It's a scorching April first down below in Santa Clara's Silicon Valley, but a cool, stiff breeze churns the air as your car snakes up Monte Bello Road past the fog line and opens onto a view westward toward the Pacific Ocean. A few feet from the passenger's side door, the road's shoulder dives down sheer cliffs that look carved from a side of roast beef. It was up here that the pioneering planter of what is now Ridge Vineyards, one Osea Perrone, came to grief back in 1892 when his carriage failed to negotiate a switchback and plunged into the abyss.
You can still feel an uneasy stomach-tug driving this vertiginous road, which, however, doesn't slow down the brusque, confident procession of Range Rovers, BMW convertibles, and Porsche Boxsters on the ascent toward Ridge Vineyards this April morning. These people have signed up for Ridge's "Z List" program, which gets them early tastes of some of winemaker Paul Draper's bottlings. In early April and early September each year they are invited to visit the winery itself, not just the public tasting room. And in morning and afternoon shifts they are making the pilgrimage up the mountain.
Some of the flock are newly minted Silicon Valley plutocrats looking for another certified prestigious thing to buy. They will ask how many cases of the precious, $120-a-bottle Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon blend the winery will spare, or load up on cases of Ridge's broodingly rich, old-vine Zinfandel-based wines like Geyserville or Lytton Springs. The others, the ones who have been buying Ridge wines for 20, 30, and in a few instances nearly 40 years, have come for something different. They've come to load up on Paul Draper.
The winery itself, set in a hollow below the mountaintop parking area, is a modest, open-sided rectangle of redwood buildings grouped around a spreading olive tree and an ornamental pond. Draper holds forth in the midst of maybe 200 people, his wine-guru status coming partly from what he says—his emphasis on painstaking, traditional techniques—and partly from how he says it.
Draper often seems to be on a different, deeper level of mildly bemused calm than other people in a room, and that comes across here in the outdoor courtyard. With his soft, deliberate baritone voice competing with the pond's bullfrogs, Draper is the most laid-back person in view. He's dressed for this occasion as he has been for most others when I have seen him through the years, like a prep school boy (Choate '54) on free time: khakis, a black-and-white plaid shirt, aviator shades. But there's a touch of Summer of Love to his look too. He's now in his sixties, his hair still cut well down over his ears but starting to go silver like his goatee.
"It's more fun for us to let the vineyard itself determine the character and quality of the wine," he is saying gently in answer to a question as I walk up. The assembled multitude is sipping a "library" (i.e. aged) wine, the 1991 Lytton Springs. This is a Wagnerian-scale tooth-purpler, which has developed just to that point where its young-wine characteristics—like juicy, perfumed red berry fruit—are overlapping with more mature flavors like clove and chocolate. It's a wine whose exotic complexity has evolved directly from the Lytton Springs vineyard's own special soil and site.
This kind of tour-de-force translation of stubborn-yielding, tough-to-farm, old-vines fruit has placed Ridge not just among the handful of greatest California wineries, but among the greats of the world. The eminent British wine journalist Harry Waugh called Ridge's Monte Bello Cabernet blend "the Latour of California," referring to the English critics' darling among the great Bordeaux first growths. But after tasting 30 Monte Bello vintages in Los Angeles last year, another prominent Briton, Steven Spurrier, declared that "this was flattering to Latour."
Several months later the London-based magazine that carried Spurrier's assessment, Decanter, named Paul Draper its 2000 Man of the Year, an honor bestowed on only two other Americans before him: Robert Mondavi and the great oenologist André Tchelistcheff. One wine world luminary after another—Angelo Gaja, Jancis Robinson, Mondavi himself—praised his achievements, many struggling to put Draper's/Ridge's peculiarities into some sort of perspective. (Hugh Johnson: "Paul is—I hope he will forgive me—the most European of Californians.")
Finding a smart comparison for Ridge Vineyards, or for Draper's 30 years of work there, is tough. Unlike Château Latour, for example, Ridge isn't simply a winery that does surpassingly well what all the other wineries in the neighborhood are also doing. Ridge is the maverick winery that became a modern pioneer in mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon, and the one that put plonky old Zinfandel on the map as a collectible fine wine. Founded by freethinkers, Ridge has always followed its own beacon. And despite Draper's old-world sympathies, Ridge's constant self-invention is not only not "European," it's not really even "Californian" in any Napa-Sonoma mainstream sense.
