Ridge Vineyards: An American Wine Icon at 60

In 1968, a young Paul Draper was just beginning his career as a winemaker. After a brief stint making some wine in Chile, Draper returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and was introduced to some Stanford University scientists who had recently purchased an old vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“They gave me a bottle of their 1962 and their 1964 vintage to try, and they were two of the best California wines I’d ever had,” recalls Draper. “I thought to myself, ‘these guys aren’t even home winemakers, and here are two wines that are so incredible at a young age, they clearly have a climate and a soil that is going to allow me to be involved in making some really fine wines.’ That’s what pushed me over the line.”

Draper took the job in early 1969, and by the mid-1970s he had become a full partner in Ridge Vineyards, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For more than 5 decades since, Draper and his business partners have produced some of California’s best and most iconic wines, including what many consider to be the state’s single finest example of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Monte Bello Vineyard looking southeast down the Santa Cruz Mountains

A Diamond Jubilee for Wine

Ridge Vineyards was incorporated and re-bonded by its founders, David Bennion, Charles Rosen, Hewitt Crane, and Howard Zeidler in 1962. The winery they purchased had been built in 1892, and the Monte Bello vineyard that came along with it had originally been planted in 1886.

On the one hand, a lot has happened in the 60 years since its founding, but on the other, surprisingly little has changed at a winery that prides itself on what Draper calls “pre-industrial” winemaking.

Here are a few highlights from the last 60 years.

The winery’s 1971 California Cabernet Sauvignon came in 5th at the famed Judgment of Paris Tasting, beating Château Leoville Las Cases and all but one other California Cabernet. In a re-tasting of all the same wines in 2006, the Ridge wine took first place.

That original 1976 tasting put Ridge on the map, so to speak, ensuring consumer and critical attention from that point forward.

Ridge Vineyards on the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Ridge would expand slowly over the years, purchasing fruit from various vineyards around the state, and eventually buying two old-vine Zinfandel vineyards and a winery near Geyserville in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley in 1991. There it would establish its Lytton Springs tasting room and production facility, and preserve what Draper believed to be two of the finest old-vine field-blend vineyards in the state.

In 1987, Ridge was purchased by the Japanese Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co Ltd (parent company of Nature Made Vitamins and Crystal Geyser Water, among many others), which takes a largely hands-off approach to ownership, leaving Draper and his colleagues to manage the winery largely as they see fit.

That has meant producing a broad portfolio of varietal-specific and blended wines from around the state, crowned with three iconic wines: the Zinfandel-dominant blends of Lytton Springs and Geyserville, and the incomparable Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 2016 Draper stepped down as CEO and head winemaker. The CEO position was taken over by Mark Vernon, who joined in 1998 as General Manager and eventually became President and COO. Eric Baugher (who had been working alongside Draper since 1994) took over winemaking at Monte Bello. John Olney (who has been working at Ridge since 1996) took over winemaking at Lytton Springs.

In 2021, Olney was promoted to Head Winemaker, making way for the hiring in 2022 of Trester Goetting as lead winemaker for Monte Bello, and Shauna Rosenblum as lead winemaker for Lytton Springs. In a company where tenures are usually measured in decades, Goetting and Rosenblum represent dramatically youthful additions to the team.

Shauna Rosenblum and Trester Goetting

Despite the changes in the winemaking staff over the past 6 years, very little appears to have changed in the cellars. Indeed, if Draper and colleagues have done nothing else, they seem to have built an incredible culture of dedication to Draper’s particular style of winemaking—a style that languished in obscurity for decades before stepping into the spotlight under the newly trendy moniker of “non-interventionalist winemaking.”

Faith-Based Winemaking

“Paul calls it ‘pre-industrial’ winemaking,” says John Olney with a chuckle, “but I prefer the term ‘faith-based.’ Sometimes you stand there and you have to just keep telling yourself that it’s going to work out OK.”

Early on in his tenure at Ridge, Draper settled on an approach to winemaking that has fundamentally remained unchanged for nearly six decades.

Grapes are farmed sustainably, and organically if at all possible. They are hand-harvested and processed gently. They ferment with native yeasts, sometimes in steel, sometimes in wood, almost entirely without the addition of enzymes, yeast nutrients, or any of the many such additives commonly used in the winemaking process. The wines are blended and aged according to the palates of the winemaking team, who carefully and regularly taste the wines throughout their development in the cellar. If fining is ever done, it is done with egg whites, but most wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.

Ridge has also become known for a devotion to aging its wines in primarily American oak (as opposed to the much more common French barrels) as well as for its insistence on transparency in the form of ingredient labeling. Since 2011, the winery has been including text on its labels in some variation of the following: Hand-harvested, sustainably grown estate grapes; indigenous yeasts; naturally occurring malolactic bacteria; 2.4% water addition; calcium carbonate; oak from barrel aging; minimum effective SO2.

In a state where the addition of tartaric acid to red wines has become extremely common, the limestone soils of the Monte Bello vineyard often yield wines with such low pH that the winery sometimes needs to add calcium carbonate to reduce acidity.

The 19th-century redwood cellar at Ridge Vineyards

Draper says he tried to convince the authorities to allow him to include ingredients on his labels as early as the 1990s, but received a significant amount of pushback, and gave up. In 2007, fellow Santa Cruz Mountains winemaker Randall Grahm persuaded the government to allow him to list ingredients on his labels and paved the way for Ridge to begin doing so a few years later.

Lousy Chemistry

Draper says knew he wanted to be a winemaker at age 16. “I was thinking that after Stanford I would go on to study winemaking at UC Davis,” says Draper, “but I was abysmal at Chemistry and knew I couldn’t do it.”

When he finally got the opportunity to make wine, Draper was entirely self-educated about the process.

“In 1958, all the great wines of the world could be had for almost nothing,” recalls Draper. “The 1945 First Growths were selling for about $20 a bottle. It was a dream. Those wines became my teachers in lieu of Davis.”

The newer cellar building at Ridge

Draper was also drinking the earliest post-prohibition wines from Napa and Sonoma. “Inglenook, BV—those were the best examples at the time—but I realized that they were not as complex and didn’t age as well as the Bordeaux. They just weren’t as interesting. And so I realized that something was going on here, and I got to looking back at the techniques that had made these [Bordeaux] wines.”

Draper had access to two 19th-century texts on winemaking, one of which had been translated to English by the official viticultural organization in California around the turn of the century.

“For me, those two books were the heart of the matter,” says Draper. “We looked at what they were doing between 1850 and 1890 and said, ‘Let’s do this.'”

The Next 60 Years

Like many fine wine producers, Ridge continues to grapple with the increasingly chaotic climate in its most extreme forms. In 2020 fires in Napa, Sonoma, and the Santa Cruz Mountains resulted in some crop losses from smoke, but more prominently, changed maturation schedules as high-altitude smoke hampered photosynthesis. In 2021, a severe lack of moisture led to more than a 30% reduction in the crop at the Monte Bello vineyard, yielding the earliest and fastest harvest in the winery’s history. The 2022 vintage was marked by a massive autumn heat wave that shriveled grapes on the vines.

Unsurprisingly, as we sat together tasting back through six decades of the winery’s history, the discussion turned towards the future.

The core of the Ridge Vineyards team (L to R): Dave Gates, Shauna Rosenblum, Trester Goetting, Paul Draper, John Olney, Kyle Theriot, and Mark Vernon.

“In many ways, I think my challenge [as a new winemaker] is how to keep the wines true to their style in the face of climate change,” says Goetting. “How do we make a Monte Bello at 13.2% alcohol that is ripe and balanced, when you have 111˚ temperatures for three days in a row? They definitely didn’t have to deal with that in the 70s and 80s. I worry that our techniques are harder to pull off with what we’re given now.”

