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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.

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