Passing the torch at 3 Sonoma County wineries
When Alan Ramey expressed interest in working for the family business one summer, the first task his father assigned him was to clean every ball valve in the cellar with a toothbrush.
“Ball valves have numerous screws, so it was very time-consuming,” Ramey said of the apparatus used to connect a hose to a wine tank. “After that, I had to clean all the floors.”
The lesson of that meticulous, hard work was not lost on Ramey, whose father, David Ramey, founded Ramey Wine Cellars with his wife, Carla, in 1996. Long admired and respected in the wine industry, David Ramey is recognized as an innovator in numerous winemaking techniques, which led him to create highly revered chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and syrah in Sonoma County.
Today, Alan and his sister, Claire Ramey, are at the helm of the esteemed family winery in Healdsburg, where they are learning to pave their own path under their father’s legacy.
“There is definitely a huge amount of pressure taking over the company, given my dad’s reputation and contributions to the wine industry,” Alan Ramey said. “Claire and I don’t want to rest on the laurels of our dad’s success. However, we’re very lucky we can stand on the shoulders of giants thanks to our parents’ hard work.”
Alan and Claire Ramey are just two of the newest next-generation wine family members in Sonoma County who have come of age in recent years and taken the reins of their family’s esteemed wine brand.
For many, there can be great pressure to uphold the reputation of a legacy winery and the years of hard work, passion, commitment and investment that stand behind it. Yet it’s that same passion, passed through generations, that drives them to succeed.
Mari Jones, president, Emeritus Vineyards
For Mari Jones, whose father, Brice Cutrer Jones, founded Sonoma-Cutrer before establishing Emeritus Vineyards in 1999, a desire to ensure the long-term success of her family’s company compelled her to join the business.
Raised in Marin, Jones said she “didn’t have a typical wine family childhood in the vineyards” and spent most of her teenage years on the East Coast in boarding school. After that, she studied philosophy at Colgate University in upstate New York before working at a nonprofit in Colorado.
“I never imagined wine as my future, but I was always interested in what was happening at Emeritus,” Jones said. “I kept telling my dad the company needed a website, an e-commerce platform, a tasting room and a wine club. One day, he called me up and asked if I would move back to California to work for the business. So I did.”
Initially brought on to launch the tasting room and wine club, Jones said she eventually wormed her way into every part of the business, with a focus on bridging departments and encouraging collaboration across the company.
Today, as president of Emeritus Vineyards, Jones oversees all aspects of the company, including Hallberg Ranch, one of the most sought-after pinot noir vineyards in Sonoma County.
“My dad’s vision for the company has always focused on producing the best wines we can by never compromising quality and sparing no expense,” Jones said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to maintain that quality while also making sure our business is sustainable. So it’s a juggling act.”
Jones said one of her biggest responsibilities is to take care of the Sebastopol company’s employees — not just by giving them a paycheck, but also by ensuring their health and happiness.
“If we don’t make high-quality wine, we can’t take care of our employees,” Jones said. “Not just now, but in 20 or 30 years. That is a big priority.”
While Jones plans to continue the company’s focus on 100% pinot noir, she has found a way to experiment with a few new iterations, including a (delicious) white Hallberg Blanc produced with 100% pinot noir grapes. A sparkling wine also may be on the horizon.
“We have a generation starting to retire and a lot of knowledge and wisdom to learn from them,” Jones said. “Looking forward, I’m very excited to continue to build our company with passionate, knowledgeable, younger people who want to make their mark.”
Jamie Benziger, winemaker, Imagery Estate Winery
Jamie Benziger — whose father, Joe Benziger, founded Imagery Estate Winery in the mid 1980s, and whose uncle, Mike Benziger, founded Benziger Family Winery in 1981 — had set her sights on a career in marketing or businesses after college.