1. Climens: This was a special birth-year wine from Larry that was served w/ the cheese course to celebrate the coming 70'th BD of MichaelOgg's and another participant. It was an unusual label in that the 1942 was enclosed in (1942), something I'd never observed in a wine before. I don't know if it had some significance, like it wasn't entirely 1942, or what. This was waaaay back during the German occupation of France and making wine, with no labor available to pick, must have been pretty tough.
2. The Ridge folks were in town for the SFW&CF and to honor PaulDraper w/ the "Honoree of the Year" award. These MonteBellos were set aside some yrs ago for a celebration w/ the Ridge folks. So last Fri was the time to break these suckers out.
The dinner was hosted by LarryArchibald and Chef de Cuisine was LauraChancellor. Invitees were Paul&Maureen Draper and Mark&Dianne Vernon. Other invitees were locals Michael&Barbara Ogg and SteveSterbenz&AnnaHayes. ParkingAttendant and SculleryMaid was SusanClough; she obviously w/ the most credentials of any in attendance. And later we were joined by GregO'Byrne, director of the SFW&CF.
We started w/ a toast & a few rememberances of DonnRiesen, who had frequently sat at this very table, regaling us w/ stories and keeping us all in stitches. We also were here to celebrate the 50'th Anniversary of the founding of RidgeVnyds...1962, when the four SRI scientists banded together to buy the TorreRanch up on MonteBelloRidge and rebond the wnry. And, finally, to celebrate the arrival of Paul&Maureen's first grandchild, Caden, two weeks earlier. And the BD celebration as mentioned above.
The bulk of these MB's came from my cellar. They had been purchased some yrs ago, primarily from PhilReich at the LiquorMart in Boulder. I was roundly scolded for overpaying on most of these wines. Some 8-10 yrs ago, I thought it would be nice to taste thru my old MB's the next time we had Ridge folks in. So I gathered them together and passed them on to Larry for storage, where they'd rested until Friday. So the bulk of their lives was spent in my cellar, where the temperatures ranged from 60F in the summer, down to the mid-low 30'sF thru the winter.
3. '66-'69 Blend: When Paul got to Ridge (1969), they had most of the '66 sitting in barrel. Alas, it had developed a very high degree of VA/EA. This blend, one of several, was a way to salvage some of that '66 wine. And it obviously worked very well...I found no signs of VA in the wine. Paul recounted that a few of the MB customers (who had followed Ridge from the very start) were peeved that there was no '66 MB to buy. So DaveBennion ruefully bottled up a few cases of the '66 on its own to satisfy these adamant cstomers. Paul has never tasted any of those btls of salad dressing. This particular btl was gifted to me some 10 yrs ago by DonnReisen.
4. Chard: I haven't had this MB Chard since its release a yr ago. It has evolved quite nicely and the oak treatment seems to be subsiding. Actually, I liked the recently-released Estate Chard '09 better, at this point in time. It has a more vibrant fruit, less ripeness, less oak than the MB. But, down the road, I'd put my money on the MB. The MB '09 has not yet been released.
Back in the early '70's, when I started trying the Ridge wines and fell in love with them; I also tried a few of their whites (Chard/MonteBello; VineHill Riesling and Sylvaner). They left me disappointed. They were lean/ austere/earthy/chalky/mineral (all things I look for in Chard these days) and resembled nothing the rich/powerful/ oaked Calif Chards I loved at the time. About '77, I took a group of nuclear types up for a visit atop the knoll on MB Ridge. Dave Bennion hosted us. It was a cold/blustery/overcast day and we were all shivering. After we tasted thru the new release of Zins and were about to wind things down, I made the off-hand comment to Dave how much I loved his Zins but that I thought hiis whites were....a bit lacking ("sucked" is the term I was thinking, but didn't actually use). Dave immediately took this as a challenge and went down and started pulling old whites (Chard/ Riesling/Sylvaner) from the library. All from the mid-late '60's. The wines were all amazingly good old whites, much like old WhiteBurgs and Alsatian Rieslings. Made a believier out of me. Ended on the high note of a Riesling TBA ('68?) Dave had made. Only time I ever tried that wine. Amazing stuff that I suspect is still going strong.
Paul likes to tell the story of some yrs ago, DonnReisen wanted to clear all these old whites out of their library as being too old. Their British importer happened to be there that day, so they decided to open up all these old whites for him to try. The guy was ecstatic...ohhh'd & ahhhh'd over them ("went ape$hit" we'd say in Kansas)...comparing them to old GrandCru WhiteBurgs.