The Napa establishment, the Mondavis and Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) of the world, built their audiences on a Bordeaux-style model: pulling grapes from various, theoretically nearby locations and blending them together under the winery's label. The brand name, not the grape source, was the thing. Ridge, meanwhile, doglegged off on a different pursuit.
Following something closer to a Burgundy model, but basically making it up as he went along, Draper scoured the back roads of California for overlooked patches of gnarled, ancient vines and special climate pockets. Once identified, Ridge would bottle the best of these wines unblended with fruit from other areas, as expressions of their single vineyards.
"The French know very well that one particular vineyard matched with a particular kind of grape just makes better wine than another patch even 100 yards away," explains Draper. "It is the same thing in California. What we don't have is the history. We can't look back over the past 100 years and see what people have been consistently willing to pay for, and say 'Okay, that vineyard is great.' What California has had to do is plant a lot and sort it out."
And that, of course, is more easily said than done. "A guy who comes in and invests millions in a new piece of ground and doesn't get any sense of the grapes until eight or nine years go by, he has no choice but to say, 'This is great,' or he won't survive. But if it isn't great—and it's actually a match maybe one time in eight or ten—he's got to make his wine by employing processing techniques in the winery, not by relying on what the vineyard gives him."
You could attribute Ridge's radically different evolution to the fact that its founders were thinking outside the box, but that wouldn't be quite right. When Ridge Vineyards was first envisioned back in 1959, there was no Robert Mondavi Winery, no Kendall-Jackson, almost no Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or Merlot planted in America. As far as California wine went, there just was not much of a "box" to be found.
Ridge, the alternative-thinkers' winery off in the clouds in the Santa Cruz Mountains, was the brainchild of three eminent scientists, one of whom was a Stanford Research Institute magnetics researcher and home winemaker named Dave Bennion. Bennion and his pals stumbled upon the largely fossilized remains of Osea Perrone's old Monte Bello vineyard in the late 1950s, and reasoned that, if nothing else, the panoramic views would make it an excellent location for summer houses.
That was before Bennion vinified a barrel of 1959 Cabernet Sauvignon from a patch of the antique vineyard that had been replanted in the 1940s. This semi-legendary wine, made at his home, launched Ridge Vineyards as possibly Silicon Valley's original garage startup.
"Dave's barrel of '59 was probably the best California Cabernet in existence since the 1930s," claims Draper, who would join the merry band ten years later. "It was head and shoulders above anything BV or Inglenook had done since then. That's what convinced them they were on the right track: intense, cool climate, mountain-grown fruit from low-yielding, mature vines."
That and the fact that Bennion's seat-of-the-pants home winemaking allowed the vineyard's fruit to express itself without technological intervention. It also flew in the face of the best advice tendered by the day's "experts." Says Draper, "There were phenomenal California wines made in the '30s, but not in the '40s. Why? Because the old guys who had come back after Prohibition ended in 1933, the only guys who knew how to make wine then, were retiring. Soon you had the University of California, Davis, come in, with the 'reinvention' of winemaking, and you had sterile, filtered, squeaky-clean wines. Technology was in, tradition was out. And from then into the 1960s you had very few people seriously challenging that."
Until you had Ridge. It was typical that this odd winery, with its plain, ruled-line labels that look like a child's penmanship lesson, and its anonymous, bank robbers' hideaway location, would hire Paul Draper. Not only was he not a Davis graduate at a time when that credential seemed crucial to commercial credibility, he wasn't even a winemaker, not really.
Draper was a Stanford philosophy major who had headed down to Chile with his college pal Fritz (Anchor Brewing) Maytag with an idea of founding, as he puts it, "our own private little Peace Corps." Their efforts to bolster the local economy led the resourceful young men to start making wine, but their enterprise began to founder along with the business climate as the country entered the crucible of the Allende years. During a trip back to San Francisco, Draper was invited to hold forth at a tasting of Chilean wines, where he met and impressed a curious character named Dave Bennion. Bennion offered him the job as Ridge Vineyard's head winemaker on the spot.
Ridge in 1969 was not being run exactly like the European châteaux Draper had visited on his junior year abroad. "It was," he remembers, "like a commune, an anarchist thing, where everything, everyday, got put to the vote and I would have to convince them to do anything. One of my proudest moments was when this guy we had hired as a caretaker came up to me and remarked, 'You know, I've been here six months, and I've just figured out that you're in charge.'
