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The Long Finish

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Forget, for a moment, the Beanie Baby wines--those ultra-trendy Napa Valley Cabernets that have proliferated in recent vintages, apparently just to feed the hype-driven wine auction scene with their calculated glamour and rarity. Look, instead, to the Ridge.

For more than three decades, Ridge Vineyards has been a beacon to California wine lovers. Its legend is dear to their hearts.

Ridge was founded almost by accident in 1959, during California’s viticultural Dark Ages, by three Stanford Research Institute scientists and their wives. The site was a remote ridge top in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and although there were a few old vines and a defunct 19th century winery up there, the partners had no intention at the beginning of going into the wine business.

As Paul Draper, Ridge’s winemaker for 30 years, said in his opening remarks at a major retrospective tasting of Ridge wines in Los Angeles earlier this month, “They were looking for a place where their kids could grow up. That property happened to have a vineyard on it, and they thought they could have some income from selling the grapes. Of course, they tried making a little wine for themselves too.”

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In those days before the fabled wine boom of the 1970s, California wine was jug wine--large-volume blends lacking the kind of regional character that distinguishes fine European wines. Leading partner David Bennion became passionate about making wine the old-fashioned French way, hoping to produce the California equivalent of great Bordeaux. He began scouring California in search of distinguished vineyards.

At that time, there were virtually no mature Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the state, but Bennion did discover an unexpected treasure: grand old Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vineyards, many dating from before Prohibition. The old vines had survived, as Draper put it, “because they were originally the right grapes planted in the right places and consistently produced fine wine year after year.”

Grapes from those vineyards were prized by large wineries for the depth and concentration they brought to blends, but nobody had yet seen the opportunity to make distinctive single-vineyard wines from them. Bennion and his partners proceeded without competition.

Over the next three decades, Ridge produced up to 20 single-vineyard wines per year from patches of old vines in Northern and Central California. Today’s hip, 20-something sommelier might not realize it, but the American wine underground was formed around those wines.

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When Draper joined Ridge in 1969, it was already attracting attention in international wine circles for its brawny yet typically Californian wines from those rediscovered heritage vineyards. But it needed a sophisticated touch to balance the passion.

Draper, a widely traveled renaissance man with extensive winemaking experience, Draper brought expertise and a classical attitude to Ridge. He embraced Bennion’s insistence on such traditional Old World methods as natural yeast fermentation and the use of small oak barrels for aging the wines and introduced the discipline and quality control that lifted the winery to a new level. With Draper as winemaker, Ridge achieved global recognition.

The recent retrospective, organized by international wine collector and UC Riverside physicist Bipin Desai (most of the wines came from his cellar), recounted the Ridge legend vintage by vintage from 1962. Some 80 Ridge fans paid $1,400 each to participate in the historic tasting along with guest of honor Draper over a long weekend that included a dinner and a lunch at Spago and a lunch at Valentino.

Along with 30 Monte Bello Cabernets, there were 24 vintages of Zinfandel from Geyserville and nine from Lytton Springs, both in northern Sonoma County, and six vintages of Petite Sirah from York Creek in Napa County.

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The tasting was rounded out by selected vintages of wines billed as “diverse and esoteric”: Chardonnay, Merlot, Carignan, Grenache and the like. Particularly outstanding in that group was a 1970 Zinfandel from the old vines at Jimsomare, another vineyard on Monte Bello Ridge not far from the winery.

Year after year, Lytton Springs has been everybody’s favorite feel-good Zin; these nine vintages beginning from ’72 showed that the fleeting illusion of beauty can last for years when properly cellared.

And then there was Geyserville. For many tasters, this Saturday tasting at Valentino, with a superbly matched luncheon by chef Angelo Auriana, was the weekend’s highlight.

Geyserville is a fascinating wine, made from old vines of several varieties. Zinfandel predominates, but there are also Petite Sirah, Carignan, Mourvedre and Alicante--a varietal cocktail that is catnip to Zin lovers, Ridge fanatics in particular. The vineyard is old--some vines top 100 years--and varietally mixed in the classic “field blend.”

