When I was asking wine-writer and wine-buyer friends for California wineries to visit, Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz mountains kept coming up. Somehow, in spite of the gushing reviews, I did not realize it would blow me away. Sure, Ridge is an icon winery after its role in the Judgement of Paris in 1976 – the first blind tasting where American wines won over key French wines. At this tasting, the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello Cab came in fifth. However, at the 30 year anniversary of the historic tasting, the same wine (same vintage) outclassed its competition with a whopping 18 point win over the next wine. And the competition was not to be underestimated. We are talking Bordeaux First Growths such as Chateau Mouton-Rotschild and Chateau Haut-Brion… I had asked to see Paul Draper, whose importance for the Californian Fine Wine scene can not be overestimated. Among other things, he was the winemaker for that ’71 Monte Bello. I was hoping for a few minutes of his time – and got four hours! Had my head not been crammed full with interesting ideas and fascinating stories by then, I might not have let him go. Ever.
Paul Draper is a sweet, dynamic man with a wonderful energy and intelligent, bright eyes. That was obvious from the second he walked in with his Samoyed pooch – a friendly white ball of fur that came with us to barrel tasting. Over delightfully scented barrel samples of the 2010 Monte Bello we talked of his use of American white oak (very mild, optimal quality, air dried), of the development of California Zinfandel (which he has been credited for saving as a quality grape), as well as the natural wine movement. Draper used The Wine Press and Cellar by Rixford, written in 1883, as well as a French book from the same time, as his guidelines when he started making wine. Thus the process he favors is still as natural “old school” as possible, without falling square into the Natural Wine movement since Draper does believe in adding minimal amounts of sulfur for stability. At the same time, his co-winemaker Eric Baugher (who looks like a viking but is 100% native Californian), is decidedly high-tech with his biotech education and state of the art quality lab.
In their quaint 19th century stone cellar we tasted barrel samples of 2011 Geyserville single parcel Zinfandel – wonderful potential with a complex nose and quite the intensity. According to Draper (and the samples) 2011 can be a good year, even a really good one, for those who picked before the rains at a lower alcohol, but disaster for those who wanted to push ripeness to the edge.
By the time lunch rolled around, the heavy fog over the valley was slowly lifting. The view from Ridge, at the end of a winding mountain road, is breathtaking. What better place to taste the bottled wines than with the view of the nearby mountain tops and valley, while eating a delicious lunch so lovingly prepared by Cathy (who has worked at Ridge for almost as long as Paul). Our host, the enigmatic ex-musician and writer Christopher Watkins, went to fetch a 2006 Monte Bello Chardonnay because they were all set on convincing me of the possibility of good California Chardonnay (I’ve been quite hard to please). Yum. But it was the three vintages of red Monte Bello that killed me. How beautifully it aged! The 1995 just blew us away. It was like drinking the best of the First Growth Bordeaux (which I do terribly seldom, sad to say), and I bet any amount of money it will be even more beautiful in 10 years.
With Paul, Christopher and Cathy (as well as my wonderfully interested colleague Marisa) we talked about how to get “Millenials” into cellaring wines, about getting more women interested in fine wine, and about American politics (which we said we should not talk about but kept going back to). We tasted Geyserville from ‘02 and Lytton Springs from ‘09. We had delightful California cheeses. At the end, over coffee and aniseed biscotti (which surprisingly enough worked well with the 1995 Monte Bello Cab and of which I later snagged a few for late night snacking) I just knew this was one of those days that will stay with me.
My hope is that Paul keeps his presence at Ridge for many years to come and that I get the pleasure of a return visit. When we finally walked out of the lunch it was three in the afternoon and a rainbow rested over the bay below. Marisa and I needed only to look at each other to know we were blessed to live this life and experience this as part of our work. Such is the power of a great wine and great people, both sprung out of great terroir.