interview Joe Nielsen Ram’s Gate Winery General Manager and Winemaker
Ram’s Gate Winery was founded in 2011 with the intention of creating Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from vineyards that encompass the bounty that Sonoma County has to offer.
This winery has long been recognized for its refined hospitality and sublime culinary experience. Rooted in a spirit of exploration, their winemaking team has sought to bring a new perspective on refined elegance through thoughtful farming and low-intervention winemaking.
Their winemaking program is backed by an exceptional hospitality team who work tirelessly to deliver high-touch, immersive and food tasting experiences. The winery’s connection to the land is reflected in the breathtaking tasting room that overlooks to the Ram’s Gate Estate Vineyard: 28-acres of organically farmed vines.
When put together, Ram’s Gate has all the ingredients necessary to present a holistic winery experience like no other. We interview Joe Nielsen Ram’s Gate Winery General Manager and Winemaker to learn more.
Share a popular tasting experience at Ram’s Gate Winery?
Joe Nielsen: At Ram’s Gate, we have always offered innovative and exciting hospitality experiences for each and every guest that visits our estate. As we strive to elevate and expand the current winery hospitality experiences, we recently hired Director of Hospitality Kris Miller and Executive Chef Ruby Oliveros.
With the announcement of these new pivotal team members, we recently introduced a new seasonal wine and culinary pairing that highlights each wine’s nuance and flavor. Executive Chef Ruby Oliveros and I have worked hand-in-hand to craft these unique pairings.
This new experience is led by one of our wine experts and starts with a tour of the estate property, followed by a seated, communal tasting of four hand-picked wines. The two-hour, four-course experience is offered at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on Thursday through Monday for $160/per person.
Reservations can be made online.
What type of wine do you specialize in?
Joe Nielsen: Our winemaking team specializes in producing fine wine small-lot Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, with about ⅓ of the fruit coming from our 28-acre estate vineyard in Sonoma’s Carneros AVA. The remaining fruit is sourced from hidden gem vineyards located throughout Sonoma County, including Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. In addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, we also produce exciting bottlings from Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Grenache, and high-altitude Cabernet Sauvignon. Over the last four years, we have worked to home in on our vineyard sourcing contracts to create unique bottlings representative of their site.
Favorite Food and Wine Pairing?
Joe Nielsen: Hard to settle on a favorite wine truly. With that being said, I really enjoy our current seasonal pairing at Ram’s Gate Winery that our Chef Ruby Oliveros recently did with our 2018 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyard. She paired an oyster in miso broth with the 2018 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyard from Ram’s Gate and it is truly one of the most interesting and compelling pairings I have tasted.
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?
Joe Nielsen: In the past four years we have taken significant steps to elevate the winemaking program at Ram’s Gate. We have introduced a variety of practices in the cellar including whole cluster fermentation with the Pinot Noir and Syrah and native fermentation in our estate wines.
We have also developed new partnerships with small-production, family-owned coopers in France, increasing cooperage variety in the cellar by over 120%.
In the process of developing new vineyard partnerships that express unique points of view, we have added a new single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a single-vineyard Syrah and a Sonoma Coast Rosé to the portfolio.
We also launched the Ram’s Gate Cellar Note series—individual bottlings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Rhône red blend and Cabernet Sauvignon that express the best representation of the vintage for each variety, creating wines as a lens into the cellar, while allowing the winemaking team to experiment with new techniques and vineyard sources.
All together, the wines we are producing today are the best they have ever been, and we intend to continue to push the envelope on what a winery experience can be: always curious, always exploring, always improving.
How did you get started in the wine industry?
Joe Nielsen: I got my start in winemaking in an unexpected place: the backyard of my parents’ home in Lansing, Michigan.
In 2003, I enrolled at Michigan State University with the intention of studying pre-med but soon after I started, the school introduced an exploratory winemaking program, which sparked my interest. However, because I was underage, I was not yet permitted to apply.
In the meantime, I began researching viticulture and with my parents’ blessing, I planted an experimental vineyard in their 20-acre backyard.
