Ridge is one of California’s greatest wineries. Situated 2,300 feet up in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Monte Bello Ridge overlooking San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, it is, literally, a summit of Californian excellence. The first vines were planted in the 1880s and in 1892, the first Monte Bello wines were produced, only to clash with Prohibition. Winemaking was abandoned here until the mid-Sixties, when Ridge was bought by a group of academics from Stanford University Research Institute, who were passionate about wine. They were joined in 1969 by philosophy graduate and self-taught winemaker Paul Draper, who grew up on a farm outside Chicago, and honed his craft while on government service in Italy, and in Chile. He now heads a winemaking team of three.
In 1986, the by now highly successful enterprise, whose Monte Bello cabernet had outperformed a number of Bordelais aristocrats in Stephen Spurrier’s famous Paris tasting ten years previously, was purchased by Otsuka, a Japanese pharmaceutical company. The new owners had the good sense to invest generously and to let the brilliant Draper get on with it. Sure enough, in 2006, Monte Bello cabernet took first prize in the thirtieth anniversary reprise of that “Judgement of Paris” tasting,
The redwood winery and office buildings are reminiscent of a rural American idyll with a front porch and, a curly-tailed Samoyed on hand to greet visitors. Along with zinfandel and Amerian oak barrels, they are a passion of Draper’s. His success is built on a natural approach to his craft, never applying a set formula and instead altering his techniques in the winery to best express the character of the vineyard. Low yields of concentrated grapes are produced from the cool mountain climate – they are picked block by block to ensure maximum ripeness and high quality, The emphasis here is on pure Califorina flavours, with a more European-inspired emphasis on balance rather than power.
Ridge have vineyards in two regions in California: the Santa Cruz Mountains, home to the Monte Bello vineyard and richly flavoured chardonnay and stylish Bordeaux blends; and Sonoma, where the Lytton Springs and Geyserville vineyards show the real calibre of zinfandel ‘field blends’. Monte Bello cabernet now has cult status, not perhaps Draper’s most original contribution to the California wine scene is to have taken the zinfandel to a level far above the jug wine territory the grape had traditionally occupied.