New World wine, Old World thinking
Most of the world's best-known winemakers have some kind of formal training in wine and were often born into the profession. Rather than a degree in oenology, Paul Draper, CEO and winemaker at Ridge Vineyards for more than 35 years, studied philosophy at university. Though his family were farmers, they grew cereal crops rather than grapes, and in Illinois not California. So how did this softly spoken, unassuming man become one of the most well-respected winemakers in California? Joanna Goodman took the opportunity to find out when he came to London last November to present his wines at a Society tasting.
Born in Chicago on 10th March 1936, Draper learned about self-reliance from his father who had been in the investment business but had gone back to farming when the Great Depression hit. The Drapers were not really wine drinkers; his mother would have a glass of Sherry every evening and wine would be brought out at celebrations. Draper was sent away to public school and as it was too far to return to his own family for weekends and short holidays, he usually spent them with his roommate's family in New York City. The parents were Swiss and served wine with lunch and dinner every day. Draper was very taken with the romance of wine as part of everyday life. "Also, having grown up on a farm, there was something intriguing about the idea that a crop you grew from the earth could transform itself into something so complex and wonderful - this was and still is, deeply meaningful for me." This was his introduction to the world of wine.
A fascination with Europe
Draper chose to go to Stanford University; one of the attractions being that it was in California, a winemaking state. Even at this early stage, Draper thought about how much he would like to be involved in the wine trade but thought that you had to be an oenologist to have a chance in this field. As he knew that science wasn't his forté he thought the idea of a career as a winemaker was closed to him.
Draper chose to study philosophy at undergraduate level as a way of involving himself in many different disciplines. As the military draft was still in effect when Draper graduated, he signed up for military language school. He had always been interested in languages and loved to travel (visiting Mexico and Italy as a student). Feeling somewhat alienated from his own culture at the time, Draper relished the idea of being able to get back to Europe. He was posted to Italy as a civilian working in liaison. He rented a run-down 30-room villa with a colleague just outside Venice and enjoyed being able to wear hand-made Italian suits and rekindle his friendships with local winemakers. When the posting was over, Draper spent a year at the Sorbonne in Paris before returning to the States where he worked in foreign affairs, travelling extensively in Latin America.
Finally, in 1967 Draper had the opportunity to get some first-hand experience of actually making wine. An old university friend had got Draper involved in a charitable foundation in Chile. Together they had discovered some old plots of cabernet sauvignon and wanted to have a go at making wine themselves. Draper needed to learn some practical winemaking skills, so returned to Bordeaux to stay with friends who had a premier cru château in the Médoc. He also spent hours poring over Peynaud's books on traditional winemaking.
Back in California, Draper spent a vintage with a small winery, where he said the work was intense but wonderfully straightforward - "there was absolutely no chemistry involved!" In a wine library, Draper located a 19th-century French text on winemaking in Bordeaux which was to prove even more useful to him for the Chilean venture, where no equipment could be brought in and everything had to be built from scratch. Draper told me that he recently opened a 1967 bottle of the Chilean cabernet that he made; his colleagues at Ridge thought it tasted like Monte Bello!
The allure of Ridge
When Draper first went to Ridge he tasted the 1962 and 1964 Monte Bello and for him it was the first time that he had tasted a wine from California that had the potential to be as good as great Bordeaux. He joined the company in 1969 and was asked to sit on the board almost immediately. After five or six years he was a fully fledged co-owner, something that, with hindsight, Draper says was a smart move on the part of the original partners: "After a couple of years I realised that this was probably going to be my life's work where I would have the chance to grow authentic wines of the highest quality". The pursuit of this notion of 'quality' was instilled in Draper early on by his father and his schooling. This drive to produce a world-class wine was also what attracted Ridge's current hands-off owner, pharmaceutical magnate Akihiko Otsuka, who purchased the winery from its founders in 1986 but only on condition that Draper stayed on to run it.
Draper on alcohol levels
Though never vitriolic, Draper is critical of some of his compatriots who are making high-alcohol blockbuster wines. He acknowledges that zinfandel cannot be grown in cooler regions and that if it doesn't get up to around 14% it will not have the intensity of fruit essential to its quality. But he says, "a number of producers are making zins at around 16.5% alc just because they score points with critics and attract a vocal minority among their customers". He also says that some winemakers are trying to remove alcohol from wines using reverse osmosis, but he feels this strips the character of the vineyard from the wine. At Ridge they work very hard to make sure the grapes reach optimum ripeness without getting overripe. In order to do this, you need to have a conscientious and dedicated team of workers.
Ridge is unusual in this area as well as it employs year-round workers who for the most part live on the property in company-provided housing and take personal responsibility for the constant care of individual vines. Indeed the company ethos is admirable. All workers are paid a good salary and get a good pension and, with an average tenure of 20 years in the vineyard and in production, people obviously enjoy working there. The company policy is not to make vast profits but to charge a fair price for a quality product - not simply what the market will bear. "People stay because it feels like one big family," Draper says.
They must also feel valued as the role of the individual is key when it comes to non-interventionist winemaking. Though the concept of letting nature take its course sounds simple, in practice it means extremely careful husbandry in both vineyard and winery. Equally unusual is the democratic approach to decision making. Draper tastes several times a week and includes the vineyard and production crews. Every parcel of wine is tasted blind and the voting is quite democratic (though Draper did admit to me that some tasters were 'more equal than others'!)
Winegrower not winemaker
Draper is renowned for his belief in the importance of terroir, not something that is usually so readily associated with New World producers (whom he feels often just pay it lip-service). He also prefers to be called a winegrower not a winemaker, as this better reflects the toil of coaxing wine from the earth. He feels that his non-technical background has been an advantage and deplores the way that wine schools ignore wine's long history in favour of an 'industrial process' that embraces all of the science and none of the art. When asked what role man plays in the notion of terroir, he says "that involvement is crucial as man must provide the vision that wine is the result of a natural process and its character and quality are determined by the site on which it is grown, otherwise there is little chance the terroir will be expressed. A strong element of humility is required in dropping the western ideal of dominating nature; rather than forcing nature into your mould, you should see what is there and work with it to allow it to express itself" - not just a philosophical approach to winemaking but one which requires commitment to being there for the long haul so that the effects of different approaches can be observed and, more importantly, learned from… and the good news is, much to the despair of his wife, Draper has no plans to retire!
Paul Draper was a great friend of the late Edmund Penning-Rowsell who was Chairman of The Wine Society from 1964 to 1987 and who introduced us to Ridge wines. We are fortunate to be able to offer these much sought-after wines which, when in stock can be found in the Fine Wine section.
This article originally appeared in Society News in March 2007. Updated June 2008.