“We’re all dealing with climate change,” says Draper. “Having learned the lessons of ’21 and ’22, we’re asking ourselves can we do even better in ’23 whatever it gives us? We carry that forward and continue to learn.”

Draper’s legacy as one of California’s greatest winemakers remains unassailable, and the culture of excellence that he and the rest of the team at Ridge have built continues to result in world-class wines, even in the face of considerable adversity.

A sixty-year track record of extraordinary wines made with integrity and vision suggests that if any winery might continue to triumph in the face of whatever the future brings, it might be Ridge.

The answer will come, vintage by vintage. For now, at least, we can look back on 6 decades and marvel at what is in the bottle.

One hell of a lineup

Tasting Notes

Most of the notes below were made a few weeks ago at a tasting held for a number of journalists at the Monte Bello winery. A couple of others come from a personal visit to Ridge I made in 2020.

The Chardonnays

2012 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells of lemon curd, pineapple, and a hint of toasted hazelnut. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and lemon peel flavors mix with cold cream and a touch of pineapple. Excellent acidity and a nice silky texture. Most vines range from 25-30 years of age, with some younger replanted vines mixed in. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.

2007 Ridge Vineyards Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Medium to dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of butterscotch and lemon candy. In the mouth, butterscotch and lemon candy, acacia, and candied orange flavors are persistent and long in the mouth with a crystalline character. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $150.

2006 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
A light, bright, sunny yellow in the glass, this wine smells of honey, lemon curd, and butterscotch. In the mouth, bright lemon curd and butterscotch flavors mix with lemon peel and white flowers. Wonderfully salty and tasty, with excellent acidity. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $??

1997 Ridge Vineyards “Santa Cruz Mountains” Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of dried citrus peel, acacia honey, and candied lemon. In the mouth, candied lemon, acacia honey, and chamomile flavors lean towards the yellow flowers and dried herbs. Excellent acidity and length. 14.4% alcohol. Storms blowing through delayed Chardonnay picking until October during this vintage. Score: between 9 and 9.5.

The Zinfandel Field Blends

2009 Ridge Vineyards “Geyserville” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of dusty roads, cedar, and dried cherries. In the mouth, gorgeous acidity makes dried cherries, forest floor, licorice, and other dried berries quite juicy. Billowy, powdery tannins have an ethereal texture. A blend of 74% Zinfandel, 7% Carignane, 6% Petite Sirah, 2% Alicante Bouschet, and 1% Mataro. 14.3% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

2009 Ridge Vineyards “Lytton Springs” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of licorice, cedar, and forest floor. In the mouth, licorice flavors lounge under a billowy silky parachute cloth of tannins, with juicy blackberry, black plum, and cocoa powder flavors lingering in the finish. Smooth and delicious. A blend of 71% Zinfandel, 23% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.

1999 Ridge Vineyards “Geyserville” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor and a bit of bacon fat. In the mouth, luscious cherry, blackberry, cedar, and meaty flavors have so much gorgeous foresty herbal-floral saline goodness it makes you nearly want to cry. Cocoa powder and rhubarb swirl through the finish. Bloody gorgeous. A blend of 68% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, and 16% Petite Sirah. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $140. click to buy.

1999 Ridge Vineyards “Lytton Springs” Red Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
Dark ruby in color with a hint of orange at the rim, this wine smells of licorice, forest floor, and wet redwood bark. In the mouth, juicy dried cherries, chocolate-chocolate-chocolate, roasted figs, licorice, and forest floor notes are backed by licorice root and notes of candied fennel seeds in the finish. Spectacular. 70% Zinfandel and mixed blacks, 10% Carignane and 3% Mataro. 17% Petite Sirah. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $100.

A vine in the Monte Bello vineyard accompanied by the 1971 label of the wine that went to the Paris Tasting.
The Incomparable Monte Bello

2010 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Red Blend, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty road, cherry, sweet cedar, and hibiscus with just the barest hint of that coconut aroma of American oak. In the mouth, bright cherry and cedar flavors mix with forest floor earthiness and this bright singing sour cherry rhubarb brightness that just vibrates with gloriousness. This is in incredible shape. Incredibly long, supple, pliable tannins. Utterly majestic. A blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 4% Petite Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. 13.2% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $325. click to buy.

1997 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of green herbs, cherry, and bright fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry and plum fruit mix with chopped green herbs, a touch of red apple and plum skin, gorgeous soaring aromatics, and incredibly fine tannins. Hints of citrus peel in the finish, dried flowers, and herbs. Elegant, juicy, mouthwatering, and positively riveting. If this were my bottle you’d have to pry it from my cold dead fingers. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 10. Cost: $500. click to buy.

1995 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark garnet in the glass but headed towards ruby, this wine smells of pine duff and chopped herbs. In the mouth, chopped green herbs, forest floor, beautiful velvety tannins, cocoa powder, dried cherries, licorice root, and earth flavors all swirl about the palate. The wine finishes with dusty incense and herbal gorgeousness. Excellent acidity. Outstanding. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $420. click to buy.

1993 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Very dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and chopped green herbs. In the mouth, the wine is tight, and a little compressed, with fine-grained muscular tannins, with cherry and dried herbs. There’s a stony note here, with the tannins still tight. Excellent. This was a particularly challenging vintage, in which Draper likes to note that Dominus Estate in Napa opted not to make wine for lack of natural acidity in its fruit. Interestingly, Draper recalls this vintage having the highest acidity of any vintage at Monte Bello. 12.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.

1984 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells alluringly of bacon fat and forest floor with intense, deep aromas of garrigue and pencil lead or shaved graphite. In the mouth, beautifully variegated dried herbs, forest floor, dried cherry, and cedar flavors swirl across the palate in a savory, ethereal stream. Fantastic acidity, along with a faint saline quality, kicks the saliva glands into overdrive as billowing velvety tannins cushion the whole sumptuous feast of flavor in a warm embrace. Simply stunning. 93% Cabernet, 7% Merlot. 12.9% alcohol. Score: around 10. Cost: $??. click to search

1977 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Medium to dark brick in color with a light haze, this wine smells of red apple skin, cherry, cedar, and potpourri. In the mouth, gorgeously bright acidity accompanies flavors of redwood bark, dried cherry, and dried herbs, with muscular, grippy tannins that flex their strength through the finish. Dried herbs and some wet pavement emerge in the finish as well. Beautiful, elegant, and poised. A remarkable 11.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $?? . click to search.

1972 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Dark ruby in the glass with brick at the rim, this wine smells of slightly funky barnyard aromas mixed with cherry, cedar, and dried herbs. In the mouth, powdery tannins mix with flavors of river mud, cocoa powder, dried herbs, and a touch of dried citrus peel and wet steel. There’s something slightly off about this bottle, but three opened bottles all shared the same character. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

1964 Ridge Vineyards “Monte Bello” Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Medium crimson in the glass, this wine smells of dried berries, cedar, raspberry, and dried herbs. With time a gorgeous mushroomy forest floor emerges from the glass. In the mouth, gorgeously bright berry, cedar, dried herbs, and dried citrus peel flavors swirl in a technicolor melange of incredible flavor. Amazing acidity and faint tannins still with some grip. Fantastically fresh, bright, with a soaring herbal briskness. This wine predates Paul Draper, and was in fact the wine that convinced him to take the job at Ridge. He figured if a bunch of guys in their garage who knew nothing about winemaking could make a wine like this, he ought to be able to really do something with it. Current Head Winemaker John Olney confided to me, sotto voce, that this is the best bottle of this specific wine he has ever, or likely will ever experience. It’s in unbelievable shape. 11.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10.

The man, the myth, the legend:winemaker Paul Draper, still sharp at 86 years old.