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Second Life of a California Winery: Martin Ray's Remarkable Return

Second Life of a California Winery: Martin Ray's Remarkable Return

Martin Ray Winery, located in the heart of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, California, is a historic and esteemed winery known for its high-quality, handcrafted wines. The winery continues to honor the pioneering spirit of its founder, Martin Ray, while embracing innovative winemaking practices under the stewardship of its current owner, Courtney Benham.

Founder: Martin Ray

Born in 1904 in California, Martin Ray developed an early interest in winemaking. Before fully committing to the wine industry, Ray had a career as a stockbroker, but despite his success in finance, Ray's passion for winemaking was ignited in the 1920s when he began working with Paul Masson, a renowned Burgundian winemaker known for producing high-quality sparkling wines in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Mentor: Paul Masson

Paul Masson was born in 1859 in the Burgundy, an area celebrated for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. Masson was deeply influenced by his upbringing in this prestigious wine region, which is renowned for producing some of the finest wines in the world.

In 1878, at the age of 19, Paul Masson emigrated to the United States during theย phylloxera crisis in Europe. He initially worked for Almaden Vineyards with Charles Le Franc in California before establishing his own winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Masson was instrumental in introducing traditional French champagne-making techniques to the United States, earning him the nickname "Champagne King of California." His emphasis on meticulous vineyard management and high standards in winemaking greatly influenced the young Martin Ray.

Masson recognized Ray's potential and became a mentor to him, imparting not only technical knowledge but also a deep appreciation for the art of winemaking. Under Masson's guidance, Ray learned the importance of terroir, the unique characteristics imparted to wine by the environment in which the grapes are grown.

Establishing Martin Ray Winery

In 1943, Martin Ray purchased the Paul Masson Champagne Company and its vineyard, where he started producing wines under his own name. Ray was a visionary winemaker dedicated to crafting premium, single-varietal wines, a novel concept at the time. He believed in the importance of terroir and was among the first in California to plant varietals like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the region.

Ray's dedication to traditional winemaking techniques, including the use of barriques for aging and emphasizing the importance of vineyard management, set a new standard in California wine production. His commitment to quality and innovation earned him a reputation as a maverick in the industry.

In the 1960s, he took on partners to finance the expansion of his vineyards, but the partnership failed, resulting in a lawsuit. Ray lost the lawsuit and was ousted from his own winery in 1972, which was then renamed Mount Eden. Ray passed away four years later, and the unsold wines were transferred to a warehouse in San Jose.

Despite facing numerous challenges, including financial difficulties and legal battles, Rayโ€™s unwavering dedication to quality left a lasting impact on the wine industry.

Transition to New Ownership: Courtney Benham

In 1990, Courtney Benham, a passionate wine entrepreneur, discovered a treasure trove of Martin Ray's old wine stocks. Recognizing the potential to revive the legacy of Martin Ray, Benham acquired the brand from Martin's daughter and set out to restore its reputation for producing exceptional wines.

Under Benham's leadership, the winery expanded its operations and acquired new vineyards. To finance his new project, Courtney sold the Blackstone brand and winery to Constellation for $140 million. In 2003, he purchased the Martini & Prati winery in Sonoma, providing a new home for the Martin Ray brand.

Committed to sustainability, Benham implemented environmentally friendly practices in both the vineyard and the winery. The winery focuses on low-impact farming, water conservation, and energy-efficient technologies to minimize its environmental footprint. Today, Martin Ray Winery produces a diverse portfolio of award-winning wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are celebrated for their balance, complexity, and expression of the unique terroir of each vineyard.

The Wines:

Martin Ray Winery offers a range of award-winning wines, categorized into three distinct collections:

Angeline: This entry-level range offers exceptional value for money, including the second-most-sold Pinot Noir between $10 and $12 in the USA.

Synthesis: This range prioritizes balance, blending estate fruit from multiple vineyards to create the best single varietal expression of each vintage.

Martin Ray: This top-tier range showcases the winery's commitment to terroir, featuring wines from the most prestigious single vineyard sites.


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