When the partners bought the original TorreRanch in the early '60's; there was a tiny amount of Chard planted, which I presume was the source for those early Ridge Chards. Those were eventually torn out during replanting to Cabernet varieties and Ridge did not produce Chard for many a yr in there. When they were replanting down on Klein/Jimsomare Ranch; they planted Chard and now that is the source of the Ridge Chards. The wines made from those grapes are rather riper and see more oak than Dave would have done. Yet they still show some/much of that
earthy/chalky/mineral character that was so dominant in Dave's rendition of Chard. Because of the MB and their Zins, I don't think Ridge gets the recognition for the quality of their Chards that they deserve.
5. TNs: When you have a bunch of 40 yr old Calif Cabs, you're sure to draw some duds. Amazingly, that was not at all the case w/ this collection. About 45 min afore the guests were to arrive, I started pulling corks and decanting the wines. A couple of them were a bit loose and I had to nurse them out w/ the Ah-So. If they started to go down in the neck, I took my (manual) ScrewPull to them. None of the corks disintegrated or fell apart. Two broke in half, but I managed to get the remaining piece out of the neck intact. Any neuro-surgeon would have been proud of my corkscrew skills. Which is why I don't fence sabre. All had very good fills save one that was ullaged down onto mid-shoulder. As I decanted the wines, I'd pour the dregs into a glass and sample it. After I'd opened the nine wines, not a one was flawed or iffy...I knew we were in for a pretty special evening.
It was huge fun to sit at table and listen to Paul describe the making of the wine....laced with many anecdotes about that year's vintage. Alas, I was not able to do much justice in my TNs to his comments. DianneVernon was sitting next to me and every so often she'd have to lean over and nudge me..."eat, eat". There were some 1-4 oz. left in the decanters of nearly all the wines, which I took home to Susan's and resampled the next morning. Amazingly, none of the wines showed any significant deterioration overnight, though some became a little murky. The above TNs are a composite of those two tastings of the wines.
6. '79 SCM: This was a btl provided by SteveSterbenz & AnnaHayes. Purchased back on the EastCoast. Because '79 was not a very good year, essentially all of the MB was declassified into this SCM Cab. Because '79 was his daughter Caitlin's BD, he did btl up two barrels of the '79 as official MB, but I obviously never saw the wine. That year, the grapes got quite ripe before they were picked. It was clear that this was not a classic MB Cabernet. Nonetheless, the wine was still going strong.
7. Jimsomare '81: This was GregO'Byrne's contribution to the evening. A special release to the Ridge CabernetProgram, which is now the MonteBelloCollectors program. In '81, they could not get the Jimsomare/lower MonteBello grapes to ripen, so the wine was way down around 11% alcohol. To salvage this wine, Paul blended in some of the wine from the Torre/Perrone upper Estate to get a more acceptable alcohol level. Pretty good salvage job I would say.
In the late '70's, many Calif wineries started to develop a problem w/ brett in their wines. Somehow, Paul associated this w/ RobertMondavi starting to bring in CentralVlly grapes into his NapaVlly wnry. Ridge was not immune to this problem of brett in their wines and some of those from the '80-'82 vintage were particularly hard hit. By paying much more attention to cleanliness and sanitization in the wnry, Ridge had pretty much eliminated this problem by the '84 vintage. I very rarely find any signs of brett in the Ridges since that time. Ridge keeps very close track of the numbers on their wines and I'm sure the lab analysis would pick up any signs of that reacurring.
8. Paris: In any tasting of MB, the "Judgement of Paris" always comes up. In that original event, the '71 MB finished down in the middle of the pack. In the repeat of that event in 2006, the MB '71 was the clear winner. Paul remarked that when StephenSpurrier visited the wnry back then, he casually mentioned that he was doing a tasting of Calif wines in Paris later and wanted to include the '71 MB...which was the current release at that time. Paul was happy to oblige and sold him the wine. Alas, he was unware of what Spurrier had planned nor the publicity that the tasting would generate. Otherwise, he would have insisted he take the '70 MB.
It was interesting to taste these two together. I'd never done that (I've only had the '70 maybe 4-5 times in my life) before. Though the '71 was no slouch, I thought the '70 was clearly the better of the two. No telling how it would have done in the original '76 tasting, but probably would have finished higher. Clearly, the '70 MB is a monumental wine and probably the greatest Calif Cab I've ever had the pleasure to taste.
9. MB'76: This Cabernet/Merlot blend was a special blend that was created in addition to the regular MB, which would probably have been 100% Cab. They had, by then, done extensive replanting on MBRidge and the alternative Bdx varieties were just coming on line. Alas, I did not have the regular MB in my stash when I assembled this batch of wines. This was also the first yr of the drought yrs and the wines tended to be pretty intense and tannic.
