Passing the torch at 3 Sonoma County wineries

The next generation is poised to make their mark at Imagery, Emeritus and Ramey Wine in Sonoma County. Here is how they’re doing it.|

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.” — Mari Jones, president, Emeritus Vineyards

“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.

“I was studying business at Loyola Marymount University in L.A., and half my projects ended up focusing on my family’s winery,” Jamie Benziger said. “That’s when something clicked and I decided to move back to Sonoma County to study wine at Sonoma State.”

After completing a marketing internship at Gundlach Bundschu in Sonoma, Benziger said she realized she wasn’t cut out for a desk job. So when her father approached her about working in the wine lab at Imagery Estate Winery in Glen Ellen, she accepted.

“I completely fell in love with working in the lab,” Jamie said. “Once I began to understand the connection between science and flavors of wine, I was hooked. Wine production was definitely my thing.”

Officially bitten by the wine bug, Benziger went on to complete harvests in both the Southern and Northern hemispheres before getting additional lab experience at numerous Sonoma County wineries.

“My family had urged me gain as much experience as I could to round out my expertise,” Jamie said. “But I kept thinking about how cool it would be to become a partner in my father’s winery and wondered who would take over for him when he retired.”

In 2015, Benziger was completely crushed when Imagery Estate and Benziger Family Winery, also based in Glen Ellen, were sold to The Wine Group, a major wine company that owns more than 100 brands including Franzia, Cupcake and Imagery. She describes that sale as one of the most heartbreaking moments she’s ever experienced.

“I had been working so hard and would have done anything to give the family winery my best shot,” she said. “I had no idea what would happen next.”

A second chance

The Wine Group decided to retain Joe Benziger as winemaker after the purchase, and at the end of 2017, he decided to retire.

“My dad said he thought it was time to pass along to torch to me and asked if I wanted to become winemaker,” said Jamie, who accepted the offer. “I have this passion and drive to take on my father’s legacy and all he created with the property and the wines. But I know I have big shoes to fill.”

While Jamie Benziger said she maintained her father’s winemaking style over the first few years, she has gradually put her own spin on Imagery’s wines. She is currently maintaining the brand’s offering of uncommon varietals but has her sights set on producing a bigger red with more structure.

While Lisa Amaroli remains director of winemaking for both Benziger Family Winery and Imagery Estate, Jamie Benziger is the sole decision-maker for Imagery’s direct-to-consumer wines made in Sonoma County.

“I’ve worked with Lisa for many years and believe she really trusts me,” Jamie said. “I’m very blessed. It still feels like family.”

Alan and Claire Ramey, proprietors, Ramey Wine Cellars

For Alan and Claire Ramey, who took ownership of Ramey Wine Cellars in 2021, the close bond and mutual respect they have as siblings will only benefit the Ramey legacy.

“I’m really excited to see where a lifelong partnership with my brother will take us as a business and as a family,” Claire Ramey said. “Ultimately, I joined the company to help ensure its success for the succeeding decades.”

While the Rameys are quick to mention they both touch all aspects of the business, Claire said the vineyards are a major component of her future vision for the company.

“I’ve been very fortunate to learn under our longtime PhD viticulture consult, Daniel Roberts, for the last seven years,” Claire said. “That’s enabled me to direct our farming and improve our work in the vineyard. Moving forward, I’m excited to grow more of our own grapes while maintaining our longstanding grower partnerships.”

For Alan, who traded in the toothbrush to dive deep into the analytical side of wine years ago, he said he’s most driven by the art of experimentation and “trying to push the ball forward.

“I think it’s important we define our purpose as the next generation of winemakers,” Alan said. “What can we contribute to the industry? You see the natural wine movement and different varietals taking up energy and sub-movements all fighting with each other. I think finding a purpose and long-term vision for our generation is very important.”

Much of that vision, he said, involves how to address the effects of climate change, studying the effects of wildfires and smoke taint on grapes, managing water and replanting vineyards with changing weather patterns in mind.

Upholding a revered family legacy in the face of climate change and an uncertain economy would give many people pause about working in the wine industry. But Claire and Alan are driven to forge ahead.

“It’s impossible not to feel pressure to continue to uphold the Ramey name, but it’s mostly an inward pressure,” Claire said. “Alan and I are incredibly fortunate to work with such a high-caliber team and have amazing support. That support enables us to look forward and identify the next steps for Ramey.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

Sarah Doyle

Wine & Lifestyle Reporter

Wine is the indelible heartbeat of Sonoma County. As the wine industry continues to evolve, my job is to share the triumphs, challenges and trends that affect our local wine region, while highlighting the people — past and present — who have contributed to its success. In addition, I cover spirits, beer and on occasion, other lifestyle topics.

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