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03.27.2008

2004 Ridge Vineyards "Monte Bello" Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains

As Paul Draper was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame a couple of weeks ago in a ceremony at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, his acceptance speech offered a simple exhortation to members of the wine industry in attendance: make great wines for yourself and for no one else. His suggestion that winemakers follow their own vision instead of chasing the critics or the appeal of the masses (though he did montebello04.jpgacknowledge that selling wine is important, too) was backed up by the quite confidence of a man who has been doing that for more than forty years.

A philosophy major in college, Draper spent time in the Army in Italy before a stint in the peace corps in Chile during the early sixties along with a college buddy named Fritz Maytag, who would end up making his own name in beer and in wine as the owner of the Anchor Steam Brewery and York Creek Vineyards. Together, Draper and Maytag began their first, self-taught forays into the world of winemaking with grapes from a local vineyard.

These early experiments would prove formative in many ways, and when Draper returned to the U.S. his focus was entirely on winemaking, and by 1969 he had reconnected with a group of engineers from the Stanford Research Institute that years before had purchased an old winery and vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains formerly known as Monte Bello.

The Stanford connection aside, in just a few short years Draper had taught himself an extraordinary amount about winemaking, and was an appealing candidate for the position of head winemaker at his friends' winery, which they had dubbed Ridge Vineyards.

Despite the prodigious task of modernizing a winery that was essentially still operating out of an antiquated facility, Draper also set to work making his first commercial wine. To say that his first efforts were notable might be understating the case. When a young man named Stephen Spurrier organized what would be the most famous tasting in the modern history of wine a few years later, one of the wines he chose to represent California was a 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon -- merely Draper's third vintage as a winemaker and the only red wine from outside the already famous Napa Valley growing region.

In what has become known as the 1976 Judgment of Paris, the 1971 Monte Bello placed fifth amongst the red wines, which meant it was effectively forgotten as Warren Winiarski's Stags' Leap Cabernet stunned the world by beating out the Bordeaux First Growths.

30 years later, Draper would need no affirmation of his talents or accomplishments, having established Monte Bello as one of California's most distinctive Cabernets and along the way re-introducing America to the Zinfandel grape. But in 2006, Draper's 1971 Monte Bello again came before the Judgment of Paris -- conducted again with bottles of the original wines in celebration of the original event -- and this time the Monte Bello was the clear winner, having held up better over the intervening three decades better than even Draper could have imagined, and significantly better than every other red wine present.

California has no concept of First Growths, but should we take the unadvisable step of codifying some of the greatest wines in the state, Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon would certainly be among the candidates. Anyone who has tasted this wine will understand the amusing irony that accompanies this fact, for Monte Bello is quite unlike many other California Cabernets. From its origins on the windy, fog buffeted ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to its medium-bodied, low alcohol, claret-style winemaking, this wine is its own creature, through and through.

About 2500 cases of Monte Bello are made every year, from grapes grown in the estate vineyard. It is a blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, and 3% Cabernet Franc, made in typical Draper style (though the chief winemaker is now Eric Baugher, overseen by Draper). The grapes are destemmed but not crushed, and are fermented with native yeasts, and some of the wine (about 66%) ages for five months on the lees. In total the wine ages for about 18 months in 92% air-dried American Oak, and 8% new French oak. The final blend is assembled through several tasting sessions before bottling, which took place in April of 2006.

Its particular qualities of crisp fruit and flavor aside, I think what impresses me most about Monte Bello every time I taste it is the sheer, understated individuality it expresses. This is a wine that is the opposite of showy, the antithesis of impressive. Yet it never fails to satisfy, whether tasted just prior to its official release, as this bottle was, or after many years of patience.

Tasting Notes:
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has an elegant, poised nose of cedar, cherry, and earth aromas. In the mouth it is bright and juicy with excellent acidity and a clean, claret style that lets flavors of cherry, cedar, and wet stones resonate like a plucked guitar string. Beautifully, even musically balanced, this wine resonates beautifully into a long, satisfying finish.

Food Pairing:
I'd love to try this wine with a cocoa and spice slow roasted pork with onions.

Overall Score: 9/9.5

How Much?: $125

This wine is available for purchase online.

Comments (6)

750 mL wrote:
03.28.08 at 9:15 PM

I like this wine so much, I put it in my bio. Great info in the write-up, Alder.

03.29.08 at 11:44 PM

Hey Alder!
How cool I have known Fritz for years first met him in the seventies when he came to buy Aston Martin parts from a friend that owned rights to pre-1960 Aston parts for the US. He came driving up in a DB4 with 8000 miles and asked if he could trade beer for parts. Next week my friend Ken had a stack of Anchor Steam that reached the roof of his garage! Later when the beer club I belonged to won brew club of the year in Colorado ten years running we would go to AS for a dinner he sponsored for the national winners in SF. Wow I did not know he owed York I have some bottles so close i could kick them! I am a member of all Ridge's clubs too, my only club at the moment, I get so many free bottles! Great article!

carlos Serafim wrote:
03.31.08 at 9:27 AM

Hey, could you clarify the statement about the wines not being crushed? How is the juice extracted? Is it by its' own weight?

Alder wrote:
03.31.08 at 10:15 AM

Carlos,

When you're going to ferment a big bunch of grapes, you can squash them all first, or you can do what is known as "whole berry" or "whole cluster" fermentation where you simply dump all the berries into a big vat and they start fermenting inside and outside of the skins. In this process many of them break and juice gets sqeezed out, so what you get in the vat is a combination of juice and berries and loose skins. In the course of the fermentation, and the inevitable mixing/punching down that you do to circulate the skins amongst the juice for color extraction, most berries get broken open in the process. Which gives you a nice soupy mess at the end of fermentation that you first simply let the juice flow out of (i.e. "free run juice") and then when all that juice has run off, then you have the option of pressing the remaining mush to extract more juice. I don't know whether Monte Bello is 100% free run, or if they have a particular pressing regimen. If they're like many wineries, they may use only the free run for their top cuvee, and then use the press juice for blending in other wines.

slaked wrote:
04.10.08 at 1:15 PM

I recently tasted this wine, too. It's very young right now and tough to judge. Personally, I would give it 2 or 3 stars out of 4 depending on how it develops. It's a deep dusky purple, nearly opaque. A gorgeous perfume emanates from the decanter: cedar, evergreen, fresh meat and leather, and abundant charcoal smoke. there's a light spicy rush on the close, but the acidity is really hidden and overall the wine gives the impression of restraint. I hope this opens up soon and shows a little more fruit. I also tasted the 2003 recently, which is so delicious right now it's hard to not drink. This weekend I'll be tasting the 05, 06, and 07 at the California Wine Futures event in DC. Yay!

GuitarGuy wrote:
04.11.08 at 12:22 PM

As a long time Ridge ATP member and purchaser of Monte Bello futures, I am pleased to see MB getting its just reward as one of California's first growth cabs. My vertical stretches back to 1994 and my only dilemma is deciding when to drink my last bottles of those early vintages. I am a little dismayed by the fact that my original 1994 futures were $50/bottle and the 2006's were offered at $85/bottle but what hasn't nearly doubled in wine and gasoline in the last 11 years? Ridge clearly went through a tough period in the early 2000's, in part, I think, because of Paul's semi-retirement. However, they seem to be back on track and I look forward to exciting things based on that groundwork set by Draper nearly 40 years ago.

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