"What can I say? It was the late sixties. The staff was very interesting, but veeeery far-out."
Draper eventually felt compelled to establish, as he puts it, "some semblance of a hierarchy." (The turning point may have been the night a cellarworker stood up at a local restaurant and loudly lectured the partners on how they were betraying his—the cellarworker's—vision for Ridge Vineyards.) More profoundly, the self-educated Draper was able to build structure and consistency into Dave Bennion's instinctively low-tech winemaking.
Armed with a bunch of old French winemaking texts and an American book that was called The Wine Cellar and Press from 1882, Draper felt confident enough to buck the tide. In an era when wineries were falling all over each other to buy the newest, classiest French laboratory yeasts, shiny new centrifuges, and sterile membrane filters, Ridge fermented its wine with its native yeasts from the vineyard, settled it naturally, and filtered it as little as possible or not at all. While so many Davis graduates obsessively adjusted their wine's natural acidity to hit the "correct" numbers, Ridge rarely, if ever, acid-corrected. And as winemakers around the world were discovering the joys of cold-fermenting white wines in temperature-controlled stainless steel—fruit in, complexity out—Ridge was barrel-fermenting its Chardonnays like a bunch of Burgundian hicks.
The point to all this, in Draper's view, was that these old-fashioned methods allowed the wines their own true, natural expressions of balance and character. They did not strip out flavor or aroma or layers of complexity in the name of ease or hygiene or shelf life. The one thing these old peasant techniques aren't, however, is simple.
Employing traditional versus high-tech winemaking is like cooking a steak over a wood fire versus microwaving one. Microwave ten steaks and you get ten exactly equally cooked steaks, fast and with no mess. Cooking over a fire, you might over-sear part of one steak, drop one into the coals, and have to keep adjusting the grill height for another. But it's obvious which steaks are going to taste better in the end. And the higher the grade of the original meat—the raw ingredient—the more crucial it becomes to spend the time and effort to cook it by the method that brings out its full range of flavors.
Ridge Vineyards is all about raw ingredients, drawing grapes from Fritz Maytag's York Creek Vineyard in Napa, from Lytton Springs in Sonoma, from Jimsomare right down the road in the Santa Cruz Mountains. "I have worked with probably thirty Zinfandel vineyards alone over the years," Draper says. "I just gradually keep honing down the sources to vineyards that year after year produce distinctive qualities, the ones where the wines 'make themselves,' meaning that we don't have to tweak them, to add anything or take out anything."
Draper isn't California's only talented vineyard scout—you think of the young Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, for example, or Terry Leighton of Kalin or Joel Peterson of Ravenswood—but Ridge got onto the wine country back roads first, and the results speak for themselves.
Two of Ridge's three great signature bottlings, Monte Bello and Lytton Springs, are from vineyards the company now owns; the third, Geyserville, is from a vineyard the winery's leased for 32 years. But all three had to be tracked down in once-obscure spots and recognized for what they were at a time when there was really nothing like them. All three—quietly or not so quietly—influenced the future direction of fine wine in California.
The Monte Bello vineyard, now expanded to something like Perrone's original plantings at 143 acres (versus the eight Bennion found still in production), is still an oddball among the California Bordeaux-style superstars. For one thing, of course, it's the only $100-plus "cult" Cabernet not from Napa Valley. But more fundamentally, unlike Dominus or Opus One or Insignia or Screaming Eagle or Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Monte Bello is made from mountain-grown grapes. Low-yielding and tough to farm, mountain grapes require a certain head-butting perseverance.
But the results, as with the great reds from Diamond Creek, Mount Eden, and Laurel Glen, and more recently, Harlan Estate, are wines with a tightly knit core of intense fruit, and (however rich they may be) a lean edge that gives them more of an elegant than a voluptuous feel. They're not always the easiest wines to taste when young, and may appeal to a more sophisticated wine drinker than some of the more flattering-to-the-taste, Rubenesque valley-floor reds.
On the other hand, at least a Bordeaux-style blend like the Monte Bello started off with the imprimatur of European tradition. Ridge's early decision to give Zinfandels the same star treatment was strictly from left field. Draper could say, "Some of the finest California wines I have ever had were those Zinfandels from the thirties, like Larkmead and Fountaingrove." But, not having tasted those, very few other people could make the same claim.
