He has drawn similar conclusions with older California wines. At one tasting in the mid-'70s, he assembled half a dozen post-Prohibition Zinfandel bottlings from the late '30s and '40s, by wineries including Simi, Larkmead, Fountain Grove, and the then-new winemaker on the block, freshly minted UC Davis grad Louis Martini.
"That's when I thought maybe we should go back in time, not forward."
It helps that Draper has possibly the most prodigious palate memory of any winemaker I've met. Without effort he can rattle off the qualities of a Château Margaux from 1900 that he tasted in the '70s, pointing out the differences between it and its counterpart from, say, 1950.
In wines he considers truly profound, he has scrupulously analyzed the winemaking, and in some cases adopted the practices to make them. In effect, he has provided a modern setting for traditional methods.
Those methods are ostensibly Old World, and they're meant to steward terroir expression. Draper has studied that expression in a hundred vineyards — but none has taught him more than Monte Bello Ranch. Ridge applies the estate name to two wines, a Cabernet-based blend and a Chardonnay; a third, the Santa Cruz Estate Red, also takes most or all of its fruit from that vineyard.
The Monte Bello blend, in part because of its marginal, vintage-sensitive source, requires careful attention when it comes to terroir expression. Vineyard elevations vary dramatically, leading to a great variety of flavor nuances. How these pieces fit together, and how to guide them into fitting is what Draper has come to master in his nearly 40 years of winemaking.
"Last year," he says, "when the wines were nearly finished fermenting, we saw some significant tannins showing up. We saw we had to slow down our pump-overs."
Like an elaborate tea-steeping process, pump-overs disperse wine through a thick "cap" of seeds and skins that typically gathers like a floating island at the top of a tank.
Every time the wine flows through the cap, tannin and extract is leached out and the wine's structure and balance changes. This is the most critical time to calibrate how the wine will feel and taste in the mouth.
In this instance, Draper needed to find a way to avoid a wallop of tannin without leaving the mouth-feel with a "hole."
"Because of those tannins," he says, "we started to return the liquid under the cap to avoid extracting more seed tannin. But as we continued to taste, we saw that avoiding the skins was going to leave the middle wanting. So those final pump-overs were once again distributed through the cap, over the skins. We tasted the wine constantly, and it was like magic. After 15, 20 minutes, the middle started to fill out, and there it was — there was Monte Bello."
Monte Bello represents the very best that these vineyards can achieve in a given year (the lots that don't make the cut are bottled in an estimable deuxième vin or "second wine," the term used to characterize the second wine of a given Bordeaux house) called Santa Cruz Estate.
The 2004 Monte Bello is a blend of about 75% Cabernet, with the balance of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It's as complete a wine from this vineyard as I've tasted in recent vintages, with a dark cloak of cassis fruit and black spices, supported by a dense minerality and a racy line of acidity.
Even experts, Draper says, commonly confuse this wine with a Bordeaux. That, he thinks, means he's gotten it about right.
Lining up some fine Ridge wines