Paul Draper

James Laube
Posted: November 15, 2000


November 15th, 2000

Paul Draper

The master of the Santa Cruz Mountains excels with majestic Cabernets and sensuous Zinfandels

By James Laube

Cult Cabernets fetching upwards of $100 a bottle and selling out faster than '61 Bordeaux. Hundreds of vineyard-designated wines sprouting up from the tiniest plots of grape-bearing land. California wine gaining global credibility and respect.

These would have sounded like far-fetched fantasies to the 33-year-old Paul Draper when he stepped in as the new winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in 1969. Yet Draper, this year's recipient of Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award, has played a major role in all these developments -- and others.

It's been one fantastic journey for Draper and Ridge. "The changes have been phenomenal," he readily admits, looking back on his career. Today, 32 harvests and 750 wines later, Draper, 64, is still very much California's contrarian winemaker: self-taught, European-oriented, profoundly philosophical and analytical, and pleasantly aloof -- all by design.

It's easy to feel removed from it all while standing in Ridge's famous Cabernet vineyard, Monte Bello. Seen from the vineyard atop the Santa Cruz Mountains, the world below, with San Jose's network of roads and freeways, looks like a busy anthill. From the lofty aerie where Draper resides with his wife, Maureen, one feels literally on top of the world -- and at a safe distance from Silicon Valley's high-tech, life-in-the-fast-lane pace.

"He was one of the early pioneers who sort of dragged California kicking and screaming into the premium-wine world," says Gary Eberle, owner of Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. Thirty years ago, recalls Eberle, "you could count the premium wineries on your fingers and toes." When Draper bottled a Paso Robles Zinfandel, says Eberle, "we got as much attention, as a region, from the Ridge wine as we got from what [all] our own wineries were doing."

"He's an extremely knowledgeable, extremely intelligent man who's focused on making very high-quality wines," says Philip Woodward, chairman of the Chalone Wine Group, which was established in the 1960s. "I'd say he's one of the five most respected winemakers, ever, in California."

Charismatic, talkative and quick to laugh, Draper, with his neatly groomed goatee, looks the part of one of California's most intellectual winemakers. Fluent in three languages, he's capable of discussing winegrowing, politics, opera and Buddhism, in depth and in detail. He can be as precise and forthright as an engineer or as down-to-earth as a ranch hand.

Draper's career parallels California wine's rise to global prominence. His success as a winemaker in making scores of vineyard-designated, individualistic wines is a veritable blueprint of what has turned California into the wine powerhouse it is today.

Draper was a proponent of naturally made wine long before it was popular, and also of allowing vineyards to express themselves through their wines. He's never been a fan of wines with overripe fruit or exaggerated oak flavors. He's been a staunch advocate of his own cool-climate Cabernet -- a marked contrast to the warmer-weather Napa Valley Cabernets -- as well as a critic of overblown, raisiny, high-alcohol Zinfandels. He is a very reasoned voice for wines that seduce you with their balance, finesse and sumptuous flavors. And he's been a critic of high prices and collectors who stockpile wines but don't drink them. While the Monte Bello Cabernet commands $125 a bottle, the winery, through its advanced tasting program, offers it at about half that price; none of his Zins are priced at more than $28 a bottle. "I've always been more interested in wine that pleases as opposed to wine as one-upmanship," he says.

For Kent Rosenblum of Rosenblum Cellars, a winery which, much like Ridge, specializes in vineyard-designed Zinfandels, Draper is "the essential philosopher" of the California wine business. "He looks at things a little bit esoterically and somehow comes up with some of the greatest wines in the world," says Rosenblum. "It's his inventiveness, innovation and creative thinking that all go into [his wines]. He's a hero of American winemaking."

"He was," says winemaker Jed Steele, "one of the, if not the, first [of the] California winemakers to recognize the ultimate importance of single-vineyard identity."

It's a toss-up as to which wine Draper and Ridge are most famous for: the majestic Monte Bello Cabernet or one of the many vineyard-designated Zinfandels. Draper's triumphs with these wines have influenced and shaped the history of California wine.

