Ridge Vineyards: Uncompromising Quality

Staff Writer
The story of this celebrated vineyard, plus tasting notes on its recent vintages
Ridge Vineyards: Uncompromising Quality
Underground Wine Letter

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 kind of a man. His opinion was widely respected by my friends and I at that time and it is one that continues to this day.