I first visited Ridge Vineyards a number of years ago, but it was before I started this wine country traveling blog so I thought I’d return to this Santa Cruz Mountain top winery. The road leading up to the tasting room is a little treacherous so if you’re not careful you may run a bicyclist off the road or have a head on collision with an oncoming car as the road is narrow and at times there is only one undivided lane. But, once you arrive you’ll have a fantastic view of the south end of the San Francisco Bay.
The history of Ridge Vineyards begins in 1885 when Osea Perrone, a doctor who became a prominent member of San Francisco’s Italian community, bought 180 acres near the top of the “beautiful mountain ridge” or Monte Bello Ridge which is surrounded by the “upper vineyard” and at an altitude 2,600 feet. He then forged the land by terracing the slopes and planting vineyards. Using native limestone he then built the Monte Bello Winery and produced the first vintage in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is still utilized as Ridge Vineyards’ production facility today.
By the 1940s, the winery and vineyard had been abandoned due to the prohibition. It was then purchased by William Short, a theologian, who bought the land just below the Perrone property and replanted several parcels to Cabernet Sauvignon.
From these vines, which are now the “middle vineyard,” the new owners Dave Bennion and his three partners, all Stanford Research Institute engineers (now called SRI International), made a quarter-barrel of “Estate” Cabernet in 1959. The quality and distinctive character of the wines produced from these same grapes in 1960 and 1961 that were sold to other wineries convinced the partners to re-bond the winery in time for the 1962 vintage, Ridge Vineyards’ first commercial vintage.
The first Zinfandel was made in 1964, from a small 19th Century vineyard farther down the ridge. This was followed in 1966 by the first Geyserville Zinfandel. The founding families reclaimed the Monte Bello terraces and increased the vineyard size from 15 to 45 acres.
By 1968, production had increased to just fewer than 3,000 cases per year. Then in 1969, Paul Draper, a Stanford University graduate in philosophy, joined the partnership after he returned from setting up a winery in Chile’s coast range. Paul was a practical winemaker, not an enologist and his knowledge of fine wines and traditional methods complemented the straightforward “hands off” approach pioneered at Ridge Vineyards. Under his guidance, the old Perrone winery (acquired the previous year) was restored and with the finest vineyard lands leased or purchased a consistent quality and international reputation of the wines was established.
In 1986 Ridge was then purchased by the Otsuka Pharmaceutical Company. This was the beginning of a partnership that has worked well as Paul Draper was named CEO with the mandate to make Ridge the best it could be. This partnership allowed Ridge, under Paul’s direction, the freedom and financial resources to expand and become the great organization that it is today. Today Paul Draper continues as CEO and Winemaker and is joined by Eric Braugher, Vice President of Winemaking Monte Bello and John Olney, the Vice President of Winemaking at Lytton Springs and David Gates, the Vice President Vineyard Operations.
Ridge Vineyards’ flagship wine is the Ridge Monte Bello which hit the map as a world class wine when the 1971 vintage was entered in the famous Judgment of Paris Tasting of 1976. In this blind tasting utilizing French judges on French soil, it came in 5th out of 10 wines, behind Stag’s Leap, Mouton Rothschild, Montrose and Haut-Brion. Then 30 years later the event was repeated at the Paris Tasting 30th Anniversary Reenactment that took place in the Napa Valley and in London on May 24, 2006, using the same blind tasting format and judges on both continents awarded top honors to the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello. Today, the profile of the wine has been modified for where it was originally 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, in 1975 it was changed to a Cabernet Sauvignon dominate blend of Bordeaux varietals which may include Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in the finished wine.
The Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello tasting room has two flights, an Estate Single-Vineyard flight ($10) and a Single-Vinyard flight ($5) and for $20 you can also taste the latest release of the Ridge Monte Bello. I chose the Estate with the Monte Bello tasting.
My first wine was the 2008 Estate Monte Bello Chardonnay. Fermented on the lee in American Oak, I picked up ginger, graham crackers, honey, dried peaches and toast on the nose. On the palate this wine is medium bodied, well structured, good acidity and it has an extremely long finish. A very fine and well made Chardonnay, but does it justify $60 a bottle?
My first red was the 2009 Geyserville Zinfandel. This wine is actually a blend of 74% Zinfandel, 17% Carignane, 6% Petite Sirah, 2% Alicante Bouchet and 1% Mataro (a.k.a Mouvedre). Notes of raspberries, strawberries and a hint of pepper followed by a hint of vanilla. On the palate the wine has supple tannins and a spicy finish. A nice wine but at $35 a bottle I would expect something more.
On the next wine, the 2009 Lynton Zinfandel, I found that “something more.” A blend of 74% Zin, 23% Carignane and 6% Petite Sirah. This wine is very Claret like, in a blind taste test I’d never guess it was supposed to be a zin. It has a fantastic nose of dried roses, plums, tobacco, cedar, and a hint of pepper. On the palate this wine goes through a rather complex and varied evolution from start to finish with a great transition on the mid palate. A great wine for $35, so I brought one home.
My next wine was the 2008 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, which is really a Bordeaux blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. On the nose I picked up black currants, blackberries, dark roasted coffee and a hint of anise and sweet oak on the finish. Big tannins with plenty of grip on the gums, needs a lot more time in the bottle but should show great in about two years. A nice wine for $40 a bottle.
My final wine was the 2008 Monte Bello. Dark plum at the base and as I swirled the glass it stained the rim pink and violet. Very earthy and intense on the nose with black currants, tar, Dutch licorice, cherry cola, dark chocolate and espresso and some oak on the nose. On the palate it has big chewy lip puckering tannins that scream, “I am WAY too young to be drinking now!” This is a monster of a wine and it has a price tag to match at $145 a bottle.
For more information or to visit:
Ridge Vineyards - Monte Bello
17100 Monte Bello Road
Cupertino, CA 95014