"Paul is one of the forerunners who insisted on making very natural wines that reflect the soil," says Robert Mondavi, himself an influential winemaker and the chairman of the winery that bears his name. Draper championed Zinfandel at a time when many people didn't understand the grape, says Mondavi. "He knew Zinfandel had a unique character, and he's helped build its image."

Draper's devotion to crafting exquisite wines from special vineyards helped the upper echelon of California wine mature into the sleek and sophisticated business it is today. It's a far cry from California's humble wine-rejuvenation of the 1960s. Back then, jug wines ruled; few people could even pronounce Cabernet Sauvignon; and for $4 to $8 a bottle you could buy -- heck, stockpile -- the state's rarest and most expensive wines. A great deal of Zinfandel was blended into generic red table-wines.

At Ridge, says marketing director Donn Reisen, it has long been held that Cabernet is king and Zinfandel is the prince that will never be king. But it was Zinfandel -- the Horatio Alger of varietals, the quintessential American wine -- that initially drove Draper off the mountain and connected him to California's greater wine-world.

Just as Draper happened into a career in winemaking with no formal training, Ridge took a chance with Zinfandel first out of curiosity, but later out of economic necessity.

In the 1960s, Ridge's owners, led by founder Dave Bennion, began making small amounts of Zinfandel, and they soon realized how complex the wine could be. As the winery began to grow, it needed more revenue, and more wine. The Monte Bello Cabernet yielded only a few thousand cases, so the winery's owners sought out alternative wines to increase volume. "The property was leveraged, so we went to Zinfandel when we couldn't find [more] Cabernet," recalls Draper. Cabernet wasn't widely planted then; even in Napa Valley, there were only a few hundred acres of vines. But Zinfandel was widely planted throughout the state.

When Bennion handed the winemaking reins to Draper, they decided to pursue Zinfandel more aggressively, with a very specific purpose. Draper knew that there were dozens of old-vine Zinfandel vineyards in California, some of the choicest having been planted between the 1880s and early 1900s. He also knew from his travels in Europe that old-vine grapes could provide greater depth and character than younger-vine grapes. California's old-vine Zinfandel offered an opportunity to show what type of wine the grape could produce -- it also provided a dramatic contrast to the estate-grown Cabernet.

In terms of volume, Draper makes about 20 bottles of Zinfandel for every bottle of Cabernet. Read the back labels of Ridge's wines, each penned and signed by "PD," and you'll have a geographic perspective of Draper's winemaking sojourns throughout Zinfandel country. His path crisscrosses the state, from Paso Robles to Amador County to Spring Mountain in Napa Valley to Geyserville in Sonoma County.

At first, Draper bought grapes locally, from plantings on the mountain below Monte Bello, introducing the wine world to names such as Picchetti Vineyard and Jimsomare. In 1966, Ridge introduced its Geyserville Zinfandel, which includes Carignane and Petite Sirah and which has been made every year since. Then he began to reach out into different areas, tapping sources in Napa Valley, including Spring and Howell mountains, along with other vineyards from Dry Creek Valley, Shenandoah, Mendocino and Lodi. (See "Draper Casts His Vineyard-Net Wide," page 115.)

"He brings a very careful, thoughtful approach to wine, [which] preserves a historical perspective while also being mindful of technology," says Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, another proponent of Zinfandel. Despite acclaim for Draper's Zinfandel, Peterson remains awed by Draper's work with Cabernet. "Perhaps what's most impressive is that he took a region that wasn't very well-known for Cabernet, and, in Monte Bello every year, he makes one of the outstanding Cabernets in the world."

Indeed, the yang to the yin of Ridge Zin is Monte Bello Cabernet. There's no disputing that the Monte Bello is among the greatest and most admired wines of its kind in the world. Even the staunchest, die-hard Bordeaux lovers, even the Bordelais winemakers themselves, find in the rich, earthy, strikingly complex and enduring Monte Bello Cabernet a compelling resemblance to their finest red wines.

