Pre-Industrial Winemaking, Ridge Vineyards
By: Ben Narasin
Wineries speckle Northern California like droplets of a modest rain, but most of the attention, particularly at the high end, is paid to the parallel valleys of Napa and Sonoma. Fewer think of Silicon Valley as a source of wine, other than through the cellars and occasional vanity vineyards of local post-liquidity-event technology entrepreneurs who hear the call of the grape.
But one of California’s most iconic wineries, one that helped California prove its world-class status in the historic “Judgment of Paris,” perches on a day-hiker’s view of the Valley Silicon: Ridge.
The winery currently known as Ridge was first terraced out of the Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1885 as the Monte Bello Winery, before being abandoned, reclaimed and sold off again to the original owners of the Ridge we know today. Yet “Ridge was not named for the Monte Bello Ridge so much as for Ridge Computing,” says John Fisher of Fisher & Company, which handled Ridge’s 1986 sale to its current owners, Otsuka Pharmaceutical of Japan, “which the investors, affiliated with SRI [Stanford Research Institute], were involved in.”
The original limestone cellars from Monte Bello Winery, with their man-stacked arches of carved stone abutting the solid chisel-hacked rock of the mountain and thick wood planks and beams, bring to mind a mine of days gone by, but these original cellars house the production facilities Ridge still uses today.
Ridge’s ties to the rustic are more than aesthetic. The current property, still nestled in a Smokey-Bear scene of forestland 2,600 feet up in Cupertino, came more from camping than from Cabernet. Three SRI engineers seeking a retreat for weekend camping with their children bought the property in 1959 for its scenic vistas, expansive space and affordable price. The grapes that remained on the property, having been replanted in the 1940s when the then-abandoned winery was reclaimed, were being sold off each year and were viewed as nothing more than a potential source of revenue to offset the property’s upkeep.
But being engineers and prone to the tinkering that has led many other Stanford souls to invention and occasional vineyard experiments, they decided to make a half barrel of wine from these Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for their own use. As the spirit of the Valley dictates, they searched for the most modern methods, and discovered a new model used in France, whereby the crushed grape solids, which would normally float to the top of the barrel, were held submerged during the winemaking.
With this innovation and minimal intervention, a mix of high-tech and low-tech winemaking that still defines Ridge today, the first Ridge Monte Bello wine was created, and judged by many at the time a better specimen than California had yet produced. With this achievement, this discovery, this engineering pride, they set off down the path that has led uninterrupted, and been greatly expanded, over more than 50 years of Ridge wines.
Having decided to re-establish the winery commercially after their personal experiment, the SRI crew needed a winemaker, and Paul Draper—a fellow Stanford man just returned from a wine-making project in Chile, and entirely self taught—fit the role. He joined in 1968 and became an equal partner in the winery after a few vintages proved his fit.
“Ridge at the time was like a wine tasting at a Mensa conference,” says Fisher. “More sheer IQ in the room than one expected in the otherwise pedestrian wine industry of the era. Paul Draper was more than able to hold his own with the prodigious intellects.”
Draper’s approach to winemaking paralleled the ideas of the founding trio: minimal intervention to allow the grapes become the wine nature intended them to be. “We refer to what we do as pre-industrial winemaking,” says Draper. He uses natural yeast, letting the yeast in the air attack the grapes and start the fermentation process, instead of adding a store-bought culture, and does little to manipulate the wine beyond simple fining with egg whites to remove excessive particulate matter, and filtering the wine through a pad.
Early on Draper realized what made the wine exceptional was not what the people were doing, but what the grapes were up to. He tasted the few early vintages the partners had made before he arrived and realized “it’s not these guys, except they’re not getting in the way; it’s the ground.”
The combination of the unique setting, the grapes that setting allows and the minimalist approach Draper employs has yielded wines, particularly the original Cabernet Sauvignon, of exceptional quality and consistency—wines at a truly world-class level.
In 1976, a gathering of the most respected tasters in France were brought together to taste six top California wines in honor of the American bicentennial. They were tasted blind against four Bordeaux and four Burgundies. When a California wine won the top honors, California’s reputation in wine was elevated to a level it has enjoyed, and improved upon, since. Ridge Monte Bello was among those wines submitted and came in fifth in the overall tasting and second amongst the California wines.
30 years later in 2006, when an anniversary replay was hosted to combat the French judges’ commentary that the California wines would not have the capacity to age, Ridge’s wine—the same vintage, 1971, of Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello that was entered in the original tasting—came in first.
Of course, Ridge makes more than just Cabernet. They added Zinfandel to the line in 1964, which some consider the iconic wine of Ridge. “Ridge was one of the first wines I drank and fell for when I moved to California in 1979,” says Sam Bronfman, a Silicon Valley resident and the former president of Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines. “Ridge Zin was what I believed great California wine should be.”
Ridge 2011 Estate Chardonnay
Pale and bright like freshly tossed hay in the barn. A clean nose basted with the buttery notes of the oak, but still fresh and clear with an implication of acidity. It enters the mouth soft, lean and fresh with the acidity building in the mid-palate and lingering on the finish with a touch of heat from the 14.1% alcohol. The wine possesses a lightness, offset by the distinct minerality from the limestone of its birth, that, in combination, delivers a crisp, clean experience; lucid and linear.
Ridge 2011 Paso Robles Zinfandel
Darkest garnet in color, with a crystalline glimmer like the polished facet of the stone. Notes of animalistic elements, like the roasted edge of spit-turned leg of lamb, mix with dark red to black fruit in the nose. Enters juicy and is rapidly crested by the overt minerality. Bright blackberry, tart cherry, dark cacao and a touch of pipe tobacco, black pepper and baking spice deliver a warming mouthful.
Ridge 2010 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark red in the glass like the fresh prick of blood on a fairy tale princess’s white finger. Robust notes in the nose offer dark black cherry, the sense of a leather pouch of dark and dusty spice and a touch of an empty pickle jar. Rich, velvety tannins are the first impression the wine delivers to the tongue, followed by thick, lush chocolate, the ever-present Ridge acidity and minerality, and notes of dark cacao, black pepper and modestly underripe pomegranate and pith. This wine craves a meal, likely a roast or hearty piece of meat. Finishes smooth and meditative.
(originally appeared in Edible Silicon Valley, Spring 2013)