Martin Ray Winery: A Fortuitous Find

An unexpected discovery led to the return of Martin Ray Winery

A chance encounter in an old warehouse started acclaimed winemaker Courtney Benham on the path to acquire the iconic Martin Ray label.

And since that fortuitous day in 1990, when Benham discovered 1,500 cases of Martin Ray wines in a San Jose storage facility, nothing else about the revived production of the vintages bearing that famous name is left to chance.

Martin Ray was one of the most influential winemakers in California history, with a famous (some might say “infamous”) commitment to quality. Ray refused to accept mediocrity in any way, shape, or form when it came to creating his wines, from planting to bottling. Ray learned the art of winemaking from the legendary Paul Masson, bought Masson’s vineyard in 1936, and produced varietals bearing the Martin Ray name from 1943-1972.

On that day in 1990 when Benham, co-founder of the Blackstone Winery, found the large cache of Martin Ray library wines, the Martin Ray label had all but disappeared from retail shelves and the cellars of collectors. Benham immediately understood the opportunity that chance encounter in the San Jose warehouse had presented … and the challenge.

“When (Benham) found those cases, he knew what he had,” Tiffany Zolli, Martin Ray Winery’s Director of Sales and Marketing, said. “He understood the value of the label; not just the 1,500 cases, but the long-term value of bringing back Martin Ray wines.”

The process of returning Martin Ray to the market began with Benham contacting the Ray family and acquiring the rights to the Martin Ray label. Martin Ray died in 1976, and while his wife and son continued producing wines for a few years after his death, the Martin Ray Winery hadn’t been in operation for more than a decade. Getting the rights to the label was a relatively easy step in Benham’s quest … beginning production on wines that would live up to the quality Martin Ray himself demanded of every bottle is where the real work began.

“From the start, Courtney Benham was absolutely committed to making sure the wines he made under the Martin Ray label would meet the standards Ray had for the wines he made himself,” Zolli said. “(Benham) knew Martin Ray was the founding father of producing 100% varietal wine in California, and he knew how meticulous Martin Ray was with every aspect of his wines.”

Achieving those standards meant using grapes grown at elevation in hillside vineyards. Martin Ray believed fruit from mountain sources yielded more robust, intense flavors, and Benham struck partnerships with vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains (site of Ray’s original vineyard), Napa Valley’s Diamond Mountain, and the hillsides of the Russian River Valley which could provide such grapes. Initially, Benham’s re-launch of Martin Ray focused on mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Today, Martin Ray Winery in Santa Rosa produces multiple accolade-earning varietals, including Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and various blends, all produced at the winery’s Russian River Valley facilities. Martin Ray’s winemaking team is led by Bill Batchelor, who joined the winery in 2003 and oversees award-winning vintages including the 2010 Martin Ray Reserve Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Martin Ray Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.

Because the grapes used by Martin Ray Winery come from multiple, diverse vineyards, Batchelor and his team are constantly challenged to bring each vintage to full potential.

“We don’t have the same grapes from the same vineyard every year, so working with different fruit is refreshing for Bill,” Zolli said. “Our representatives go out to the vineyards we partner with throughout the year to ensure quality, and when it’s time to make the wine, Bill and his team really enjoy the diversity of the grapes they get to work with.

“It a challenge they really enjoy, and it keeps Martin Ray wines fresh and exciting.”

Thanks to Benham’s serendipitous find in that San Jose warehouse nearly 25 years ago, Martin Ray wines are once again available at wine retailers across the country. In addition, the Tasting Room at Martin Ray Winery is a popular stop for wine enthusiasts. Martin Ray’s Tasting Room features special events, such as “A Starry Night” coming up Sept. 27, offering wine and cheese, a four-course paired farm-to-table dinner, and live music under the stars at the Winery.

“We want people to come visit our beautiful winery, and taste what we’re creating,” Zolli said. “You can get Martin Ray wines in the Tasting Room that aren’t available commercially yet, and you really get a sense of our family atmosphere.”

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