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07.24.2010

2008 Ridge Vineyards "Three Valleys" Red Blend, Sonoma County

ridge_three_valleys.jpgIf there's one thing about a winery that is likely to earn my immediate respect it is what you might describe as consistency of vision. Some of my favorite wineries not only make great wine, they have been making great wine in much the same way for decades, according to a deeply held philosophy that pervades everything they do.

This sort of conviction, married to excellent winemaking, is not as common in California as you might think, but there are few who could argue against Ridge Vineyards as one of the finest examples of such a fusion of skill and conviction.

The Ridge story begins in the earliest decades of winemaking history in California, when in 1885, Osea Perrone bought 180 acres of ridgetop land in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Carving out terraces into the rolling hilltops, he planted vines and constructed a winery which he named Monte Bello, and made his first vintage in 1892. After a couple of decades, the winery went the way of many California wineries under prohibition, and had to wait until 1940, when the property was purchased and replanted with, among other things, Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the early Sixties, a group of Stanford Research Institute scientists bought some fruit to make their own wine, and were so pleased with the results, that they bought the estate and rebonded the winery in time for the 1962 vintage. By 1969, the winery was producing about 3000 cases per year, and the original owners were joined by Paul Draper, the winemaker whose name has now become synonymous with Ridge Vineyards.

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 chance he managed to reconnect with his engineer friends from Stanford who just happened to be looking for a full-time winemaker. Draper was an excellent candidate. The Stanford connection aside, in just a few short years Draper had become a competent home winemaker and was an easy choice for the role.

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 real 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 included from outside the already famous Napa Valley growing region.

Since that tasting, the Monte Bello Cabernet has become one of the state's iconic wines, just as Ridge Vineyards has become one of California's classic wineries. With the addition of their Lytton Springs vineyard and production facility in Sonoma's Alexander Valley outside of Geyserville, the winery has established itself as a preeminent ambassador for both Sonoma County wines as well as the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation.

The Ridge Vineyards portfolio has long been focused on Zinfandel (the winery's first vintage being 1964) with a couple of Chardonnays and, of course, the famous Monte Bello and Estate Cabernets added to the mix. Ranging from $15, to $150, the wines are relatively easy to get ahold of, and each continues to evidence the dedication to quality that Draper has mantained for more than forty years.

The winemaking at Ridge has not changed much over the years, and emphasizes work in the vineyards as opposed to work in the cellar. Having said that, the winery tirelessly experiments with techniques to improve quality, whether that is trying new kinds of barrels or different yeast strains for fermentation. In a lesser winery, without the guiding hand of someone like Draper, this might result in wines that were all over the map from year to year. But at Ridge, these experiments aren't passed on to the customers, they are learning exercises for the winemaking team, and the successful techniques or technologies are adopted after years of tinkering, and only if they help Draper and his team get even closer to their ideals for their wine.

Ridge is relatively unique in its continued use of a large amount of American oak in its wines, in particular for the Monte Bello Cabernet, as opposed to the French oak that dominates California and most of Europe. Sometimes fermentation takes place with ambient yeasts, while others are innoculated. I have a great deal of respect for Draper's lack of dogma when it comes to winemaking. For him, it seems, quality and honesty win, and there is no specific formula that will always get there.

This particular wine is a wonderful example of what Ridge Vineyards is known for, and does best. Made from fruit picked in seven different vineyards around Sonoma County, it can be thought of as a quintessentially Sonoma wine, offering the broad flavors of the county, and a glimpse into the history of winemaking in the region. This historical connection comes from the broad blend of grapes that go into the wine, which mirror the old "mixed blacks" vineyards that the earliest Italian immigrants planted when they arrived. Harvested all at once to make what is today known as a field blended wine, these patchwork vineyards and the Vino Tinto they produced are an incredibly important part of the state's wine heritage.