10. Eisele '71: This was a pretty rare Ridge wine back in those days. Fortunately Phil Reich/ LiquorMart got in a stash and made sure I got some of it; along w/ the regular MB'71. I had my (next to-) last Eisele w/ EricBaugher up at Taos some 10 yrs ago. He had never tried the wine before. It was magnificant then....still is.
Along during those yrs, Ridge made a number of both York Creek Cabernet and Merlot wines. I was not particularly enamored of those wines and thought they didn't hold a candle to the MonteBellos. Thus I didn't have any of those to include in this tasting. FritzMaytag (owner of YorkCreekVnyd) and Paul go way back...even before their connection with a wnry in Chile. Thus Ridge has long had special access to those YorkCreek grapes. The Ridge YorkCreek PetiteSirah '71 was a monumental wine...of the stature of the '70 MB I think. The last time I had iit in the mid-'90's at the BippenDesai tasting, I characterized it has the greatest Calif red wine I had ever tasted. I would have a hard time saying that now w/ this '70 MB. I suspect the '71 PS is fading by now, whereas the MB'70 is still going strong.
Ridge continues to make the YorkCreek Zin from Fritz's grapes. But they gave up the sweetheart deal on the PS grapes w/ the '06 vintage so Fritz could use them in his own PS (which I have never had). Ridge still has for sale the DynamiteHill '06 and it is a terrific/classic Ridge PS.
This '71 was the only year that Ridge took Eisele grapes. Paul felt the grapes were riper than he desired, didn't fit in w/ the Ridge style, and passed on them. They subsequently went to JosephPhelps to make some pretty exceptional Cabs. They now go into the Araujo wines.
11. MB'72: This was, by & large, one of the most miserable vintages ever in Calif, plagued by heavy/long/continual rains through most of the harvest. Most of the Calif '72 reds were pretty weak/dilute wines, though, with careful selection, some rather pretty wines were made. Because of their penchant for harvesting early, Ridge escaped the rain damage and their '72MB was one of the greatest Calif Cabs made that year. Alas, because the vintage was widely damned by the know-it-all critics out of Monktown, the '72MB was sorta tarred&feathered along w/ the rest. But, when I tasted it, I realized it was something special and it's always been one of my favorite MBs of that era. This was the 2'nd MB that I had tasted (after the two '71's) and probably when the light bulb went on in my dim-bulb head that maybe MonteBello was something special.
Paul characterized the '72 has always being a rather tough/angular wine; though the years have certainly smoothed out those hard edges.
12. Worshiping At The Altar of Terroir: There are some folks who loudly proclaim that the highest calling for any wine is for it to speak of its terroir loud & clear and the sole job of the winemaker is to stand back and not monkey around w/ the wine or interfere w/ this expression of the wine's terroir. Yet in the Ridge MB, the oak treatment the wine receives, from very high quality Am. oak, is an integral part of what makes these wines MB. Is the oak part of the MB terroir??? Methinks not...in the conventional sense of the T-word. I find the MB Cabs have something unique, a dusty/earthy/mineral character that comes thru the oak, but not starkly so. I've also seen that character in some of the MtEden Cabs as well. So, clearly, these loud-mouthed louts who worship at the altar of terroir must regard Ridge MB as a lesser wine. Hmmmm.... maybe these folks worship a false God???
13. Balance: This word, difficult to describe, has sorta become a code word for a style of winemaking in Calif that emphasizes lower alcohol levels. Because MBRidge is a pretty cold growing area, their Cabs have always been pretty modest in alcohol, only infrequently going over the 13% mark. This is not so much a conscious decision as it is just that's what MBRidge naturally gives.
To me, "balance" refers not just to lower alcohol levels but to the quality in a wine where every
component is in correct proportions and nothing really sticks out ("out of balance"). That is a quality that I find in most all the MBs that I taste. Even in the young MBs, even right from the barrel like the '11, I'm struck by their balance. Even though you know darn well that the tannins are going to diminish over time, in the young MBs the tannins always seem in control. They are fine-grained/polished tannins and never seem to be coarse or hard or gritty. I expect that comes from the gentle way Ridge handles their MB grapes. But even when young, that balance is always there....seamless is how I describe it...and it's hard to keep your hands off the wine.
I think that balance in the MBs is one of the key ingredients in their longevity. They usually seem to have this very long plateau in their aging. Certainly, their character will change as they age along this plateau, but everything seems to keep their proportions in balance. Uncanny, it is.
