It has to be at least 40 years since I first visited then-young Ridge Vineyards. The now-nearly-legendary Paul Draper had only just come into residence as Ridge’s winemaker when Diane and I drove up those curving mountain roads south of San Francisco to what turned out to be, in all senses, an aptly named winery. I remember hardly seeing another car on the road, and the eerie experience, as we rounded one tight curve, of momentarily coming eye to eye with a Red-tailed Hawk, about 20 feet away and hovering with scarcely moving pinions over several hundred feet of empty air. Montebello Ridge was high, and wild, and natural: true pioneer country, and Ridge was – and is – a pioneer.
California wine was just beginning to burgeon back then, and while entrepreneurial skills and business daring were abundant, pioneer spirit was as scarce as it always is. The cash was crowding into Napa, some was trickling into Sonoma, and not a lot of people were looking anywhere else. There had been vineyards up on Montebello for years before a few Stanford professors bought up some of them to make a little wine for themselves and discovered that it was better than drinkable. Happily, they weren’t very practical people, and weren’t looking to make a fortune (nobody did, in wine, in those days) or start a franchise, so they just found the best winemaker they could afford and slowly began expanding. Academics used to be like that. In any event, they got lucky again and found Paul Draper – not an academically trained winemaker, and all the better for it. Winemakers used to be like that too. Draper and Ridge worked well together, and the rest, as the cliché in this case accurately has it, is history.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am far from a fan of California wines, most of which I find (choose any adjective that fits) overmanipulated, overalcoholic, overextracted, one-dimensional, blatant, and uninteresting. The great exception for me has always been Ridge, which has always been alone on its mountaintop, making wines that – except for the accident of their location – are in no sense California wines: restrained, balanced, elegant, and complex. And – oh yes, let us not forget this – sensibly priced. In fact, for their quality, bargains – all up and down the line, from the humblest Zin, which I consider far from humble, to Montebello Cabernet, which I regard as the best wine made in California, period. (Sorry to be so wishy-washy.)
Actually, I will modify that last assertion to some extent. For their prices, the best wines made in California are Ridge’s Zinfandels, all of them, even the ones they no longer label Zinfandel because the percentage of that grape in the blend has fallen below the legal requirement. Ridge makes eight of them that I know of: East Bench, Geyserville, Lytton Springs, Pagani Ranch, Paso Robles, Ponzo, Three Valleys, and York Creek. All except Three Valleys are single-vineyard wines. East Bench and Paso Robles are 100% Zinfandel, while the others are all field mixes, varying from as much as 98% Zin down to 72%.
Three Valleys and Geyserville can no longer be called Zinfandel because they contain less than 75% of that grape. But they are by no means the least estimable of Ridge’s set. The three valleys in question are Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River, all in Sonoma, and all excellent sources of the kind of mature vineyards and old-California field mixes that Ridge likes to work with. In addition to Zinfandel, Three Valleys includes Syrah and Petite Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, and Mataro. Geyserville’s single-vineyard includes Petit Syrah, Carignane, and Mataro – plus, of course, its old-vine Zinfandel. I notice that on the generously informative label notes that Ridge always provides, the 100% Zins are estimated to improve over 7 or 8 years, while Geyserville is credited with a growing span of 10 to 15 years. ‘Nuff said?
What differentiates all of Ridge’s Zinfandels for me from the vast mass of other California Zins is simply elegance. If I can overstate to make my point – and regular readers of this blog must by now be used to hearing me overstate – it is as if the model for most California Zinfandel is inexpensive Port, and the model for Ridge Zinfandel is classic Claret. However lovely and fresh the fruit may be in any of Ridge’s Zinfandels, however high the alcohol (usually over 14 degrees), the overall impression the wine makes is poise – great balance, great harmony, everything coming together almost symphonically. And for me, this just gets better as the wines get older. I’d rather drink Ridge’s Zinfandels at about 8 or 10 years from harvest than at release. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve just talked myself into a bottle of Ridge for tonight’s dinner. Cheers!