If 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.
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.
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.