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Joe Nielsen Went from Aspiring Doctor to Winemaker

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

Joe Nielsen had his sights set on medical school when he was at Michigan State University, but the campus’ lush horticultural gardens distracted him. He didn’t want to be a farmer but instead he was drawn to the oenology program at MSU. Unfortunately, at age 17, he wasn’t old enough to enroll in a program focused on making alcohol. While he waited for his 21st birthday, he asked his parents if he could plant a vineyard on their property just outside of Lansing.

“Mom said ‘go for it,’” he said. And that was the inauspicious beginning of a winemaking career.

Nielsen has come a long way since nurturing French hybrid grapes in his parents’ back yard. After the professors caved and let him enroll in the oenology class, he moved to California with an internship at Merryvale Vineyards in Napa Valley and later at Donelan Family Wines where he became a cellar master at age 23 and then winemaker at 28. His medical career took a back seat.

Today, Nielsen is attracting a lot of attention as winemaker at Ram’s Gate, where we recently caught up with him. He introduced a holistic approach to farming in this Carneros AVA to get the best use of soils and water needs. Organic farming is the foundation of creating ideal vineyards that produces better grapes and ultimately better wines.

“These vineyards have their own heartbeat,” he said. “After working with them, I’m able to capture their great personalities while also abiding by our own set of rules – higher acids, lower alcohol, fruit friendly a timeless style that exists throughout Europe.”

Ram’s Gate has a variety of wines, many on a premium level, but Nielsen said he’s still building the portfolio.

“I approach it like we’re making an album. A great musician is not a one-hit wonder. It’s way more gratifying to listen to a collection,” he said.

  • Ram’s Gate Berler Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($115). Using grapes from high-elevation vineyards, Nielsen has crafted a textured wine with effusive black cherry notes and hints of tobacco, chocolate and spice.

  • Ram’s Gate El Diablo Chardonnay 2018 ($70). Lasting citrus flavors with some apricot notes and a soft mouthfeel.

  • Ram’s Gate Carneros Estate Pinot Blanc 2019 ($38). One of the underrated grape varieties on the West Coast, pinot blanc delivers a lot of fresh pear notes, floral aromas and soft mouthfeel. A great alternative to chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.


Undoubtably one of the more obscure appellations in France is Cornas, located in the Northern Rhone Valley.

In a recent column we wrote about the more widely known of the Northern Rhone appellations and ignored the smallest red wine appellation, Cornas. In a stroke of luck, we recently met with Jeffrey Feinberg, president of Citadel Trading Corp., who imports Alain Voge Cornas.

Alain Voge recently died at age 81 and we’re sorry to have not met him after tasting his wines. We tasted two wines from the even more obscure Saint-Peray region.

Cornas is the smallest of the red wine producing regions of Northern Rhone, where all of the red wines must be 100 percent syrah.

We were especially impressed with the Alain Voge Cornas Les Chailles 2018 ($55). Like all of Alain Voge wines, this one is from organically grown and biodynamically farmed grapes. Forty-year-old vines have produced a wonderful, drinkable Cornas that featured berry and gamey meat flavors with a whiff of floral notes. Classic old world Cornas.

We also tasted the Alain Voge Cornas Vieilles Vignes 2017 ($80). When they say old vines, they mean it. An average of 60-year-old vines produced the fruit in this wine. Berry notes and some enticing spiciness are apparent but in a more reticent presentation than the previous Cornas. Give this wine some serious time (5 years plus) to reveal its charms for a long life.

St Peray is immediately to the south of Cornas and only grows white grapes. Known primarily for sparkling white wine, they also produce a bit of still white wine from mostly marsanne and roussanne grapes.

In the 1800s Saint-Peray produced a highly prized sparkling wine that rivaled champagne, but fell out of favor when quality flagged after the arrival of the phylloxera disease. That early quality tradition is evident in the Alain Voge Saint-Peray Les Bulles d’Alain 2015 ($38) sparkling wine. Made entirely from marsanne and in the traditional champagne method, this bubbly is a dead ringer for a quality grower champagne. Yeasty with ripe fruit and citrus, this beauty was aged for 3 years on the lees and not exposed to any oak influences.


As we plunge into a new and hopefully better year, revelers will want to herald the occasion with bubbles. In previous columns, we have recommended champagne and California sparkling wine. But not everyone can afford their lofty prices. For those on a budget, prosecco strikes a bargain.

Made in the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions of northern Italy, prosecco has come a long way since the days it competed with Asti Spumante for sweetness. Proseccos are still off-dry, but their quality has improved in recent years. Unlike sparkling wine made anywhere else, prosecco leans mostly on the indigenous glera grapes.

If you insist on quality, look for prosecco designated by the villages of Conegliano, Valdobbiadene and Asolo. Those made by Adami are good examples.

Otherwise, look for the reasonably priced Ruffino, Mionetto and La Marca proseccos.

Wine picks

  • Flora Springs Soliloquy White Wine 2019 ($50). This is a mouthfilling white wine that presents a fruit bowl of scents and flavors. Citrus, pear, melon and fig all clamor for attention in this wonderful white wine than has an amazingly smooth mouth presence and finish. Sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and malvasia make an appearance along with some judiciously used French oak. Delightfully different.

  • Cartograph Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2017 ($45). A good value even at this price, the Cartograph has cherry and cinnamon aromas with black cherry, raspberry and dried herb flavors.

  • Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($60). A little bit of malbec, petit verdot and merlot join this floral, medium-body cabernet sauvignon that is bold yet approachable. Extracted blackberry and kirsch flavors with hints of tobacco and cocoa.

  • J. Lohr Hilltop Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($35). For 23 years this Paso Robles producer has been making this sure-fire hit from the best blocks of its Shotwell Vineyard. Lohr wines are known for their fruit-forward, juicy style and this one doesn’t disappoint. Black cherry and cassis flavors complement a generous, soft mouthfeel.

  • District 7 Monterey Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($18). Beautiful pineapple, peach and orange-peel notes with crisp acidity.

Photos of Joe Nielsen: credit to Dawn Heumann for the photos.

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