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The Summit: Four Decades of Ridge Vineyards

2011 September 21
by Mike

My article last week about the difference between great chefs and great winemakers mentioned Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards. This gives me a good excuse to post tasting notes from a Ridge retrospective that I attended in March 2010. As with the recap I posted last month of the Haut-Brion/La Mission Haut-Brion tasting, my Ridge notes were first published in The World of Fine Wine. I’m not planning to make a habit of recycling tasting notes, and I don’t have that many to recycle; the overwhelming majority of my notes haven’t been published, and in the months ahead, I intend to put up what I think are some of the more interesting ones. Herewith, a riot of Ridge:

In 1959, four research scientists from Stanford University pooled their money to purchase a winery high in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley. A few years later, they christened the property Ridge Vineyards, and in 1969 they hired a young Stanford graduate named Paul Draper as its winemaker. These are all seminal events now in the history of American viticulture. Four decades on, Ridge is widely considered America’s benchmark winery, and Draper is regarded as the finest vintner that the United States has yet produced. But Ridge hasn’t excelled simply in the context of American wine; under Draper, it has arguably been the most consistently outstanding winery on the planet.

In early March, Ridge hosted a two-day gathering to celebrate (a little belatedly) its 50th anniversary and Draper’s 40th year with the winery. The event brought together a small group of international journalists, including Jancis Robinson and Michel Bettane. The first day was devoted to Ridge’s flagship wine, the Ridge Monte Bello, which Harry Waugh famously dubbed the Château Latour of California. After a tour of the limestone-rich Monte Bello vineyard, which sits 15 miles inland from the Pacific at an elevation of 2000 feet, the journalists were given a chance to participate in the assemblage of the 2009 Monte Bello (the Monte Bello is a traditional Bordeaux blend, comprised mostly of cabernet sauvignon and filled out with merlot, as well as small amounts of petit verdot and cabernet franc depending on the vintage). Everyone then came down from the mountain for a dinner at Marché, a restaurant in nearby Menlo Park, featuring a 12-vintage vertical of Monte Bello back to 1968. The wines were almost all brilliant, showing the richness, elegance, and complexity that long ago marked Monte Bello as California’s First Growth. For me, the 1991 was the wine of the night, followed closely by the 1970, but a strong case could have been made for most of the wines on the table that evening.

The party crossed the Golden Gate Bridge the next morning for a visit to Ridge’s Sonoma facility, where zinfandel reigns. Draper’s work with zinfandel is as important to his legacy as the Monte Bello. Simply put, there is no one who has done more to elevate the status of zinfandel and to demonstrate the quality and complexity that can be achieved with this easy-ripening grape than Draper. The day consisted of visits to the Geyserville and Lytton Spring vineyards, which produce Ridge’s most acclaimed Zinfandels, followed by lunch at the Sonoma winery with a selection of current-release wines. The group reassembled that evening at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg for a comparative tasting of Geyserville and Lytton Springs back to the early 1970s. Draper decided to make us dance for our dinners by serving the wines blind and asking us to identify them as either Geyserville or Lytton Springs. The assignment proved not to be as challenging—or embarrassing—as might have been feared, as the wines were quite distinctive (I went 10 for 12, as did Michel Bettane, seated next to me). The Lytton is a weightier, more tannic wine, marked by pronounced licorice and mocha notes, while the floral, finesse-driven Geyserville is an utterly sui generis Zinfandel— a Zinfandel masquerading as a claret. Among other things, the tasting buried the notion that zinfandel can’t age; the wines from the 80s and 70s were sensational. The 1976 Geyserville, still bursting with vigor and charm, was my wine of the night.

Presiding over the celebration was the 74-year-old Draper, a winemaker as self-effacing as he is gifted. There were no grand speeches or triumphant declarations; it is not Draper’s style. He was clearly content to let his wines speak for themselves. Indeed, his paramount concern was to make sure that we journalists understood that Ridge was a collaborative effort, and we were joined both days by his colleagues Eric Baugher, who oversees the Monte Bello vineyard; John Olney, who is in charge of the Sonoma sites; and David Gates, Ridge’s vineyard manager. From spending time with them, it was clear that geniality and modesty were part of Ridge’s DNA.

TASTING NOTES:

1968 Ridge Monte Bello: The one pre-Draper wine served during the event, and a spectacular one. The nose is marked by black currant, cherry, earth, leather, and spice. On the palate, the wine shows impressive vigor, superb concentration, and excellent length. Testament to what great terroir can deliver. Delicious. A.

1970 Ridge Monte Bello: A sensational bouquet redolent of leather, black currant and tobacco. A rich, warm wine with fantastic depth of flavor, buttery tannins, a superb menthol kick on the backend, and a long, graceful finish. An exceptional wine, still bursting with life at 40 years old. A.

