A Legend In His Time

Paul Draper, the winemaker and CEO of Ridge Vineyards for nearly 50 years, recently announced his retirement. In my mind Paul was the California wine industry's guiding force in continuing traditional wine making practices and making consistently great wines during his entire career at Ridge Vineyards.

The history of Ridge Vineyards began in the 1880s with various people involved. But, after some time and the onset of Prohibition  everything was abandoned.  In the 1940s the properties were revived under new ownership and in the late fifties a group of Stanford Research Institute engineers led by Dave Bennion gained control and began to make wine. The first commercial vintage was 1962. It was a labor of love with the partners working part time at Ridge Vineyards and learning as they went along. By 1968, production had increased to just under  3,000 cases per year. It was during this period in the 1960s that I became acquainted with the Ridge Vineyards  partners, Ridge Vineyards, and Ridge Vineyards wines.

Then in 1969, Paul Draper joined the partnership. A Stanford graduate in philosophy, recently returned from setting up a winery in Chile's coast range, Paul was a practical winemaker, not an enologist. His knowledge of fine wines and traditional methods complemented the straightforward "hands off" approach pioneered at Ridge. I was introduced to Paul shortly after he arrived, and from the very beginning he began to re-shape and transform Ridge Vineyards. Paul soon became winemaker and under his guidance, the old Perrone winery (acquired the previous year) was restored; the finest vineyard lands leased or purchased, and the consistent quality and international reputation of the wines established.

The partnership continued until 1986 when Ridge Vineyards was purchased by the Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company. This was the beginning of a relationship that has worked beautifully. Paul Draper was named CEO shortly after the purchase and was given the mandate to make Ridge Vineyards the best it could be. Given the authority, Paul worked diligently in the vineyards and in the winery utilizing the approach of natural farming and minimal intervention in the wine making. He also was instrumental in Ridge Vineyard's direct sales program as well as the international marketing of the wines. And, during this period he selflessly built a great team around him.

Ridge Vineyards wines have been amazingly consistent over all these years. And the Monte Bello is the flagship wine at the forefront of a consistently great line up from Ridge Vineyards which includes Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah as well as old vine blends, Bordeaux varietals, and Chardonnay. Without question Paul Draper's career achievements have been absolutely amazing, and these not only include the wines, but the development of all aspects of  Ridge Vineyards. Most recently, Ridge Vineyards adopted ingredient labeling for all wines which I am sure will be marked as a pivotal development in the history of California wine (to read an article on that subject click here). And, under Paul's direction, Ridge Vineyards has become the great organization that it is today. For the past 20 years or so he has worked with the same key people and for the last 10 years or so he has led a team consisting of Eric Braugher, Vice President – Winemaking Monte Bello; John Olney, Vice President – Winemaking Lytton Springs; and David Gates, Vice President Vineyard Operations. Now Eric assumes the role of COO/Monte Bello Winemaker with John COO/Lytton Springs Winemaker and David Senior VP Vineyard Operations. Paul will maintain his role as Chairman of the Board of Directors making sure that the team gets the resources and support needed to continue the great Ridge Vineyards traditions.

So, in the year of his 80th birthday, Paul has decided to step down from day to day management and let his team continue on. For sure, the team has big shoes to fill, but they have had increasing authority in recent years and the great wines produced during this period are a reflection of their efforts. I am sure that there will be many more great Ridge Vineyards wines to come, but people with the talent of Paul Draper are rare indeed. And there is no question in my mind that Paul's legacy will live forever in the annals of Ridge Vineyards and throughout the world of wine. Moreover, the great Ridge Vineyards wines will always stand on their own with the greatest wines in the world. To Paul, a Monte Bello toast for being Paul and for all the great work and all the great wines.