Atop the Santa Cruz Mountains at the end of a long, winding dirt road you’ll find Ridge Vineyards. They have been around as long as we’ve been in California. In fact, their website says the winery began its modern incarnation in 1962. Known for their monster zinfandels in decades past, we abandoned them when our aging digestive systems grew, um, less tolerant of zinfandel tannins and oak. But when Artisan Wine Depot invited us to a tasting of Ridge wines, we couldn’t resist.
And we were pleasantly surprised. Ridge has updated their winemaking techniques to accommodate our somewhat more mature tastes. We tried two chardonnays and six zins. Every one was eminently quaffable. While we liked some better than others, Ridge has been added back to our list after a 20 year absence. They are still zinful after all these years.
Hors D’oeuvre: Chardonnay
The two chardonnays were the 2012 Estate ($40) and the 2010 “Monte Bello” Estate ($60). The 2012 Estate begins with aromas of wet dog. Bypass the sniffing and proceed directly to the flavors. You’ll discover an explosion of tastes, lush and rich, with flavors of white peaches and a touch of pineapple. The Monte Bello is lighter with more pineapple and citrus, as well as a creamy aroma and flavor. Both are out of our chardonnay price range, but if this is what you like, you won’t find anything better.[portfolio_slideshow include=”3893,3897,3899,3898,3892,3894,3896″ showcaps=true autoplay=true size=large]
All the grapes in these wines are from Sonoma County. If you’re familiar with that area, you’ll recognize the cities and other geographic designations. If not, we’ve included a map with locations marked at the end of this article. (The map is from the Ridge website. On that site the map is interactive and animated. Highly recommended.)
Some of these zins are blended with the “mataro” grape. Everyone seems to agree that this is mourvedre. According to wine-searcher.com, mataro is the name used in Australia and California. We’ve been tasting California wines for decades and this is the first time we’ve heard that name.
My comment early in the tasting: “This is not what I remember from Ridge.” A good formula for survival in this business is adapting your production to market changes. We suspect, however, that Ridge has a number of zins that we did not taste that appeal to their historical audience.
The 2012 “Three Valleys” ($20, BARGAIN) is a blend from three Sonoma County valleys: Geyserville (Dry Creek Valley), Lytton Springs, and the Russian River AVA. The blend is 79% zinfandel, 12% carignane, 8% petite sirah and 1% alicante bouschet. Spaghetti wine, simple, with some zinfandel character. Oddly, this was the only zin that had the characteristic spice we’ve associated with zinfandel. (We bought a couple of bottles.)
Also from 2012 is the “Pagani Ranch” ($30). This wine is 90% zinfandel, 9% alicante bouschet, and 1% mataro. Intense aromas of earth and leather, but a little too acid for our taste.
The Dry Creek Valley is the source for the 2012 “East Bench” ($27). No blend here — 100% zinfandel. Vanilla on the nose, more vanilla flavors, not much zinfandel character (a tiny bit of spice) — and not one of our favorites.
“Geyserville” is the designation for the next 2012 ($30). The blend is 71% zinfandel, 19% carignane, 7% petite sirah, 2% matara, and 1% alicante bouschet. Aromas of earth and leather, followed by tannins and spice on the palate.
If you know Ridge, you probably know their “Lytton Springs” zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley. (In fact, Ridge acquired this vineyard in 1991.) Our hosts were pouring the 2012 ($32) and 2005 ($50) vintages.
The 2012 Lytton Springs is a blend of 70% zinfandel, 21% petite sirah, 7% carignane and 4% matara. Musty, earthy aromas with a touch of tannins. This wine is very drinkable today. We liked it, especially at this price.
The 2005 is on the verge of being over the hill. If you buy this one, don’t wait to drink it. The blend is 77% zinfandel, 17% petite sirah, and 6% carignane.
Dessert: Some History
While Ridge was founded in 1962, their first zinfandel release was in 1964. This year is the 50th anniversary of that first release.
In 1885 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 2600′, it 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. 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 ’61, convinced the partners to re-bond the winery in time for the 1962 vintage.
The first zinfandel was made in 1964, from a small nineteenth-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 fifteen to forty-five acres. Working on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity. By 1968, production had increased to just under three thousand 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—he 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, the consistent quality and international reputation of the wines established. Cabernet and Zinfandel account for most of the production; Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, and Petite Sirah constitute a small percentage. Known primarily for its red wines, Ridge has also made limited amounts of chardonnay since 1962.
Paul Draper is the CEO and winemaker. As noted above, Paul learned winemaking by doing it. Not bad for a guy with a degree in philosophy! Paul works with Eric Baugher (Vice-President, Winemaking – Monte Bello), John Olney (Vice-President, Winemaking – Lytton Springs), and David Gates (Vice-President, Vineyard Operations).
You probably know about “The Judgment of Paris,” even if only via the movie Bottle Shock. What you may not know is that Ridge’s 1971 Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon finished fifth, behind Chateau Haut-Brion 1970 and ahead of Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971. Most stories focus on Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena. But no winery on this list was a slouch.
Ridge was a pioneer in zinfandel. Paul Draper and company deserve the utmost respect for maintaining the tradition and quality for half a century. Please join CaliforniaWineFan in congratulating them.