Draper, who has a fondness for Château Latour, is flattered by the comparison and compliment; for years, he has liked to pour the two wines side by side in blind tastings to show how closely they resemble each other. Though the vineyard is in a very cool area for Cabernet, and though the wine ages and evolves more like a Bordeaux, Draper has stuck with using American oak for cellaring, having tried French barrels and found them inferior for his wine. "I don't think he's swayed by current fads, like many winemakers. I think he makes Ridge Monte Bello like he did 20 years ago," says Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards in Napa Valley.

Born in Evanston, Ill., Draper can trace his interest in agriculture directly to his upbringing. He was born and raised on a farm and still remains firmly rooted in a down-to-earth ethos. "I've always found the soil so interesting, so stimulating," he says, thinking of his youth and his connection to winemaking. "Making something that came from the earth always intrigued me." He might have plunged directly into a career in wine, but he was weak in science and uninterested in chemistry.

Instead, he went on to study philosophy at Stanford University, where he honed his intellectual skills and his remarkable capacity to delve into the multifaceted world of wine. It was there that he first became acquainted with Ridge, a short distance from the university, and his curiosity about wine led him to taste as many wines as he could.

After graduating from Stanford, he joined the Army and lived for a time in Spain, Italy and France, learning each country's customs and languages, as well as acquiring a taste for fine cuisine and developing an interest in nutrition. At some point, the thought began to crystallize in Draper's mind: He wanted to be a winemaker.

In 1966, Draper went to work for Lee Stewart at Souverain in Napa Valley. Stewart had a spare room in his garage, and Draper moved in for the harvest. Stewart made a wide range of wines, from Riesling to Cabernet to old-vine Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Stewart wasn't into traditional winemaking, says Draper; he made wine intuitively.

The next year, Draper headed south to Chile, where he and his former college friend Fritz Maytag worked with the Peace Corps. Among their endeavors, they leased an old winery and bought Cabernet from an old, nonirrigated vineyard. "We had to do everything ourselves," Draper recalls, including making barrels, bottles and corks. There was neither electricity nor stainless steel. "We had to epoxy everything," he adds, to seal the fermentation tanks. "It was like California 100 years ago."

Draper didn't have any formal winemaking training, but began to realize he might not need it. "My heroes were those who had written books about wine -- mostly [about] Bordeaux," he says. "It seems like every 30 to 50 years, a professor comes along and writes about what happened, as well as what should have happened to make things different or better." Draper studied those books in detail.

In 1968, he traveled to Bordeaux to witness firsthand a terrible vintage. One day, while driving past Latour, he followed a bus transporting a group of Swiss hotel-employees, who were there to tour and learn about wine. Once at the château, he met the maître de chai, and they started talking. "I was full of questions," Draper recalls. "I spent the day there, and he invited me back the next day. We walked through the vineyards and talked about what was done day to day, week to week, month to month, and what needed to be done. After that, I had a better understanding of what was done, why it was done and when it was done, than I'd had before." At that point, "my confidence kicked in," he says. "I knew I had the tools to become a winemaker."

Upon Draper's return to California in 1969, Bennion and Dick Foster approached him about taking over for Bennion. Bennion, a strict, hands-off, noninterventionist winemaker, had made some tremendous Cabernets in 1968, 1967, 1964 and 1962 -- wines that are still in fine drinking condition.

Their assignment: Make Ridge respectable. "People thought we were a bunch of crazies," laughs Draper, thinking of Ridge and the Santa Cruz Mountains wine scene of the 1960s. For one thing, the area's reputation for fine wine had been damaged by some of Martin Ray's controversial wines, he says. Draper, perhaps stubbornly, never visited Ray or his winery. "I said to Dave, 'If I can do just as well as you, I'll be very happy.'"

But the winery needed a full-time winemaker and equipment upgrades. Built in 1886, the winery was run-down, having been neglected for decades before being revived by Bennion and his colleagues from Stanford Research Institute. Under Draper's tenure, a second, fully modern, winery was built, and now it exclusively is used for winemaking.

In 1986, the original Ridge era came to an end. Many of the founding partners wanted to sell, recalls Draper, so they began to look for a buyer. Akihiko Otsuka, the owner of a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, bought Ridge and promised Draper that he would not change a thing or attempt to influence winemaking decisions. He also told Draper he did not have the resources to pour money into the winery -- that the winery would have to sustain itself.

But the bottom-line guarantee from Otsuka was that he wanted Draper to make the best wines, "with absolutely no compromises."

Draper has told colleagues that he wants to remain winemaker as long as he can still taste and contribute, saying he hopes to hang in there until he's 90. While he's always been exacting when it comes to winemaking, he's not an autocrat, and he has turned over some of the winemaking to the next generation, which includes vineyard manager David Gates, production manager Eric Baugher, and John Olney, the general manager at Ridge's Lytton Station Winery in Sonoma (the former Lytton Springs Winery).

As Draper shows a visitor around the winery, he is quick to introduce everyone and describe their contributions to Ridge's success. He also likes to quote a colleague who occasionally ribs him over his status as the winery's most public figure. "You may be the astronaut -- but don't forget [the guys in the vineyard and the cellar] who put you up there."

Draper hasn't.

-- Daniel Sogg contributed to this report.

Draper Casts His Vineyard-Net Wide

It's a simmering day in mid-August, and the weathered road to Ridge Vineyards is being repaved with hot, black asphalt.

The air is thick with the smell of tar. And there, as if to oversee the day's asphalt pour, stands the dapper, voluble Paul Draper, comfortably attired in a long-sleeved yellow shirt, sunglasses, dress slacks and dress shoes.

Donn Reisen, Ridge's marketing director, approaches and teases Draper. "What are you doing, Paul? Fermenting Mataro?" Both Reisen and Draper laugh heartily, with Draper's familiar chuckle lingering on because he knows what Reisen's talking about. He has made the obscure Mataro grape into wine and knows what it smells like when it's fermenting.

Truth is, there aren't many California grapes Draper hasn't made into wine at one time or another. Among the lesser-known varieties he's worked with are Alicante, Barbera, Carignane, Gamay, Riesling, Ruby Cabernet, Sangiovese and Sylvaner. He has made White Zinfandel, and Eisele Vineyard Cabernet from the 1971 vintage, when no one wanted to buy the grapes from Milt Eisele's Napa Valley vineyard.

He has enjoyed more recent successes with outstanding Chardonnays and Merlots, the former carrying the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, the latter coming from the home Monte Bello vineyard. There have also been bottlings of Petite Sirah and Syrah.

Though Ridge's first Zinfandels came from vineyards near the winery (the names Jimsomare and Picchetti were introduced with the 1964 vintage), the source list quickly grew with Draper's arrival in 1969. Geyserville, perhaps Ridge's best-known wine after the Monte Bello Cabernet, came along in 1966, but it isn't pure Zinfandel; it's a blend that's primarily Zinfandel, with Carignane and Petite Sirah. It's called simply "Geyserville" because, in most vintages, there isn't enough Zinfandel in it to meet varietal labeling requirements. (In order to be labeled Zinfandel, 75 percent of the wine must come from that grape, and the Geyserville is usually closer to 65 percent Zin.) In 1967, Ridge added Templeton, from Paso Robles, which was included as a regular label from 1976 forward.

The first Zinfandel additions under Draper came with the 1969 vintage and included Fox Road Zinfandel, from Lodi, followed the next year by Occidental, from the Sonoma Coast, and later a Mendocino bottling using DuPratt and DuPree. In the 1970s, Draper added Lytton Springs (Sonoma County); Langtry Road (Spring Mountain); Eschen Vineyard (Fiddletown); Esola Vineyard (Shenandoah); York Creek (Spring Mountain); Glen Ellen (Sonoma County); and Park Muscatine, Stout and Beatty Ranch (Howell Mountain).

In the 1980s, Draper added Amador County along with Pagani, Mazzoni, Nervo, Maple, Bartolozzi, Alegria and Monte Rosso, in Sonoma.

"We'll continue to look for any old-vine vineyards that suit our needs," says Draper. Given his track record for finding new sources, you can expect there will be new names coming.

-- J.L.

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