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“Fortuitous Find”

The story of Martin Ray Winery

By Lisa Gmur, CSW


When Courtney Benham stumbled upon 1500 cases of Martin Ray wine in a San Jose warehouse, it was a fortuitous find.

“My dad discovered this cache of old Martin Ray wines in 1990, so this was a few years before I was born. I remember hearing the full story when I was in high school. I really started learning about Martin Ray’s history when I began working in the business after college,” says Carson Benham, (Courtney’s son) and Director of National Accounts for Martin Ray.

The senior Benham was very familiar with the history behind the name. Martin Ray was a pioneer in California winemaking and made Burgundian style wines in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains from 1943 to 1972.

“The Martin Ray brand does indeed have a unique place in California winemaking history,” adds Carson. “As a winemaker,” he continues, “Martin Ray was one of the pioneers in the California wine industry, especially in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He was one of the first winemakers to produce single-varietal, single-vineyard wines at a time when most California wines were inexpensive, large-production blends. He essentially established the luxury tier in California.”

It was this historical significance and philosophy that really resonated with the senior Benham when he decided to purchase the brand, Martin Ray.

Pictured Left: Courtney Benham

In the heart of the Russian River Valley

Russian Rivery Valley

If you are wondering how Martin Ray ended up in the Russian River Valley? Well, it’s simple Benham was enamored with the Russian River winegrowing region, which is what initially led him there.

“He was looking for a new production facility after selling one of his wine brands, Blackstone,” adds Carson. “He loved the Russian River Valley and knew it would be the perfect place to grow a Pinot Noir-focused portfolio of brands.”

All he needed to do then, was find a new home for the winery. In 2003, he did just that. Courtney Benham discovered a 12-acre estate property in the Russian River Valley on the edge of Green Valley, where the new Martin Ray Winery would make its home.

Pictured Right: Carson Benham

family owned since 1943

“My first memory of the winery was around 2003-2004,” says Carson. “My twin brother Jack and I were playing hide and go seek in the old fermentation and barrel aging rooms. I remember the redwood fermentation tanks seeming giant, and the empty concrete vats looking like swimming pools. The smell of the cellars was also distinct and something I will never forget.”

The Martin Ray Winery is a pretty spectacular place. Even in the rain.  “I love how we have retained the historic character of the property while modernizing it over the years. “

Today, grapes for this iconic brand hail from throughout California’s coastal wine growing region. “The wines are from specific coastal growing regions of California such as Sonoma Coast, Napa Valley as well as our estate in the Russian River. These are terroir focused wines,” says winemaker Raemy Paterson.

“I am honored to be one of the winemakers who has had the privilege to make wine for his namesake. With such a rich history, it gives meaning to do what we do here every day. He was a pioneer for California winemaking and really put us on the map as far as being a serious growing region to compete with Europe.”

Winemaker Leslie Renaud agrees. “It’s a very rich history focusing on authentically made varietally correct wine. It is something we strive to continue. The history is the reason that we continue to make Santa Cruz Mountain wines, even though we are Russian River Valley based.”

Pictured Left: Located in the hub of the Russian River Valley, Martin Ray Winery is located on one of the oldest historical winery sites in California (established in 1881), known by its soaring water tower built in the 1940s.

Elevated hospitality experience; sophisticated wines.


This fact is pretty cool. “It’s one of the few destinations where visitors can experience wines from multiple regions across California, such as Russian River, Napa Valley and Santa Cruz Mountains.

Not many wineries in the Russian River Valley have such a wide variety of wines in their portfolio,” adds Carson, who was very lucky to grow up in such a special place. “Growing up around a winery was so much fun, until I was old enough to start doing manual labor around the property! All jokes aside, it was a great learning experience, taught me much needed work ethic, and surrounded me with so many people I consider family today.”

The hospitality at the winery is amazing.  A large indoor and outdoor space with wine and wood fired pizza makes a visit here, though out of the way, very much worth the trip. “Our hospitality team is world class,” adds Carson, “but also has a relaxed and humble approach to the experience we provide. We also have an amazing culinary program, which we showcase on the weekends though public and private events, and wine club parties. Our pizza is some of the best in the county!”

Pictured Right: Converted barrels into covered patio seats for wine tastings in the estate vineyards.

martin ray wines

Chardonnay, Sonoma/Monterey

Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma/Monterey

Pinot Noir, Sonoma/Monterey

Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County

honored tradition

There is so much history to the name Martin Ray, something the family and staff never forgets.

“We honor Martin Ray by continuing to offer single-varietal wines from some of the best vineyards in California. Our Santa Cruz Mountains program pays homage to his history as one of the founding members of the AVA, and we will continue to produce these wines. We also have a small planting of Clone 37 Pinot Noir, which was originally planted to Martin Ray’s estate, which is now Mount Eden. It’s an honor to carry his legacy, and they are some of our favorite wines!”

Pictured Left: Martin Ray Single Varietal AVA Series: Santa Cruz Mountain, Diamond Mountain District, and Stags Leap District Cabernets.