Ridge Vineyards turns out top-quality wines while lying low


October 11, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

From the top of Monte Bello, the towering column of rock that is home to California's Ridge Vineyards, you can look across a wide valley to a chain of mountains in the distance.

That range is part of the Pacific plate. On Monte Bello, you are standing on the North American plate. Some 2,600 feet down in the valley runs the San Andreas Fault.

Ridge Vineyards' location overlooking America's most famous seismic stress point is fitting, for it is a winery that consistently turns out wines of such intensity that the best way to rate them might be the Richter scale.

It's not a flashy operation, except for its incomparably dramatic location. Its facilities are hardly palatial. Its labels are notable more for their exhaustive detail than their design. For a winery perched on a mountaintop, it keeps a low profile.

But Ridge is without a doubt one of the treasures of the California wine industry. It has been around since 1959 -- a geological age in California wine terms. It has had the same winemaker, Paul Draper, since 1969. And its wines, especially the celebrated Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon, have maintained a consistent level of quality that few wineries anywhere can match.

In 1986, the partnership that owned Ridge sold the winery to a Japanese corporation, raising fears in the wine industry that Ridge's proud tradition would be compromised.

It hasn't turned out that way.

Paul Draper, now chief executive as well as winemaker, is still in charge on Monte Bello, and Ridge's most recent releases are dramatic proof that the winery remains at the top of its game.

Wine consumers who appreciate bold, intense, yet elegant red wines should rush to the best local wine shops and try to purchase Ridge's incredible 1990 Lytton Springs zinfandel before it is sold out. Begging might be necessary, because merchants are keeping it in the back rooms and parceling it out to their best customers.

If the Lytton Springs is gone, as it may well be by the time this article appears, wine lovers can console themselves with Ridge's 1990 Geyserville, a predominantly zinfandel blend that is only a half-step behind the Lytton Springs and somewhat less scarce.

Neither of these wines will require a second mortgage. They are selling for about $16.50, an incredible bargain for wines of this quality.

For well-heeled wine enthusiasts, Ridge has a special "present" among its most recent releases. It has just put its 1989 Monte Bello, a predominantly cabernet sauvignon blend, on the market at a greatly reduced price. In markets where the wholesaler is passing on the full markdown to retailers -- and Maryland's Franklin Selections deserves credit for doing so -- the price should be about $42. That isn't cheap, but it compares with about $65 for the 1988.

The 1989 vintage has a dubious reputation, based largely on the results achieved in the low-lying Napa and Sonoma valley vineyards. But Monte Bello, in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, is far from the Napa Valley floor, and the 1989 it produced is no off-vintage. It's a wonderful, complex, rich wine -- a textbook Monte Bello.

The success of the 1989 Monte Bello is largely due to the strict selection Mr. Draper imposed. About 40 percent of the Monte Bello harvest was not used under that label.

Such perfectionism has been the rule at Ridge for decades, and Mr. Draper said the shift to Japanese ownership hasn't changed that a bit.

When the winery was put up for sale in 1986 so two aging partners could cash out and retire, several large distillers were among the bidders, but each wanted to change the winery's approach.

"All of them wanted to revamp Ridge as Chateau Montebello," Mr. Draper said.

Finally, one of the partners approached Akikiko Otsuka, a Japanese friend who owns a pharmaceutical company and loves fine wine. Mr. Otsuka paid a visit to Ridge, and the deal was closed in two weeks.

Since the sale, Mr. Otsuka has essentially let Ridge be Ridge, Mr. Draper said.

"For six years, it's been working just the way we set it up," he said.

As it has for decades, Ridge continues to produce some of the most distinctive cabernet sauvignons, zinfandels and petite sirahs made in California. To do so it draws from select vineyards all around the state, as well as those on Monte Bello.

In recent years Ridge has beefed up its line with some good merlots from Bradford Mountain and an excellent mataro, a little-known but excellent red variety known as mourvedre in the Rhone Valley and Provence.

Ridge has also increased its commitment to white wine in recent years, making some distinctive chardonnays from Howell Mountain, including a luscious 1990.

If there is one common denominator to Ridge's vineyard choices, it's an obsession with old vines, which tend to yield tiny quantities of highly concentrated fruit. The Geyserville and Lytton Springs vineyards, which Mr. Draper considers to be among the greatest zinfandel vineyards in the state, are largely populated by 100-year-old vines, he said.

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