Ridge Vineyards — Uncompromising Quality
Without question, Ridge consistently produces some of the best red wines in California. They have been doing it for over 50 years and have a record that is unmatched by anyone in the state. Here is a history of Ridge taken from one of my earlier Ridge articles:
The history of Ridge Vineyards begins in 1885, when Osea Perrone, a doctor who became a prominent member of San Francisco’s Italian community, bought 180 acres near the top of Monte Bello Ridge. He terraced the slopes and planted vineyards; using native limestone, he constructed the Monte Bello Winery, producing the first vintage under that name in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility.
At 2,600 feet of altitude, Monte Bello is surrounded by the “upper vineyard.” In the 1940s, William Short, a theologian, bought the abandoned winery and vineyard just below the Perrone property; he replanted several parcels to Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1940s. From these vines — now the “middle vineyard” — new owners Dave Bennion and his three partners, all Stanford Research Institute engineers, made a quarter-barrel of “Estate” Cabernet in 1959. That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era. Its quality and distinctive character, and the wines produced from these same vines in 1960 and 1961 (the grapes were sold to other wineries), convinced the partners to re-bond the winery in time for the 1962 vintage, Ridge’s first commercial vintage.
The first Zinfandel was made in 1964, from a small 19th Century vineyard farther down the ridge. This was followed in 1966 by the first Geyserville Zinfandel. The founding families reclaimed the Monte Bello terraces, increasing vineyard size from 15 to 45 acres. Working on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity.
By 1968, production had increased to just fewer than 3,000 cases per year, and 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. 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. In fact, early on in 1970, the late English wine writer, Harry Waugh, a former director of Chateau Latour, visited Ridge and, on tasting the 1959 Monte Bello, called Ridge “the Chateau Latour of California.” I was privileged to have known Harry. He was one of the greatest tasters of all time and one of the most honest. In addition he was a very kind and unpretentious man. He wrote about wine in a way you could understand. Quite unlike the new wave of 100 point boys, whose writing is as extracted and over the top as the wines they profess to love, he was straight from the “what you see is what you get” mold. Harry, to use a play on his own words, was a Latour/Ridge of a man. His opinion was widely respected by my friends and me at that time and it is one that continues to this day. The world could use more Harry Waughs!
In 1986 Ridge was purchased by the Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company. This was the beginning of a partnership that has worked beautifully. Paul Draper was named CEO shortly after the purchase and was given the mandate to make Ridge the best it could be. This partnership allowed Ridge, under Paul’s direction, the freedom and financial resources to expand and become the great organization that it is today. Today Paul Draper continues as CEO and Winemaker. He is joined by Eric Braugher, Vice President — Winemaking Monte Bello; John Olney, Vice President — Winemaking Lytton Springs; and David Gates, Vice President Vineyard Operations. Together this outstanding team is responsible for the wine from the vine to the bottle.
The Ridge Monte Bello (originally Monte Bello Cabernet; until 1975, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon) is the wine that introduced Ridge to the world; and the world to Ridge. Today it is a blend of Bordeaux varietals in which Cabernet Sauvignon still predominates. Exhaustive tasting of test blends during assemblage determines how much, if any, Merlot, Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc will be included with the Cabernet Sauvignon in the finished wine. Almost every vintage (an unbroken chain from 1962 on) has something substantive to recommend it. Each decade has its high points, but year after year Monte Bello proves to be a consistently outstanding wine, with great structure, complexity and balance. And the wine develops for a very long time.
Ridge Monte Bello’s original prominence worldwide came when the 1971 vintage was entered in the famous Judgment of Paris Tasting of 1976. In this blind tasting, it came in 5th out of 10 wines, behind Stag’s Leap, Mouton Rothschild, Montrose and Haut-Brion. In the Paris Tasting 30th Anniversary Reenactment that took place in the Napa Valley and in London on May 24, 2006, again in blind tasting format, judges on both continents awarded top honors to the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello.
I first visited Ridge over 40 years ago. Since that time I have been there many times and I have been buying, cellaring, and drinking the wines for this entire period. After all, I am a believer in eating my own cooking! Ridge wines have a remarkable ability to age and I have had many incredible bottles dating back into the 1960s. Recently, I once again visited Ridge and spent a day with Paul Draper, the CEO of Ridge, and the man most responsible for its incredible success. As always, it was a great visit. We talked wine from many perspectives including the issue of ingredient labeling.
And, of course, we tasted many wines beginning with some 2013s from barrel. There are always great wines in the pipeline at Ridge and in the last few vintages it seems like there may be more than ever. If you are looking for balanced wines that are food friendly and delicious and have the ability to age for a long period, Ridge should be at the top of your list just as it is on mine. Below are my notes: