|Ridge's Paul Draper is one of the world's most experienced Zinfandel winemakers, having worked with nearly 50 vineyards across California.|
|The Zin Masters|
|California Zinfandels to Buy Now|
In 1969, Paul Draper took the reins at Ridge and made his first batch of Zinfandel. Its grapes came from a nearby vineyard known as the Picchetti property. "I was tasting the wine as it fermented and really got a vivid impression of the incredible fruit and complexity of Zinfandel," Draper recalls.
Draper has slate-dark hair gone white at the temples and a neat goatee. Both relaxed and earnest, he resembles a philosophy professor (he studied the discipline at Stanford), and is unfazed by the contradictions that Zinfandel poses.
Ridge, founded in 1959, had five years of experience making Zinfandel by the time Draper took the helm. In 1964, Ridge's owners needed cash. Replanted acreage on their property in the Santa Cruz Mountains wasn't bearing fruit yet, and to break even they had to make more wine.
It was a difficult proposition, however, because quality grapes were scarce and rarely offered for sale. The Ridge partners didn't want to buy Cabernet, because nothing available approached the excellence of their own grapes from the now-famed Monte Bello Vineyard next to the winery. What they wanted were grapes with intensity and distinctive character, along with a winemaker who could oversee expansion and improve quality.
That left few options. The Picchetti vineyard, close to home, had 2 acres of 80-year-old Zinfandel, and the Ridge partners took the whole 2-ton crop. Soon they were scouring the state for other old vineyards of the little-regarded variety. Ridge was in the Zinfandel business.
From the outset, though, the variety was tough to handle. Because of its cooler mountainside source, the Picchetti wine, for example, had a range of captivating flavors -- spice, raspberry, cherry and minerals -- but even when ripe, the fruit had bracing acidity. Warmer regions provided grapes with less acid but more ripeness, too much in some years.
Despite the difficulties, Ridge became California's Zinfandel standard-bearer, and access to new grape sources came quickly. Starting in 1966, it made its Geyserville field blend from the Trentadue family vineyard in Alexander Valley, and a year later added the Dusi Ranch Zinfandel from Paso Robles.
Draper was hired to bring stability and winemaking expertise. At first, the exuberant flavors demanded an attitude adjustment on the part of Draper, who had cut his teeth on the more demure wines of Bordeaux, his favorite being Château Latour. But now, after 35 years at Ridge, Draper, 68, is likely the world's most experienced Zinfandel-maker, having worked with four dozen vineyards scattered across the state. Some, like the Geyserville property, have been long-term commitments, while many others lasted only a year or two.
Efforts with the variety shaped his perspective on wine. "The thing Zinfandel has taught me is that wine should be sensuous. And what really interests me is identifying vineyards that year in, year out have some distinctive character," Draper says.
Geyserville and Lytton Springs -- the latter a standout, century-old Dry Creek property containing about 65 percent Zinfandel, with the balance Carignane, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Mataro -- are two such vineyards. Unlike most Zinfandels, wines from these sites can age beautifully for more than a decade. Draper recounts with pride the time that an enologist from Burgundy who didn't acknowledge the individuality of California vineyards changed her tune after trying, side by side, different vintages of the Lytton Springs and Geyserville. "I told her that was music to my ears," he recalls.
In the 2003 vintage, Ridge made a total of 80,000 cases; 60 percent of the production was Zinfandel. There are 14 different Zinfandel bottlings, seven of which can be purchased only at the winery or through its mail-order program. Prices for the variety range from $22 to $30 a bottle, compared with $120 for the current (2000) vintage of the renowned Monte Bello Cabernet blend.
Ridge Zinfandels are distinctive, though sometimes controversial. The wines can be funky, with noticeable (though legal) levels of volatile acidity. Sometimes, the bottlings have marked sweetness. (Ridge labels indicate "late harvest" for wines with residual sugar; "late picked" means the wine is dry, but with high alcohol.)
Draper explains that it's difficult to get ideal flavors in a Zinfandel of less than 14 percent potential alcohol. And late in the season, unexpected heat spells often send grape sugars rocketing to levels associated with fortified wines.
Despite that quirkiness, Draper and Ridge's many longtime customers remain devoted to the grape. Monte Bello Cabernet made the winery's reputation, and is one of California's most collectible reds, but Zinfandel pays the bills and is the wine made with the weeknight meal in mind. "For most people who like wine, I think that there's a connection to the earth, to things that grow. Zinfandel evokes that because of how delicious and immediate it can be," Draper says.
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