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08.02.2004

1999 Ridge "California Coast Range", Santa Cruz Mountains

Mutts are some of the best dogs in my opinion, and while the same thing can't always be said about wines, sometimes a mutt can be quite tasty, yesterday's review is a case in point. Of course, the wine world has a more sophisticated term for these "mutt" wines. We call them meritage blends, and they seem to range in quality in California -- from wines that are clearly just invented to get rid of extra juice to sophisticated red blends that are in the spirit of French or Italian winemaking.

This wine is certainly a mutt wine if there ever was one, and I will leave it up to the reader to decide which end of the spectrum described above it falls on. Regardless of what it is trying to be, it's actually a pretty good value, and like the Borra wine reviewed yesterday, it's made in a style that I think is broadly accessible -- most people will like it.

Ridge, is of course, the 800 pound gorilla of Zinfandel winemaking in California. Reviled by some, loved by others, their portfolio includes hundreds of Zinfandels ranging from $12 wines available in grocery stores to $200 wines available only by mailing list. They also produce a few Rhone varietal wines, and 6 tons of marketing merchandise. Despite their mammoth size (replete with a CEO and other trappings of a big corporation) and ownership over two large vineyard sites (Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Lytton Springs in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County) Ridge does have a long and dedicated history as a vineyard.

Originally called Monte Bello Vineyards, the beginnings of Ridge's legacy started long before their purchase of the vineyards in 1962, as prospecting families had begun cultivating grapes in the area as early as 1849. Starting in the early Sixties, the founding partners of Ridge (who happened to be Stanford Research Institute scientists) decided to focus on one of the grapes planted by those early settlers: Zinfandel. Perhaps because of its history with the state, or perhaps because despite its presence in the US very little was known about where it came from, Paul Draper and the other founders set out to put Zinfandel on the map, and its pretty hard to argue about whether they succeeded. Until recently Zinfandel was the most widely planted grape in California and it was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing California to the world stage as a winemaking player. Ridge was a prime player in that time and in that history.

But back to this wine, which despite their large portfolio, is not a typical wine for Ridge. While they do produce some Rhone blends, this one is quite the mishmash of varietals: 22% Carignan, 20% Zinfandel, 20% Sangiovese, 15% Mourvedre, 8% Petit Sirah, 8% Barbera, and 7% Alicante Bouchet. If your first reaction is, "huh!?" you're not alone. While this wine could arguably be a tip of the hat to some traditions of Italian blended wines (i.e. super Tuscans) or to (I've recently learned some old French Bordelaise blends) its pretty much unique in the industry and even stranger than the Borra wine I reviewed yesterday.

Despite its odd heritage, its really pleasant to drink, and like the Borra, a terrific value.

Tasting Notes:
Dark ruby in the glass this wine's nose contains scents of blackberries, cassis, and figs, while on the palate it shows flavors of blackberry jam and strawberries. These fruit flavors are underscored by very light tannins and wrap up in a finish that has hints of English breakfast tea.

As further testament to why most of us will love this wine while most wine snobs will hold their nose, I give you the following quotes from Robert Parker:

"...a simple, monochromatic demeanor"
"...a monolithic personality. It is satisfying on a low-brow level."

Drink it. You will like it. And so will all my relatives who have branched out beyond blush wine in a box to start drinking Rancho Zabaco and Charles Shaw, but that doesn't make it a bad wine.

Food Pairing:
I actually had someone serve this to me over a dinner of Thai food and I was surprised at how well it went with those flavors. I would think it would go better with Mexican food than Thai, though. This may just be the long sought after "Burrito Wine" for people like me who aren't particularly big beer fans but wouldn't mind having something to drink with their burritos in the Mission. Does La Taqueria have a corkage fee ?

Overall Score: 8.5

How Much?: $16

This is a slightly smaller production wine for Ridge, so it may be a little harder to find than many of their mass market wines. Try your local gourmet grocery store or Wine Searcher online.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud