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Set in his ways -- wonderfully

Paul Draper's distinctive Ridge wines helped put California on the map. `Guidance and care,' he says, are all he adds.

June 27, 2007|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

Cupertino, Calif. — RIDGE VINEYARDS, you might not be surprised to learn, is set on a ridge. On a recent overcast day, its chief executive and winemaker Paul Draper leaned his tall frame against a railing at the western edge of the winery's harvest bay, 2,600 feet above sea level in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and peered down to Stevens Canyon, a forested abyss 2,000 feet below.

"Right here, where we're standing," Draper explained, "is the edge of the North American plate," the original west coast of the continent.

At the bottom of the canyon lies the San Andreas fault, the lead edge of the Pacific plate, which has spent the last few millions of years grinding into the North American continent, aggravating the landscape sufficiently to cause the formation of the Coast Range, and leaving a rare deposit of limestone at Monte Bello Ranch, Ridge Vineyards' core property.

The between-ness of the place makes it fitting for Draper, who has his feet planted in two worlds: He's a winemaker who makes thrillingly modern wines from ancient vineyards, and he does so by adhering to an Old World winemaking tradition.

Here in the hills above Palo Alto, a place that few would include on the list of great California wine regions, Draper has made Zinfandels against which all other American Zins are measured, and has crafted what is arguably the country's most compelling and celebrated Bordeaux blend, Ridge Monte Bello.

If this sounds hyperbolic, consider last summer's Judgment of Paris Tasting, held simultaneously in London and Napa. The Monte Bello from 1971 ran away with the competition among older Bordeaux and California Cabernets; and in a follow-up competition, the 2000 Monte Bello took top honors among the younger red wines. The performance suggests that Ridge wines have remained more constant and enduring than any other American wine produced today.

Decades before Ridge was founded, Monte Bello Ranch was planted to grapevines. In 1885 a prosperous San Francisco doctor named Osea Perrone planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and built a winery from limestone quarried on the mountain (a quarry operates to this day at the base of Monte Bello ridge).

The vineyards languished during Prohibition, but were revived in the 1940s and were replanted to Cabernet at the end of that decade. On the strength of bottlings from that older vineyard, a small group of wine-loving Stanford University research scientists decided to buy the property in 1962, calling the winery Ridge but retaining the historical name of the property, Monte Bello. Seven years later, Draper was hired as winemaker.

Monte Bello Ranch consists of noncontiguous vineyards at an elevation of 2,100 to 2,800 feet, less than 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is cool, to say the least, especially when it comes to ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up the bulk of the Monte Bello blend. That coolness ensures long and even ripening, a late harvest (completion in late October is common) and, for California, moderate to low alcohols. In addition, the limestone-inflected soils give the wine a unique structure, marked by gripping minerality that feels rare in California.

The owners intended for Ridge to specialize in Cabernet. But in the early '60s, there were few Cabernet vineyards in California, so the partners made wine with what was available, namely Zinfandel and a variety of its cohorts, such as Petite Syrah and Carignane, to supplement production while replanting Cabernet at Monte Bello.

Old Zin vineyards

BEFORE Draper was hired, they began leasing Zinfandel vineyards that Ridge still uses today, including Geyserville and Lytton Springs. Draper came on board having learned about wine through tasting older Bordeaux. He knew little about Zinfandel, which occupied most of the barrels at the time, but quickly became a convert.

"When I joined them in '69," says Draper, "there was some Zinfandel in barrel from '68, and I tasted it and thought, 'My God, this may not be Cabernet Sauvignon, but it's pretty interesting stuff.' The vines were all 80 years old by then." They are now well over 120 years old.

Thus began a long relationship with old vineyards, the ones that survived Prohibition -- the ones, as Draper says, "that must have had something going for them" to avoid being ripped out. Draper has made wines from more than 100 such vineyards, whose names read like a roll of 19th century immigrant homesteaders: Nervo, Buchignani, Trentadue, Ponzo and Evangelo. Ridge's commitment to old vine fruit not only saved many of these vineyards from a premature death, but revived an interest in old vineyards across the state, inspiring other Zinfandel and field blend proteges such as Ravenswood, Rosenblum and Cline.

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