Monday, June 12, 2006

12 June 2006 - Ridge Vineyards

Ridge, bonded in 1962, is pretty old by California standards. At least for post-prohibition California. David Bennion and three fellow Stanford Research Institute scientists purchased property up the mountain from Cupertino (this is south of SF Bay, and what is now known as Silicon Valley) with the idea of having a little country getaway not far from their lab in Palo Alto. They knew the property had some old vines -- the original parcel they purchased is now known as the "middle vineyard" of Monte Bello ridge -- but their original intention was to make a little wine for their own consumption. I don't know if they were aware of the history of the Santa Cruz Mountains, California's "golden chain," the first internationally recognized great wine growing region in the state in the late 19th century. Being smart guys, probably so. If that was the case, they couldn't have been too surprised by the quality of that first wine Bennion made, in 1959. I've never tasted it, but it is legendary. Consider it the first Ridge Monte Bello, even if it was essentially the product of a home winemaker. The wine was so good, the vacation home owners decided to bond the winery (making it legal to produce commercial quantities of wine), which was completed by 1962. It wasn't the first time Monte Bello had produced commercial quantities of wine -- the first winery and vineyards were established on the property in 1885, with the first Monte Bello Winery release in 1892. Osea Perrone, the first owner, planted the vineyards and built the winery that is still used today, on three levels of the steep hillside, utilizing gravity to move the wine gently from press to fermenter to barrel. David Bennion continued on as full-time winemaker at Ridge until 1969, when the job was given to Paul Draper, who is today still chief winemaker as well as CEO of Ridge Vineyards. Ridge Vineyards was purchased in 1986 by Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, which insisted, upon purchasing the winery, that absolutely nothing be changed other than making a lot more cash available for future vineyard acquisition.

I've tasted a few Bennion-made Ridge wines ('62, '64, '66 Monte Bellos), and a few hundred Draper-made Ridge wines. I've tasted pre-Otsuka wines and post-Otsuka wines. I doubt anyone unaware of the winery history would know the wines came from different winemakers or different winery owners. Bennion and his partners wanted to make wine the old-fashioned way -- ferment using the native yeast living on the skin of every wine grape, in small batches, with no fining or filtration. This was scary stuff in mid-20th century, post-prohibition California. The viticulture and enology department of UC-Davis was created expressly to help California re-establish a commercial wine industry. The goal was not to make great wine, but to make huge quantities of drinkable wine as quickly as possible. Paul Draper, another Stanford alum (philosophy) was hired by Ridge in 1969, fresh from building a new winery in Chile. Whereas most new California winemakers at that time were UC-Davis graduates, Draper brought practical, old world experience to the job. In other words, he was the perfect person to build on the solid traditional winemaking foundation Bennion had established.

A question to ponder at this point: Is it the winemaking or the vineyards that make Ridge special? Or could it be something as simple as a winemaker's good taste?

Ridge wines have changed over the years. In general, they are more luscious and drinkable sooner than they used to be. Even Monte Bello, which used to take decades (note the 1971 Monte Bello, which won the reenactment of the red wine phase of the Paris Tasting of 1976, but didn't win the first time around, when it was too damned young to be tasting good), now might only take a decade to taste good. Paul Draper and his great winemaking crew never stop tinkering -- "old-fashioned" is not the same as "reactionary" -- trying to refine a product that is already great. Still, Monte Bello 2002 is unmistakably Monte Bello, just as much as the phenomenal '71 or '77. Lytton Springs and Geyserville, both great, are still distinctively different. When Ridge added a Russian River Valley appellation to their Zinfandel selections (Ponzo Vineyard), the different character of that wine was immediately evident. Paso Robles always tastes like Paso Robles. It's all so clear, you would think it's simple. But I can't think of another California winery that does it better, managing innumerable small lots from site specific sources, making so many different, distinctive, special wines. Year after year they do this. They make so many different wines, you might think they make hundreds of thousands of cases. Nope, 60-65,000 cases is total production. Because of Ridge, I am willing to accept the concept that big companies acquiring small wineries is not always a bad thing. When Otsuka acquired Ridge in 1986, they could have done anything. They told Draper to do exactly what he'd been doing, with the additional task of purchasing as many of the vineyards they'd been purchasing grapes from as possible. Today, Ridge owns every vineyard it makes wine from, with the exception of Dusi Ranch (Paso Robles Zinfandel) and Trentadue Vineyards (key parcels of Geyserville). They built a second winery, in Lytton Springs, for making the north coast origin (Sonoma and Napa Valley) wines. Ridge Vineyards spares no cost to make the best wines they can make, and Otsuka picks up the tab -- now that's benevolent ownership!