As Ridge Vineyards celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, it's important to remember the winery's humble beginnings. In 1959, three Stanford Research Institute engineers bought land on the Monte Bello Ridge, 2,600 ft high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The property, meant to be a getaway from city life in the Silicon Valley, was easy to name given its location. Only the sky above, and coincidentally, the San Andreas fault below. Vines were planted and small batches made, but it wasn't until ten years later, the real history of Ridge began.
In 1969, the owners, having made the life-changing decision to dedicate their time and energy to making serious wine, hired Paul Draper as winemaker, although he had no formal training. What they loved about Paul was his love of wine, his ability to read French winemaking manuals in French, and hold his own in any conversation. Whatever the reason behind his acquisition, I think they would agree it was the smartest decision these very intelligent men ever made.
Over the next few years, Ridge continued to not only grow as a company, but it literally helped to put California Cabernet Sauvignon on the world map. At the famous blind tasting, Judgement of Paris in 1976, the Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon came in a surprising 5th place. During the thirty-year reenactment in 2006, the Ridge Monte Bello came in an astonishing 1st place. This wine deserves not only a place next to a First-Growth Bordeaux five times its cost, but it also surpasses it.
Now 86 years old and still working at Ridge, Paul Draper has enjoyed many accolades over the years- most in regard to the Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. What amazes me as a sommelier is his never-ending passion for the Zinfandel grape! He has catapulted this grape to standards higher than any other winemaker I've experienced, and my journey with Ridge Cellars is relatively young at 20 years. This might be the thing I appreciate most about Draper. He could rest on his laurels and let his awards from making Cabernet Sauvignon tell his story. Instead, he preaches the power of Zinfandel. He creates beautiful white wines from Chardonnay and even the obscure Grenache Blanc. This love of his craft is why this month I will celebrate Paul Draper and his team.
1. Ridge Vineyards, "Pagani Ranch," Zinfandel,
Sonoma Valley, Ca 2020- $49.99
Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, wrote in her blog, "Winespeed," Ridge Vineyards produces the "best Zinfandel in the country." To quote my favorite childhood movie, Clue, this is both true and misleading. Their Zinfandels today are pure enjoyment in a glass, but this is nothing new for the team at Ridge. Growing Zinfandel is where their story began, and they have enjoyed relationships with growers for decades, allowing them access to only the best fruit. Since 1991, Ridge has bottled a Pagani Ranch Zinfandel, sourced from vines over 100 years old. Meticulously cared for by a fourth-generation family, these Zinfandel vines are older than the California wine movement Ridge helped to create.
This wine bursts with dark fruits- blueberry, plum, and blackberry compote great you straight out of the glass. After the initial injection of fruit, the structure and depth reveal a long finish not given to many Zinfandels. It is both instant gratification and shows its ability to age.
2. Ridge Vineyards, "Estate- Monte Bello Vineyard," Chardonnay,
Santa Cruz Mountains, Ca 2019- $59.99
Ridge has made an estate Chardonnay since 1962, but this varietal is also one of the last to be planted. How can that be? Originally, the team bottled a Monte Bello Estate Chardonnay sourced from mature vines planted in the 1940's by the previous owner. These bottles were primarily meant only for the tasting room, as the vines yielded very little fruit. As the decades went by, these old vines produced less and less, and Ridge planted new vines in the 1970's. These grapes were used to make a separate Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay. Once the old vine Monte Bello fruit went into disuse, the all-encompassing Estate Chardonnay label returned.
This luscious white wine showcases notes of honeysuckle, lemon custard, green apple, and a hint of pineapple on the finish. Using whole-cluster grapes, the team isn't afraid to barrel ferment, implementing both American and French oak, and then aging the wine in barrels for fourteen months. The weight is solid on the palate, and again, this wine can age for decades.
3. Ridge Vineyards, "Three Valleys," Red Blend
Sonoma County, Ca 2020- $29.99
Looking at the front label of a Ridge wine bottle, you will notice the exact percentages of each varietal used each vintage. When blending these red wines, the team is in search of a particular flavor or taste profile, rather than relying on a single vineyard or varietal. For a winery rooted in single vineyard success, this may seem like going against the grain; however, it is both brilliant and necessary to survive.
Even before climate change, drastic weather, pests, and the advancement of mankind have all threatened the vines' life cycle. Today, warmer temperatures can lead to an early budbreak. If frost sets in soon after, vineyards can lose some to all of the spring buds and a heavy percentage of the future crop. Rain patterns are unpredictable. Hail can knock young grape bunches right off of the vine. What is a winemaker to do? Hedge his bets.
Using different varietals in varying amounts, a winery can achieve a flavor consistency without interventionist means. Last year's star varietal may be short this year. No problem. Less can be more using an "assemblage" method.
This Three Valleys Red Blend is Eagle for the course. Using the beloved Zinfandel as the base of this wine, the additional varietals add character, like a personality. It is dark, brambly, juicy and a fabulous introduction to their wines.
4. Ridge Vineyards, "Adelaida Vineyard,"
Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles, Ca 2021- $45.99
There is no arguing the California connection. Ridge is very proud of their success and the indelible mark they have made on the California wine industry. They are also excited to explore varietals steeped in French history, such as the Rhone Valley's Grenache Blanc.
Planted thirteen miles from the coast, the Adelaida Vineyard is rewarded with warm days, cool nights, and limestone soil which ensure bright fruit and lively acidity. I like to explain the flavors of this grape in this way- imagine if a Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling had a baby. All of the bright citrus tart of the Sauvignon Blanc with the tropical fruit and minerality of a Riesling. It pairs perfectly with most foods and is a delight to sip just to enjoy.
5. Ridge Vineyards, "Estate- Monte Bello Vineyard,"
Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, Ca 2018- $74.99
I like to think of Ridge Vineyards as an enigma- an example of tradition and innovation simultaneously. Draper calls their approach to winemaking "pre-industrial," meaning additives and manipulations would only mask the wines' true character. Instead, they farm organically, using cover crops and manure to fertilize the soil. Each grape bunch is hand-picked and subjected to only native yeasts to begin the fermentation process. A writer once asked Draper the most important device in making wine- he answered, "the wine glass."
Ridge Vineyards is also incredibly forward thinking in the path of winemaking. Just as they list the percentages of each varietal on the front label, they also include a list of all ingredients on the back wine label- a practice Draper is surprised others haven't followed. Being transparent with wine drinkers signifies their respect for the land and the consumer.
The Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon drinks like this dichotomy. It is a blend of the most fruit forward, early ripened blocks of the vineyard. It is meant to be more open, transparent if you will, similar to their techniques; however, don't be fooled. This bottle will only begin to reveal its true nature after hours of decanting or years in bottle. It may be forward...but it is not easy.
At first taste, this Cabernet Sauvignon reminds you why we respect the Ridge. Dark, brooding notes of cassis, black cherry, and spice intertwine with layers of tannin, acid, and forest floor. It is a perfect balance of fruit, structure, and sense of place.
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