The black, stumplike clusters of century-old Zinfandel vines dotted around the state may have been California's great legacy from the past, but by the 1960s nobody much cared. Zinfandel was a blue-collar grape with, to put it mildly, no cachet. The intense wines that these odd patches produced typically went toward bolstering inexpensive, tonsil-challenging red blends commonly referred to (even by their Italian-American producers) as Dago red. When the white-wine craze was in full swing, through the mid-1980s, untold numbers of these uneconomical old vineyards were being uprooted to plant more and more Chardonnay.
Dave Bennion and Paul Draper looked at these homely old vegetable survivors and saw a golden opportunity. The Geyserville vineyard, which Bennion found in 1966, may just be the greatest Zinfandel vineyard in the world. Its core Hearts Desire block was planted above Sonoma's Russian River in the 1880s by a friend of Luther Burbank's. Here the ancient river- bed—the river is now three miles away—deposited a fan of round river stones and gravel that retain heat but allow the soil to drain quickly.
Geyserville's vines were "head-trained," meaning allowed to grow like bushes rather than tied to wire trellises in the modern way. The vines themselves were a field mix of Zinfandel plus grapes such as Carignane and Petite Sirah. (Just how much of a field mix Ridge didn't realize until relatively recently, when scientific analysis showed so many "other" types that the winery dropped "Zinfandel" from the proprietary label name.)
Now much replanted, with an average vine age of around 50 years, the Geyserville vineyard is still head-trained, still in the old field mix, and still low-yielding at between two and three tons an acre (Zinfandel vines are capable of delivering at least three times that crop load). Even more than the Lytton Springs (which Draper found in 1972, thanks to a chance encounter in an out-of-the-way tasting room), the Geyserville blend shows the nuanced, elegant side of Zinfandel. It is a wine that in old age can easily be confused with a fine Bordeaux, and in youth is so exotically perfumed it couldn't be confused with anything else you've ever put your snoot to.
The Geyserville vineyard can also be viewed as a kind of natural metaphor for Ridge Vineyards itself. Unflashy, out of the way, biding its time, its unique excellence had to be discovered by the discerning. It is the way things are supposed to work—a better mousetrap leading people to beat a path to your door—and sometimes actually do.
As you turn out of the parking lot to wind back down Monte Bello Road on Z List day, you realize the crowded morning session was just a prelude. Snaking up the road, stretching seemingly all the way back to Cupertino, an impatient line of SUVs, Lexuses, and Jaguars climbs old Osea Perrone's mountain to visit Paul Draper.
A Ridge Vineyards Sampler
1997 Petite Sirah, York Creek, Napa Valley $20.
Juicy, with big, chewy flavors and wafting a snootful of berry-scented fruit. This one will sneak up on you. It's a compulsively drinkable, meat-ready red.
1998 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains $30.
Super-ripe, super-stuffed, and almost golden, combining the flamboyant fruitiness of a California reserve Chardonnay with an intriguing petrol-y, mineral note (less weird than it sounds) last tasted in a Moselle Riesling. It's over-the-top in a way Ridge's rich reds aren't, but it's not another "Me Too" Chardonnay.
1997 Merlot, Santa Cruz Mountains $40.
Rich and luscious, exuding the kind of crushed-black-cherry perfume so few California Merlots manage. It's a nuanced, seductive charmer. Made from mountain-grown grapes out of the Monte Bello vineyard, intensified by a 15 percent summer-crop thinning.
1998 Geyserville, Sonoma County $30.
Though powerful, weighing in at well over 14 percent alcohol, what impresses is a velvety smoothness and graceful intensity. It's Ridge's 33rd edition of the prototype old-vines, single-vineyard Zinfandel (blended with a field mix of other hearty red grapes).
1998 Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley $30.
Headier, more flamboyant, and richer than the Geyserville—though the latter wine, when tasted alongside, has a more tightly concentrated core and greater refinement. This wine is Ridge's other great, old-vines, single-vineyard Zin blend, and this vintage is a rich, blockbuster-sized version despite a rain-plagued harvest.
1996 Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains $120.
Lean, with a refined edge, a palate-caressing harmony, and the classic seamlessly knit feel of young Monte Bellos. The 1996, a very good vintage sandwiched between two monumental ones, will blossom over the next five to ten years and beyond. There are more lushly impressive, color-saturated, instantly taste-flattering California cult Cabernets than Monte Bello, but then this one isn't made for beginners.
Richard Nalley wrote about California wines in the October 2000 issue of Departures.