This is the article I wrote for the LocalFlavor SFW&CF issue. It was edited slightly for the printed edition but contained the essence of this article.
Paul Draper: SFW&CF Honoree of the Year
This year marks my 22nd year as a participant at the SFW&CF...from that very first one
on the Sanbusco back parking lot. If there's been one constant over those years, it's been
the presence of Ridge Vineyards. This year, Ridge winemaker/CEO, Paul Draper, is the SFW&CF's
Honoree of the Year, an award highly deserved. He will be presenting a seminar featuring a six year vertical ('84, '95, '99, '07, '09, '11 barrel sample) of the reknowned Monte Bello, a Cabernet-based blend that is, by anyone's definition, one of the World's truly profound wines. Tasted from barrel with Paul in March, I thought the '11 was maybe the best Monte Bello in years. At 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, it has the highest percentage of Cab of any Monte Bellos since the '70's.
Paul has given seminars at SFW&CF several times over the years. Because the event occurs
smack-dab in the middle of crush, it is not easy for any hands-on winemaker to shake loose for
a few days to present their wines in SantaFe. That many winemakers take such time-out for this
is a strong tribute to the importance they accord the SFW&CF. Not that his absence will jeopardize the crush at Ridge.... Paul has assembled a staff that is the envy of many wineries. Dave Gates supervises the many vineyards that Ridge draws grapes from. Eric Baugher is winemaker at the Monte Bello estate. John Olney (nephew of famed food writer Richard Olney) is his counterpart at the Lytton Springs facility. Even though these three have "Vice President" after their names, they are, most assuredly, out there amongst the vines and barrels doing real work. Oftentimes with Paul right there sharing those chores.
A "Short" History
Ridge Vineyards was founded in 1959 when four Stanford Research Institute scientists bought
the abandoned William Short property high atop Monte Bello ridge overlooking the Santa Clara
Valley. They then bought the adjacent Osea Perrone property and bonded the derelict winery for
commercial production in 1962.
The founding winemaker was Dave Bennion. In the mid-'50's, after receiving his
PhD from Stanford, he worked several summers at Los Alamos and made important
contributions in firing circuits. Another Ridge founder, Hew Crane, was the first engineer hired
at Princeton by Johnny von Neumann. He made significant design innovations to the first all-electronic computer, the ENIAC; predecessor to the Los Alamos MANIAC computer. The first few years, Bennion made Cabernet from the vines Short planted in 1949. It's distinctive
character suggested that Monte Bello was a unique site that could produce world-class wine. In 1964, Bennion applied his Cabernet techniques to produce the first Ridge Zinfandel, from the nearby Pichetti vineyard. Applying fine-winemaking techniques to a variety that had heretofore been relegated to jug wines was a remarkable innovation and lifted Zinfandel to new heights.
Interestingly, in those mid-'60's years, before French cooperage was routinely imported into California, Bennion bought Cabernet in barrel directly from the famed Bordeaux estate, Chateau Lynch-Bages... for the barrels. There actually existed Ridge estate bottled Lynch-Bages. It reportedly was quite good and received scores in the mid-90's out of Monktown!!
As Ridge expanded their production, the founders realized they needed a full-time winemaker. They settled on a young man who had just returned from setting up a small winery in Chile....Paul Draper. I can only guess that it must have been an interesting interview, based on what surely was a very thin resume. This gamble obviously has paid huge dividends over the years.
Paul & partner Fritz Maytag were not quite finished with their Chilean work at that point. When Paul returned from Chile; the Ridge founders, Bennion, Hew Crane, and Norm Rosen interviewed him. He tried Dave's '62 and '64 MonteBello Cabs and was blown away. The Ridge founders were interested in a winemaker who was focused on traditional winemaking practices; not some recent Davis graduate schooled in all the latest whiz-bang winemaking tricks. Paul took an immediate like to the Ridge founders. It was sort of a match made in heaven...or, at least, atop Monte Bello Ridge...which is pretty close to heaven.
Paul's debut vintage as winemaker was the 1970. And what a debut it was. The '70 Ridge Monte Bello is regarded by many as, perhaps, the greatest Cabernet ever made in California. Paul recognized it as something special and had as his license plate MB70 for some years.
As time passed, the four original founders were getting on in their years and less involved in Ridge operations. So, in 1986, Ridge was purchased by Otsuka Pharmaceutical of Japan. Many of us Ridge aficionados were convinced this foreshadowed the end of Ridge's producing great wines. Ahhhh...but it was not to be. The Otsuka management recognized they'd put their money on a winning horse and pretty much gave Ridge free reign, naming Paul as CEO two years later.