After that, I continued to lobby to enter the university’s winemaking program, and impressed by my perseverance, the faculty eventually granted my request. In 2007, I graduated from the program with a B.S. in Horticulture and accepted a position as winemaking assistant at Black Star Farms in Northern Michigan before moving to Sonoma and spending nearly a decade at Donelan Family Wines.
Now 18 years later I am the general manager and winemaker at Ram’s Gate.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process?
Joe Nielsen: I’m constantly learning and intend to keep it that way.
I have three lessons that I think motivate me on a daily basis.
The first is something I learned early on from my professor at Michigan State University. Ask the unquestioned answer. I have forgotten a lot of what I learned in undergrad, but that statement continues to energize my journey through winemaking on a daily basis.
This essentially means, don’t take things for granted just because people do it because they were told to do it many years ago, perhaps there is a different way to do it, or not do it entirely. Winemaking is often about observation and patience.
The second lesson is, be patient. As a winemaker we are taught how to make wine and our title suggests that we must do something. What I learned very early on is that if you do your due diligence in the vineyard, work with great sourcing, are thoughtful to the process of making wine, most things in the wine will resolve themselves, given an appropriate amount of time. With this knowledge, it doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention, it is quite the opposite.
However, to me it means that we are trying to craft something timeless, and a great wine deserves the time it requires. We often allow our wines to mature on their lees, do numerous blending trials before acting, and are willing to adjust the aging window of our wines if we feel they will be better as a result.
Lastly, the lesson I have learned that is the most rewarding is that knowing and not sharing is not a gift at all. I have been fortunate enough to have great teammates both at Ram’s Gate and prior.
One of my most favorite things to do is teach the next in line. Winemaking is a lot of work however it is shared best with those who aspire to do the same. I didn’t know this getting into winemaking, but it is certainly one of the joys of the profession.
Describe your winemaking approach.
Joe Nielsen: We approach winemaking to showcase the complete picture of what a given vineyard is able to accomplish.
We have been extremely selective in reducing and focusing the winery’s vineyard partnerships, choosing only vineyards that express a unique point of view. As we enter a new era of winemaking excellence, we are introducing a new perspective on a retro wine style that I find restrained, yet full of energy.
In crafting wines, I am inspired by Burgundy, but we embrace the strength of the California sun.
Our process is about intentional decision-making to capture the right balance of acid, tannin, richness and body, without pulling too much in any one direction.
What do you love about winemaking?
Joe Nielsen: Every single part. Winemaking and running a wine business is so diverse that I relish in every aspect. Some aspects are more interesting than others, but they are part of a large puzzle that I love to solve each year.
Do you have any winery traditions with your team?
Joe Nielsen: Winemaking is ultimately about tradition, if you do something more than once it has a tendency of likely becoming a tradition.
In a cyclical business, like harvesting grapes, we have a ton! One of my favorite traditions tend to revolve around harvest. Outside of SOPs and protocols that I have developed over the year so is the method of how we must enjoy harvest.
This includes providing our winemaking team lunch daily, which often includes a mystery wine. Early in my career this was engrained in me. If we want our future winemakers (interns) to think about what it takes to make great tasting wine, we must surround them in great tasting things.
So, lunch becomes a ritual of unwinding, breaking bread and learning about the world of wine. To cap off each harvest, a tradition I also love is hunting down the best birth-year wine for each of my cellar team.
I have gone with different themes or trying to globetrot my way around our team with wines from Italy, France, Germany, US, etc.
Selfishly, I love old wine and it’s a great way for me to be both the educator and the student.
How does your team help you as a winemaker?
Joe Nielsen: Since joining the team as Director of Winemaking in 2018, I have reinvigorated the winery’s production team by hiring Orrin Oles as assistant winemaker and Rachel Bordes as enologist.
Orrin came to Ram’s Gate after nearly a decade at renowned Sonoma producer William Seylem and he brings extensive knowledge both in the cellar, and in all aspects of fine wine, as he works alongside me to produce premium small-lot wines from the finest sites in Sonoma County.
We also work closely together with Rachel as she oversees all wine production across the lab, cellar and in the vineyards. Rachel originally joined the team as a harvest intern in 2020, but quickly proved to be a tremendous asset to the Ram’s Gate winemaking team and quickly rose to cellar technician before being promoted to enologist in 2022.