Wine producer profile: Ridge Vineyards, part 1 (05-03-2017 by Robert Jonasson and Nenad Jelisic)
High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, with a magnificent view over the San Andreas Fault, lies Ridge Vineyards. Ridge Vineyards is a legendary wine estate in California, which was founded in 1960. The winery and the vineyards are located at Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation (AVA). Monte Bello Ridge lie at an elevation of about 800 m above sea level. The history of the Ridge Vineyards and Monte Bello Ridge began long before when Osea Perrone planted vineyards near the top of Monte Bello Ridge in 1885. In 1892, Perrone’s company Monte Bello Winery produced the first vintage from the Monte Bello Ridge vineyards. During Prohibition, the property was abandoned, and it was not until the 1940s when a man named William Short bought the abandoned winery and some of the vineyards that surrounded it. In 1949, William Short replanted Cabernet Sauvignon and planted the first vines of Chardonnay in the Monte Bello Ridge vineyards.
The beginning of what counts as today's Ridge Vineyards took place when four friends; Dave Bennion, Hew Crane, Howard Ziedler and Charlie Rosen, bought the property from Short in 1959. In 1962, Ridge Vineyards produced the first wine, which was made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The journey to become a real quality producer took off in 1969 when Ridge Vineyards employed Paul Draper as a winemaker. An interesting detail with Paul Draper is that he has no university education as an oenologist, but instead he has a degree in philosophy from the Stanford University. It is clear that the owners of Ridge Vineyards made a good recruitment since the love between Ridge Vineyards and Draper have persisted. Draper was working as a head winemaker until 2016, and in recent years he has been a chairman of the board. In 1994, Eric Baughter was employed as a winemaker and a year later the winemaking team became complete when John Olney was employed as a winemaker with responsibility for Lytton Springs. Paul Draper is now a legend in the wine industry. He has received numerous awards for his work and contributions to the wine industry. Draper retired 2016, but he remains as chairman of the board. The Japanese company Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co bought Ridge Vineyards in 1986 and it still owns it.
Besides its wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay from the vineyards at Monte Bello Ridge, Ridge Vineyards has made itself known for producing high quality wines from the grape Zinfandel. The first Zinfandel-wine was produced 1964. From the 1966 vintage, Ridge Vineyards has begun to separate grapes from different vineyards to be able to make single vineyard wines. The first vintage of the wine Lytton Springs Zinfandel came in 1972. Between 1971 and 1991, Ridge Vineyards was buying grapes from the vineyards in Lytton Springs in the Dry Creek Valley appellation (AVA) in the Sonoma County wine district. In 1991, Ridge Vineyards bought the winery in Lytton Springs and the vineyards that surrounded it. Since then, Ridge Vineyards has a winery in Lytton Springs and one at Monte Bello Ridge.
Ridge Vineyards and its Monte Bello-wine from vintage 1971 was one of the participants at the great tasting "Judgement of Paris" in 1976. At this tasting, 20 carefully chosen wines (4 reds from Bordeaux and 4 whites from Burgundy and 6 reds and 6 whites from California) were blind tasted and judged. Ridge Vineyards attracted great attention and international fame as Monte Bello 1971 was placed fifth out of ten. At a 30th anniversary re-tasting 2006, Monte Bello 1971 was placed first.
The Monte Bello Ridge-vineyards have interesting soils where the superficial soil layer is composed of green stone and clay layered over decomposing limestone. These types of soils soil with deeper layers of limestone are rare in California. Monte Bello Ridge is located approximately 25 km from the Pacific Ocean. The elevation and the proximity to the sea of Monte Bello Ridge give a climate that is similar to that of Bordeaux. But there is a slight difference thou, the days are slightly warmer and the nights are a little bit colder at Monte Bello Ridge. The vineyards at Monte Bello Ridge mainly consist of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but there are plantings of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot as well.
In addition to the vineyards at Monte Bello Ridge, two of the most important vineyards for Ridge Vineyards are Geyserville in the Alexander Valley appellation (AVA) and Lytton Springs in the Dry Creek Valley appellation (AVA) in the Sonoma County wine district. Zinfandel is mainly grown in these vineyards. The oldest vines were planted for about 130 years ago in the Geyserville and for about 115 years ago in the Lytton Springs. The last 10 to 15 years, Ridge Vineyards has begun to plant Petite Sirah, Mataró (Mourvèrdre) and Carignane (Carignan) together with Zinfandel in so called “field blend”. The reason that the “field blend” is used is that Ridge Vineyards has discovered that the vineyards planted with the “field blend” produce grapes of higher quality earlier in the season than the vineyards planted with only Zinfandel. In Geyserville, the soil consists of gravelly marl mixed with large stones. The high proportion of the stones makes it a well-drained and able to store the sun heat. In Lytton Springs, the soil is mainly composed of gravelly clay, which makes the grapes ripen slowly.