Ridge celebrates 50 years of winemaking this week and, essentially, it still looks and acts a lot like it did when it started.
The minimalist winemaking philosophy is unchanged; Paul Draper is still at the helm.
The focus is still on single-vineyard red wines, anchored by Zinfandel. Ridge's home property, Monte Bello, remains devout in its homage to Bordeaux amid its cool-climate setting. Even the label is unchanged.
Most wineries commemorating 50 years of winemaking would tout the changes they'd undergone. Not Ridge. It has been on the steadiest of courses, skippered by Draper, one of the steadiest of hands in winemaking.
Ridge has perhaps inspired more people to try winemaking than any other winery. The scientists who founded Ridge were home winemakers who simply liked their wine enough to take it to the next level by making more wine and selling it. That seemed to prove that anyone could go out and make good wine if they tried.
The winemaking has always had a strong European bent. Draper modeled Ridge's Monte Bello Cabernet after Château Latour, aiming for a long-lived style that rewarded cellaring. With Zinfandel, and other red grapes, he sought out the old vines that had been around for decades, withstood the test of time and proven their worth by merely surviving.
Ridge has more or less resisted trends and the ebb and flow of styles, which is usually fatal to wineries that stick to their style and don't change with the times. Ridge is the exception. It has thrived because of its commitment to tradition and, unlike many wineries, its popularity has transcended generations. But it has also adapted. Early on, Ridge made a great Cabernet from the Eisele Vineyard in Napa Valley and it once made a crisp, credible white Zinfandel. Draper has been around long enough to be on both sides of the ripeness issue. Ridge bottled late-harvest Zinfandels and then coined the term "late pick" when late harvest lost its allure.
One reason, and perhaps the main one, Ridge has remained in vogue is Draper himself. Were it not for him I'm sure Ridge would not be the same. Wine is too trendy, too much like fashion, where what's popular one decade isn't the next.
Ridge's wines have retained a rustic authenticity. The red wines are never flashy. Occasionally they have drifted off course, but just when they do, Draper and his staff find a way to correct things. Changes, when they do come, are inherently minimalist.
The 2007 wines are the best in many years, marked by a freshness and vitality absent in some prior years. The winery's Monte Bello Chardonnay, of all things, is perhaps Ridge's best wine.
You won't win that argument with most die-hard Ridge-heads. For the purists, the Monte Bello Cabernet, not its Chardonnay, is testament to the property's greatness. Last year, one of the best wines I had was the 1989 Monte Bello Cabernet; also on the short list, the 2006 Monte Bello Chardonnay.
The other night I poured one of my last three bottles of 1997 Monte Bello Cabernet for friends, who were on one hand surprised that I'd be drinking a wine that old yet even more astounded by the wine's grace, elegance and nuance.
Patrick Cook — San Mateo, CA — March 2, 2010 7:34pm ET
Bill And Mary Muse — Missoula, MT — March 3, 2010 3:22pm ET
John Albritton — Irvine, CA — March 3, 2010 9:54pm ET
Courtney May — Atlanta, GA, USA — March 4, 2010 11:24am ET
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