Thirty minutes into my tour, Ram's Gate is still a riddle. The where of it, I'd found. Perched upon a hill overlooking Infineon Raceway and the hay fields of the Carneros, it occupies the former spot of Roche Winery, whose juniper topiary sign served as a landmark, at least in memory. Under the outwardly modest, dusky peaks of the winery is a scene of rustic opulence: Fireplaces blaze away at mid-day, ceilings soar, and a bevy of staff welcome from every corner. The impression is that I've stumbled upon an executive retreat. No reservations required.
The how: A group of investors headed by Jeff O'Neill, who manufactures fountains of wine outside of Fresno, enlisted a winemaker, interior designer and architect, all with buzz-worthy names. The presentation is stunning, the possibilities are endless, and the view, sweeping.
The why of it doesn't click until I open the menu. Seven wine selections, sixteen food pairings. Eyeing the unpeopled demonstration kitchen, mistaking it for the production kitchen, I tentatively inquire, "So, can I order anything from this menu . . . now?"
The small plate menu is comprehensive, outdoing local restaurants: oysters prepared three enticing ways ($10), a charcuterie board ($17); chanterelle and goat cheese tart, served with a detailed side salad ($12); Carneros lamb albondigas, five meatballs swimming in rich, flavorful mole ($12). There's short-rib for the Cabernet and crispy cured pork belly, seared gulf shrimp or nicoise salad for the Chardonnay. Oh, and wine . . .
One could spend a satisfactory afternoon with just a flute or two of the creamy, nonvintage Brut ($22), a sparkling with top-shelf airs. The 2009 Red Label Sonoma County Chardonnay ($30) is unabashedly fashioned in the big, buttery, and woody style; while the nominally sweet, racy 2010 California Moscato ($22) refreshes the palate.
A gulp of black cherry over a haze of smoke, the 2009 Red Label Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($36), aims not for subtlety, but pure fun; while the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir, with potpourri and orange peel, has an unusual profile of furry tannins. With hints of leather over a singular, vanilla-black cherry aroma, the 2008 Syrah, Parmalee-Hill Vineyard ($52) is also a fruit-bomb pleasure.
Ram's Gate aims to be the place that wine country is often imagined to be, where friends linger over wine and food for hours, in the foreground of a magazine-cover view. If the vibe is more executive club than tasting room, consider that a positive development. For as little as six bucks for a glass of Moscato, you're in.
Ram's Gate Winery, 28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma.
Thursday–Monday 10am to 6pm; kitchen 11am to 5pm. 707.721.8700.