A visit to California to stay with friends in Santa Clara, just south of San Francisco, started with the principle that this was a wine drinking, not wine tasting trip. No vineyard visits, just barbecues, some sightseeing, and a bit of healthy imbibing. So of course, when we realised that our friends lived about 20 minutes away from Ridge Vineyards, we called and made an appointment straight away. For my sins, I worked for Steven Spurrier in the early 80s while his wine ‘empire’ was still extant in Paris, so from this, and subsequent study, I was quite familiar with the quality of Paul Draper’s wines, and the effect that the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting had on Ridge and the other ‘kids from the sticks’ (as Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena put it at the time), although I am not quite old enough to have been there for the tasting. I could hardly miss the opportunity just on a principle.
The following day, on a beautiful sunny September afternoon, the 4th in fact, we travelled the Montebello Road to the winery. The various parts of the Monte Bello vineyard are at elevations varying from 1300 to 2700 feet, and you really see why they call them the Santa Cruz Mountains as you travel upwards; the road is a succession of hairpin bends, as you would expect in a mountain, not so much in a vineyard.
We arrived at Monte Bello to be greeted by Paul Draper himself; three hours of fascinating insight into the famous estate followed. At the hopper above the winery, 100 year-old Carignane grapes were just being delivered into the de-stemmer, so we got to taste our first grapes of the 2014 California vintage. Paul described 2014 as one of the earliest in Ridge’s history, which is why grapes had been arriving in the winery since a week before. He thought the harvest would be just about finished by the third week of September; usually they wouldn’t have started until then.
Ridge are still at the top of their game. PaulDraper, always open minded, talked with enthusiasm about textural changes effected in the wine by the occasional fining they do; single parcel fermentation for each vineyard and combining the best, far too complicated to detail here; the advantages of air-dried over kiln-dried oak, and its cooperage, and the importance of grapes at moderate sugar levels. The wines are organic in all but name, and are currently getting certification for the Monte Bello vineyard. Paul has always used the minimum possible intervention, including only natural yeasts, and minimal sulphur, focussed on quality, rather than a label. That said, Ridge’s labels have always featured more winemaking information than almost any, and now include ingredient labelling; it’s lucky they don’t fine often, as the general public don’t like to see egg white as an additive (but that doesn’t stop them including it on the label when they do). Paul talked with fondness about the early days in the 70s, before the boom, when they used to import top Bordeaux like Lynch Bages and Leoville Lascases in barrel and bottle at Ridge in order to keep the cash coming in. I was even allowed to spit on the drain in the floor of the winery, as we used to do on tasting trips in Burgundy and the Rhone in the 80s. I, if no one else, derived a huge amount of childish pleasure from the looks of horror from my friends as I did it. Paul, like the seasoned professional he is, stood well clear of me.
We tasted 2013 Monte Bello in barrel in the cellar cut into a limestone ravine in the 1880s; it still has six months left to mature in barrel, and seemed very well balanced, dry, dark fruited, smoky, oaky, yes, but not sappy as I sometimes find. Promising. We tasted a 2014 Zinfandel, picked on 29th August, and still in the fermentation tank; I don’t consider myself expert, but I am familiar with tasting fizzy, sweet, semi-alcoholic fruit juice. My friends, though, were bowled over. ‘It’s like Port’, said one of my hosts; I began a wine lecture on Port production and why she was right, but happily I was quickly stopped by the groans of the audience.
We moved back up to the newly built tasting room. Paul introduced the 2011 vintage, which was largely something of a disaster in many parts of California; one of my favourite euphemisms, ‘challenging’, often used to describe miserable vintages in France, was even used to describe the Californian summer that year. At Monte Bello, though, they escaped the cold fog which poisoned the summer for many vineyards, as their elevation put them above it. We tasted:
2011 Monte Bello Chardonnay – Oak toast and smoke showing, edging towards butterscotch. Lovely ripe tang, but alcohol a little visible for me.
2012 Geyserville Zinfandel – Fresh, with black cherries raisins, and great balance, fluffy tannins, a freshness.
2012 Lytton Spring Zinfandel – Smokier, more complex: aniseed, pepper, lovely.
2011 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Smoke, spice, aniseed, black fruit, cool climate, but ripe, with bright acidity, mineral, almost salty. Superb.
And another treat:
1985 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Wood smoke, leather, Christmas cake, burned sugar, tannins still there, but smooth, the wine fading a little; graceful in age.
We talked of the ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting in 1976. It should be remembered that Steven intended to show that California made good wine, not to enact a competition between France and the US, but the first places achieved by Chateau Montelena in the Chardonnay section and Stag’s Leap in the Cabernet was dramatic: Californian wine had arrived. It then progressed on a path of excess into ‘cult winery’ and 200% new oak territory, but Ridge continued and continues on its path of moderation, minimal intervention, and traditional winemaking with modern equipment, and long may it do so. Thank you sincerely, Paul Draper, for a fantastic afternoon of wine tasting on a tasting-free holiday!