columbia Crest
Conn Creek
Erath
Merf
Northstar
O Wines
Patz & Hall
Red Diamond
Seven Falls
Snoqualmie
Spring Valley Vineyard
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
Stimson
Tenet/Pundit wines
Vila Mt. Eden
Villa Maria

Crimson Wine Group

Archery Summit
Chamisal
Double Canyon
Forefront
Pine Ridge
Seghesio
Seven Hills Winery

Jackson Family Estates

Arrowood
Arcanum
Byron
Cambria
Cardinale
Carmel Road
Copain
Edmeades
Freemark Abbey
Gran Moraine
Hickinbotham
Kendall Jackson
La Crema
La Jota
Lokoya
Matanzas Creek
Mt. Brave
Murphy-Goode
Penner-Ash
Siduri
Silver Palm
Stonestreet
Tenuta di Arceno
Yangarra Estate
Zena Crown
Wild Ridge

Vina Concha y Toro

Almaviva
Bonterra
Casillero del Diablo
Concha y Toro
Cono Sur
Don Melchior
Fetzer
Five Rivers
Jekel
Little Black Dress
Trivento

The Wine Group

13 Celsius
Almaden
AVA Grace
Benzinger
Big House
Chloe
Concannon
Corbett Canyon
Cupcake
Fish Eye
FlipFlop
Foxhorn
Franzia
Glen Ellen
Herding Cats
Insurrection
Love Noir
Mogen David
Seven Deadly Zins
Slow Press
Pinot Evil
Stave & Steel

Treasury Wine Estates

19 Crimes
Acacia
Beaulieu Vineyards
Beringer
Butterfly Kiss
BV Coastal
Cellar 8
Ch. St Jean
Chalone
Colores del Sol
Crème de Lys
Dynamite Vineyards
Etude
Gabbiano
Greg Norman
Hewitt Vineyard
Lindeman
Matua
Meridian
New Harbor
Once Upon a Vine
Penfolds
Provenance
Rosemount
Rosenblum Cellars
Seaview
Sledgehammer
Snap Dragon
Souverain
St. Clement
Stags’ Leap Winery
Stark Raving
Sterling
The Walking Dead
Uppercut
Wolf Blass
Wynns Coonawarra

Bronco Wine Company

Black Opal
Carmenet
Cellar Four 79
Century Cellars
Charles Shaw
Crane Lake
Colores del Sol
Estrella
Forest Glen
Forestville
Gravel Bar
Great American Wine Co.
Hacienda
Little Penguin
Montpellier
Quail Ridge
Rare Earth
Robert Hall
Sea Ridge
Stone Cellars

(LVMH) Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey

Bodega Numanthia
Cheval Blanc
Cheval de Andes
Cloudy Bay
Dom Perignon
Domaine Chandon
D’yquem
Krug
Mercier
Moet & Chandon
Newton Vineyard
Ruinart
Terrazas de Los Andes
Veuve Clicquot

Trinchero Estates

Bandit
Charles & Charles
Dona Paula
Duck Commander
Fancy Pants
Folie a Deux
Fre
Joel Gott
Los Cardos
Menage a Trois
Montevina
Napa Cellars
Newman’s Own
Pomelo
SeaGlass
Sutter Home
Sycamore Lane
The SHOW

Deutsch Family Brands

Cave de Lugny
Clos de los Siete
Enza
Eppa
Fleurs de Praire
Hob Nob
Joseph Carr
Josh Cellars
Kunde Family
Peter Lehmann
Ramon Bilbao
Ruta 22
Skyfall
The Calling
The Crossing
Villa Pozzi

Guarachi Wine Partners

Black Ink
Castillo de Monseran
Guarachi
Kaiken
Nobilissima
Santa Ema
Surf-Swim
Tensley
Tenshen

Foley Family Wines

Acrobat
Awatere Pass
Butterfield Station
Chalk Hill Winery
Chalone Vineyard
Clifford Bay
Dashwood
EOS
Firestone
Foley Johnson
Four Sisters
Goldwater
Guenoc
Lancaster Estate
Lincourt
Lucien Albrecht
Merus
Nieto Senetiner
Pebble Row
Pepperwood Grove
Piccini
Poizin
Roth
Sebastini
Smoking Loon
Tahbilk
The Four Graces
Three Rivers Winery
Wayne Gretzky

Pernod Ricard

Brancott
Campo Viejo
Graffigna
Jacob’s Creek
Kenwood
Stoneliegh
George Wyndham

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