This wine which debuted in the 2001 vintage, is a field blend only in spirit, as the lots that make up the wine are fermented separately before blending. No added yeasts are involved in fermentation, however, which takes place in stainless steel tanks. The wine is transferred to 100% American Oak barrels, of which about 33% are new, and after secondary fermentation, the wine ages for about 9 months before bottling.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis fruit. In the mouth the wine offers bright black cherry and cassis flavors wrapped in a blanket of faint velvety tannins. Chocolate and blackberry emerge on the finish. A blend of 74% Zinfandel, 11% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane, 4% Mourvedre, 3% Syrah, 3% Grenache. 14.2% Alcohol.

Food Pairing:
This is a very well balanced wine that will go with a wide variety of foods thanks to its good acidity. Anything grilled, from spring onions to lamb would be a great pairing, and if you've got anything with a hint of spice give it a go.

Overall Score: around 9

How Much?: $17.99

This wine is available for purchase online.

Comments (9)

Jason Haas wrote:
07.25.10 at 2:32 PM

Nice piece, Alder. I think you've hit on what makes Ridge so compelling: they know who they are, and they've been able to keep their team in place for long enough to communicate this philosophy successfully. I also love that they make great wines in both the relatively-expensive and really-quite-inexpensive price brackets, and that they've chosen to make wines in quantities and at prices to enjoy rather than using their successes to move into the "wines to collect and show off" sphere.

Overall, a true class act, and one that we try to keep in mind as an example.

Thanks,
-Jason

Tommy Powers wrote:
07.25.10 at 4:29 PM

Thanks Alder,
These wines are always as fine as any others in a tasting format. Draper continues to make extraordinary wines at very fair prices. I am glad to see that he did not engage in the shocking price escalation that surrounded so many California wineries over the last 15 years.

Mart S. wrote:
07.26.10 at 8:21 AM

I strongly agree with you, Tom. It's good that I know someone who appreciate their wines. Cheers!

07.26.10 at 10:01 AM

Greetings Alder!

First off, thank you so much for your wonderful review of our Three Valleys, and in fact, for your richly engaged presentation of Ridge Vineyards overall. It's a pleasure to read the words of someone who is clearly sympathetic to, understanding of, and philosophically in tune with, our particular set of aesthetics and methodologies. Speaking for myself, I consider it both an honor and a pleasure to be part of Ridge, and it's the qualities you note in your article that are a big part of why I wanted to be here.

If I may, however, I do want to add a bit of clarification. In your post, you write the following:

"...whether that is trying new kinds of barrels or different yeast strains for fermentation..."

-and-

"...Sometimes fermentation takes place with ambient yeasts, while others are innoculated..."

In fact, Ridge never adds cultured yeast strains, we only do "ambient" yeast fermentations. I wanted to note this, as this is a methodology that is a vital component in our over-arching philosophies.

Thank you again for your wonderful article, and please don't hesitate to contact me at any time.

Regards,

Christopher Watkins

Alder Yarrow wrote:
07.26.10 at 10:09 AM

Chris,

Thanks for the comments and the clarification. I thought I had heard a while back that under some conditions, fermentations are innoculated. I'm clearly mistaken.

07.26.10 at 10:58 AM

Another remarkable fact about Ridge is that despite being acquired by a large foreign corporation many years ago they've actually managed to increase quality! A rather dramatic departure from the norm.

07.26.10 at 3:59 PM

Not a problem at all Alder, and thank you for your comment. And cheers to all your readers for their kind comments as well!

Regards,

Christopher Watkins

07.26.10 at 9:19 PM

I appreciate the post, Alder. This is a wonderful tribute to one of this country's finest wineries. It is easy to forget that the Ridge Monte Bello 1971 was the second highest rated American red wine in the Judgment of Paris. And the Three Valleys is consistently a great wine and excellent value.

dave bowman wrote:
04.22.11 at 4:56 PM

the fist wine I ever really enjoyed was a Ridge Geyserville. I think of it as my gateway wine.

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