1978 Ridge Monte Bello: A sumptuous, meaty nose gives way to a full-bodied, rich cabernet marked by cassis and spice notes. With its drying tannins, the wine is on the downward slope, but a pleasure to drink even so. A-.

1981 Ridge Monte Bello: Another gorgeous nose, marked by black currants, leather, mint, and flowers. Beautiful aged cabernet fruit on the palate and a lovely floral note through the finish. This one, too, is a bit past its sell-by date, but a terrific wine nonetheless. A-.

1984 Ridge Monte Bello: A rich, warm wine that still tastes very young and that has a real sense of harmony in the mouth. Ripe, excellent tannins, terrific acidity, and loads of sweet cassis fruit. The wine finishes just a touch dry, the only blemish in an otherwise superb cabernet. A-.

1988 Ridge Monte Bello: Opens with an ebullient bouquet of cassis, mineral, earth, and tobacco. Great freshness to the fruit, coupled with superb minerality, a wonderful floral aspect, and ripe, smooth tannins. Finishes very long. A classic Monte Bello at its zenith. A.

1991 Ridge Monte Bello: One whiff and it is clear there is something special in the glass. A beguiling nose marked by leafy cabernet, mineral, leather and earth notes. A full-bodied, sumptuous but also amazingly poised wine that unfurls beautifully across the palate. So impressively harmonious and complete. A long, sublime finish rounds out a wine that is destined to go down as one of the all-time California greats. A+.

1992 Ridge Monte Bello:  Warm, chunky cassis fruit on the palate, backed by excellent mineral and floral notes. The fruit is sensational, but the oak is not as well integrated with the 92—the wood tannins really stick out on the finish. Too bad, because this wine could have given the 91 a challenge. A-.

1995 Ridge Monte Bello: Wonderfully pure cabernet aroma pours out of the glass, giving way to a rich but elegant wine that shows textbook balance, outstanding minerality, and a seductive mint aspect across the palate. A long aftertaste, another superb Monte Bello. A.

2000 Ridge Monte Bello: A big blast of cassis, menthol, and mocha greets the nose. A rich, almost chewy wine with a pronounced saline mineral note, but the oak seems to have gotten the better of this one, as well—the finish is very dry from the oak influence. The weakest link in the evening’s lineup. B+.

2004 Ridge Monte Bello: A kaleidoscopic perfume marked by cassis, black olive, floral, and dill aromas. A supremely elegant cabernet, the warm, ripe fruit leavened by excellent tannins, acidity, and a terrific mineral backbone. A long, immensely satisfying finish completes a fabulous wine. A.

2005 Ridge Monte Bello: A big, mouth-filling cabernet loaded with voluptuous dark fruit. Excellent acidity and warm, ripe tannins, but the oak is quite apparent here, too. I think the wine has the fruit to soak up all the wood, but definitely one to lay away for a decade or more. A-.

Paul Draper (photo courtesy of Ridge Vineyards)

2005 Ridge Geyserville: A marvelously expressive and poised wine, with notes of black currant, cherry, flowers, and spice rolling seamlessly across the palate. Great richness parried by ripe, perfectly integrated tannins and excellent acidity. A gorgeous Zinfandel and a classic Geyserville. A.

2005 Ridge Lytton Springs: A little raw on the nose, with aromas of roasted black fruits, licorice, and black pepper. Deep flavors here, with a real warmth to the wine and an excellent spine of minerality. The tannins are a bit drier, more angular than with the Geyserville, but a very good Zin in its own right. A-.

2001 Ridge Geyserville: An exuberant bouquet of brambly fruit, tobacco, flowers, and chalk. Alas, the palate doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the nose—the wine is a bit thin, and the tannins are very dry. A pleasant enough wine, but not at the level of the first two. B+.

2001 Ridge Lytton Springs: A rich, inviting nose evocative of black currants, flowers, and minerals, with a pronounced Rhone-like dustiness, too. Great elegance here, with an almost crisp edge to the fruit. The wine loses some steam across the palate and it finishes very dry, but overall, quite lovely. A-.

1999 Ridge Geyserville: Remarkable finesse to this wine, which shows notes of cherry, white pepper, flowers, and subtle oak. The fruit is abundantly ripe and rich, but it is balanced by superb tannins and acidity—a real sense of harmony across the palate and through the long, delicious finish. Terrific wine, and one that I have possibly underrated. A-.

1999 Ridge Lytton Springs: A more strapping, burlier wine than the 99 Geyserville, but also excellent. Roasted black fruits, cocoa powder, licorice, and cardamom are the predominate notes here. A chunky texture, wonderfully concentrated flavors, and robust tannins round out an excellent Zinfandel. A-.