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The ’70 is still opulent, confirming the greatness of that legendary vintage. The most interesting wine in the flight was the ’77. It smelled and tasted much like Port, yet was dry--at 16.2% alcohol. Natural yeast fermentations can do that; an added freeze-dried active yeast would have failed somewhere around 14.5%. Not for the faint of heart, certainly not a dinner wine, but . . . interesting.

The six Petite Sirahs, ranging from ’71 to ’95, showed particularly well; the 28-year-old was generally acclaimed as the best wine of the first evening at Spago. Ridge Petite Sirahs come from an old vineyard called Devil’s Hill, on Spring Mountain high above the western Napa Valley. It got its name, Draper said, “because tractors tend to tip over on it.”

He noted that when they began producing the wine, they were unaware that Petite Sirah is half Syrah but suspected as much because of the fine character revealed by the wines as they aged.

Although the old-vine Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs have captured the imaginations of wine fanatics, Ridge’s most important wine is its Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, produced from the estate vineyard. Tasting through 28 vintages of Monte Bello Cabernet (alternative bottlings of two vintages, the ’68 Hollywood Food Society bottling and the ’74 Merlot/Cabernet blend, were shown for comparison) was a revelation.

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The Monte Bello vineyard perches at the edge of the San Andreas Fault at around 2,000 feet in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. The vineyard’s thin, rocky soil covers one of the largest deposits of pelagic limestone on the Pacific Coast. Although such deposits are rare in California, most of France’s great wines are grown on limestone. Among other properties, it is thought to contribute to the structure and aging ability of wines.

Ridge produced its first Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon in 1962. Tasted at Spago, the first of some 30 wines accompanying a leisurely lunch prepared by Wolfgang Puck, the ’62 still had something to say about the perfection of that long-gone growing season. The fruit was transmuted by time to a kind of beeswing translucence, a diaphanous yet firm and harmonious impression of the bold flavors it must have shown in youth.

Even as it faded in the glass, the other ‘60s vintages were emerging: the powerful ’64, the beautifully softened ’67 (evidence that the Summer of Love really was long and warm) and the gentle but still tannic ’68. “That wine was a turning point for us,” noted Draper. “It taught us that we want to see the tannins fully resolved in, say, 15 years.”

The next flight showed that the lesson was taken to heart. Two wines in particular exemplified that Golden Age at Ridge. The magnificent ’70 showed an almost overwhelming perfume and a luscious but firm palate impression with a sensuous texture and long, radiant finish. The ’71 was equally superb but finer and more focused, reflecting a cooler year.

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In the famous 1976 Paris tasting organized by British wine maven Stephen Spurrier, the ’71 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet was ranked above several Bordeaux counterparts in a blind tasting by a panel of French judges. Spurrier attended the February retrospective; addressing the group at Valentino on Saturday, he recalled: “The first time someone handed me the ’71 Monte Bello to taste blind, I thought it was Chateau Beycheville. I can still see why I did. It has an elegance, and a length on the palate, that I wouldn’t have looked for in a California wine.”

The ‘80s wines didn’t track as well. Although excellent and aging well, they don’t show that thread of Ridge-ness so prominently. In a way they reflect the turbulence in the entire wine world during those years of exploration and reinvention on both sides of the Atlantic.

At Ridge, Draper and his team were deconstructing some of their methodology, trying new things and replanting the estate vineyard. Draper said the 1986 sale to Otsuka Pharmaceuticals did not affect operations (he remained company president), nor did Dave Bennion’s untimely death two years later, but he concedes that it was a transitional period.

Toward the end of the decade, however, Ridge hit its stride again, as convincingly reflected in the absolutely stunning wines of the ‘90s (the youngest was the ’96). The gorgeous ’90 and the magisterial ’91 seemed to echo the tag-team ’70 and ’71, and subsequent vintages kept up the pace.

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Draper’s daughter, Caitlin, was born in ’79, and he said, “That opened me to a new world. I began to question parts of our process, deconstructing so that we’d know why we were doing everything. It took virtually the entire ‘80s to realize the new style we were pursuing.”

* Smith is a freelance writer living in Northern California.


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