California has a rich wine producing history. Charles Krug, Louis Martini, Andre Tchelischeff, and Robert Mondavi are some of the better-known names that established the California wine industry. There are many more vintners who have helped shape the dramatic shift in quality that California has seen over the last hundred years. Martin Ray was certainly one of them. Beginning in 1942 through 1972, Martin Ray was a pioneer in California who was dedicated to producing single varietal, region specific wine. Today, his name and legacy lives on in the stunning values being made by brothers Courtney and Derek Benham at the Martin Ray winery in the Russian River Valley.
Martin Ray was born in 1904, just south of San Francisco near the Santa Cruz mountains. Growing up, he was mentored by Paul Masson, whose name is synonymous with jug wine. He was also the proprietor of Paul Masson Champagne Cellars, which tried to produce sparkling wine in California like the ones produced in France. When prohibition ended, Americans had a fondness for things strong and sweet, as these were the type of alcoholic products sometimes available to them. Due to this trend, most of the wineries in California were making sweet wines like Muscat or wines they fortified with brandy. Martin Ray learned that Paul Masson was selling his winery and vineyards in 1936. Martin Ray offered to purchase the properties, but Masson suggested he purchase the neighboring mountain top estate instead, even though it was not planted with vineyards and had no roads. In the end, Ray purchased both properties within a few years, selling Paul Masson and purchasing the 250 mountain top acres in 1943.
At the new property, he planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon with the goal of producing single varietal wines rather than the generic blends labeled "Chablis" or "Burgundy." In his time, he made many great wines, and some poor ones trying new techniques, but was always known as a revolutionary in the business. In the 1950's, his wines sold for about $60.00 a case, which at the time, was a lot of money for California wine. He eventually had to sell the winery as he got pushed out by investors. Today, that winey is called Mount Eden Vineyards and they produce some of my favorite Chardonnays in California along with outstanding Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the 1990's, Courtney Benham found about 1500 cases of old Martin Ray wines and his winemaking notes in a warehouse in San Jose. Ray’s historical significance and philosophy to push for higher quality wine made a big impression with Benham. Together, with his brother, they asked the family about purchasing the name "Martin Ray." Later in 2003, they bought the Martini & Prati winery in the Russian River Valley as the new home for Martin Ray Winery.
This Pinot Noir is priced for everyday enjoyment but is much more than an everyday wine. With prices of Pinot Noir from California rising quickly, it is becoming more and more difficult to find an affordable one under that offers such a depth of flavor or a ‘sense of place’ but we certainly think we found a winner with this offering from Martin Ray. This wine is great on its own but even better with foods like a roasted chicken or mushrooms sauteed in garlic butter.
94 Points – James Suckling Aromas of crushed raspberries, brambleberries, violets, orange zest and dried herbs. It’s medium-to full-bodied with sleek, fine tannins. Wonderfully bright, succulent and flavorful with mineral and saline hints on the finish. Delicious. Drink or hold. Screw cap.
90 Points – Jeb Dunnuck The 2019 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast is another pretty, perfumed, incredibly elegant wine from this estate, offering lots of mulled red and black fruits, toasted spices, and exotic flower-like aromas and flavors. Medium-bodied on the palate, it has some classic Sonoma Coast foresty conifer tree-like nuances, building tannins, and outstanding length as well. This is a Pinot Noir for those who favor elegance and complexity over richness and power.