1997 Ridge Geyserville: A classic Zinfandel perfume, redolent of blackberry, spice, tobacco, and black pepper. A typically elegant Geyserville, with a marvelous sense of harmony in the mouth. The wine lacks a little bit of punch, and the tannins are noticeably dry, but overall, another winner. A-.

1997 Ridge Lytton Springs: A wine that really draws a contrast with the Geyserville—a big, chunky, meaty Zinfandel, bursting with spicy black fruit, kirsch, mocha, and cedar notes. The tannins are massive but ripe, and the wine finishes very long. Better than the Geyserville this year. A-.

1988 Ridge Geyserville: A leafy, earthy, very Burgundian nose—a revelation, to say the least. The 88 shows the characteristic zinfandel richness and warmth, but it is also a remarkably pretty wine, with lovely cherry, floral, and spice nuances across the palate. The tannins have melted away, but the wine shows sensational depth, length, and complexity. A great Geyserville. A.

1987 Ridge Lytton Springs: An even more complex bouquet, marked by dried black currants, licorice, leather, flowers, tobacco, and an aroma that calls to mind pan juices. Alas, this one has not aged as well as the Geyserville; it is a pleasure to drink, but it would have been better five years ago. A-.

1976 Ridge Geyserville: A surprisingly deep shade of mahogany. A warm, dusty nose of black currant, leather, mint, cured meats, and violets. Fabulous richness, with loads of sweet and spicy fruit complemented by great minerality, ripe tannins, and brisk acidity. A big kick of menthol on the backend and a long, soaring finish. Brilliant. A.

1973 Ridge Lytton Springs: Another strikingly Burgundian bouquet, with musky aromas of dried leaves, damp earth, flowers, and cedar. A pronounced nuttiness, too. Although it offers up very appealing cherry and floral notes, the wine now has one foot firmly in the grave. But a pleasure all the same. A-.

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  15. December 12, 2011

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  16. Boris Seymour permalink
    September 25, 2011

    Traditional Field Blends

    Geyserville is a traditional field blend of zinfandel and its complementary varieties: carignane, petite sirah, and mataro (mourvedre).

    Geyserville is not allowed to be labeled as a zinfandel by the TTB as it is rarely more than 70% zinfandel. In 2007 it was only 58% zinfandel. So perhaps comparing it to Lytton Springs or other zinfandel is like comparing apples to oranges?
    Lytton Spring seems to be following this pattern in recent times but with a healthy dose of the domineering Petite Sirah:

    Lytton Springs has become synonymous with classic Dry Creek zinfandel. It shows potent, ripe boysenberry and blackberry, but also a pronounced rusticity and earthiness often attributed to its blending varietals; petite sirah and carignane.

    Pure Zinfandel (East Bench)? Finesse?

  17. John permalink
    September 22, 2011

    My favorite winemakers. I got lucky when I was getting into wine and was drawn to them on the shelf not knowing what was in the bottle. Very impressed by Ridge’s personality and style, all the way down to the simple and timeless, yet informative, labeling system they use.

    My girlfriend and I were fortunate enough to spend a few hours at the Monte Bello vineyard on our way down the coast this summer. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet visited. A small fee buys you an interesting and passionate tour through their history, vineyards and wine.

    I think the key to Ridge is their thoughtfulness, which is alluded to in everything written about them.

  18. September 22, 2011

    Bob, you make a great point–the owners appear to have given Draper and his team complete autonomy, which is something quite rare. The owners deserve a tip of the hat, too.

    Dan, I agree–Draper is a wonderful writer and thinker, in addition to being a great winemaker and a mensch. He is a singular figure on the American wine scene, and one of the people I most admire in this business.

  19. Bob R. permalink
    September 21, 2011

    Ridge has always impressed and amazed me. It’s been owned by a Japanese pharmaceutical conglomerate for decades, a fact which is hardly ever mentioned, and yet unlike many conglomerates that have run iconic American wineries into the ground (like Inglenook to name just one), the owners have just let Draper and crew make great wine.

  20. September 21, 2011

    Nice Mike. I’d like to add that not only is Draper a top-echelon winemaker, he is also an insightful Grade A thinker, and, if you’ll forgive me for saying this—one of our great wine writers. An article that he put forward in the past year or so was one of the clearest and best pieces of wine journalism that I’ve read. In it he took the ongoing “natural wines” discussion and turned it around; presenting Ridge as neither “natural” nor un-natural, but rather, pre-industrial. And then, vividly and entertainingly explained this twist.
    I’d lay it out here, but it is lengthy and deserves better than to be reduced to snippets.
    But for any who are looking for clear thinking in wine controversy, well worth finding and reading.

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