At the famous "Judgement of Paris" tasting in 1976, in which the Stag's Leap Cabernet bested other California cabernets and four Bordeaux classified growths, the Ridge Monte Bello '71 finished fifth, in the middle of the pack. The French tasters scoffed at their "mistake" and sniffed that the Bordeauxs would surely come out on top with some age.
This very same tasting was repeated, in Paris and in Napa, in 2006. This time, the winner was...ta da.... the Monte Bello '71; with all the classified Bordeauxs filling out the bottom tier. So much for French supremacy when it comes to Cabernet.
One of the buzz-words in wine circles these days is "natural" wine; wines made with natural yeasts, little oak, minimal or no SO2 additions, and so forth. Some of these wines are, quite frankly, not very good. Ridge has practiced natural winemaking techniques for years, well before it was fashionable. Because the "natural" term carries such loaded connotations, Ridge prefers to use "pre-industrial" to describe their winemaking. Make no mistake....there's plenty of modern stainless steel at Ridge. But its use is to more efficiently replicate winemaking techniques used many years ago.
At Ridge, they are willing to use (rather than abuse) the latest in wine technology....the bottom line always to produce a better wine. Their chemistry lab is as modern as they come. Every lot of wine is given a detailed chemical analysis. But this is used only for guidance in heading off problems. It is not, in any sense, winemaking-by-numbers. Since nearly all of the Ridge wines are blends, these blends are decided strictly by taste...not by the numbers.
The staff tastings are held at least once a week; more often when the final Monte Bello assemblage is being decided in February following the vintage.
I have been privileged to participate in a few of these tastings. It makes you appreciate the effort
they put into their blends. I am always struck by their collegial nature.
You take notes on the various wines you are tasting, usually blind. With Paul presiding, you
then offer up your opinions. He listens very intently to everyone's thoughts, taking more notes. But, in the end, it will be Paul's decision to make, which he thoughtfully explains. It is, truly, a
Ridge-team effort. But the buck stops on Paul's desk.
I met Paul in the summer of '74 when I made an appointment for my first visit to Ridge, after several years of correspondence over his wines (Paul even has a thick Tom Hill folder in his files!!). We did a walk of the Monte Bello vineyard and then adjourned to the upper winery to taste. Joining us that visit was Jeremiah Tower and three of his French chef friends. Tower, then in charge of the kitchen at Chez Panisse, had not yet achieved his later celebrity-chef status. I recall Tower seemed a little peeved that Paul spent most of his time answering my multitudinous questions.
Over the years, I've had many interactions and tastings with Paul. I used to rent a condo in Aspen with a group of friends who'd attend the Aspen Food & Wine Festival. We'd do our own winemaker dinners at the condo. Paul was a frequent speaker at Aspen. One night, Paul and Darrell Corti joined us and we sat up into the wee hours of the next morning listening to those two carry on a wide-ranging exchange on a vast variety of topics.
Of all the people I've met in the wine biz, I regard Paul and Darrell (a Sacramento grocer) as the most gifted intellects around. Had those two chosen to be physicists, the Higgs boson would've been discovered way back in the '70's...before Higgs had even postulated it!!!
The Ridge WebSite (www.RidgeWine.com) is one of the best winery web sites around. It is loaded with much information about Ridge and its wines. The Monte Bello tasting room manager, Christopher Watkins, writes a wine blog (http://blog.ridgewine.com/) that is one of the most compelling reads in the wine blogosphere.
Interestingly, when you enter 17100 into the GoogleMaps search box, what should pop up #1 of all the 17100 addresses throughout the World?? Yup....Ridge Monte Bello Road!! Worth taking a look-see at the satellite image.
Of course, any mention of Ridge Vineyards and SFW&CF would be remiss in not recalling Donn Reisen, Ridge's late Marketing Director and President. He was the iconic Ridge representative at many a SFW&CF from the early years. His death several years ago left a huge hole in the hearts of many of the SFW&CF attendees. Donn is greatly missed by all of us.
Finally, at 75 years of age and over 40 years in the saddle at Ridge, Paul's retirement is sometimes whispered of... with great trepidation. Though he has the greatest staff at Ridge, from top to bottom, that any CEO could ever ask for; I simply don't see retirement on the near horizon. To my take, Paul's enthusiasm and passion for making wines at Ridge burns as brightly now as when I first met him almost 40 year ago atop Monte Bello Ridge. And that, to me, is an absolutely amazing accomplishment...unparalleled in the California wine business.