If there is one wine grape that identifies California, it’s zinfandel, and nothing says legendary zin like the name Ridge.
Ridge Vineyards’ story goes back to 1885 when Dr. Osea Perrone, an Italian immigrant, bought land atop the Montebello Ridge in Cupertino. Along with fellow emigres, he cut into the limestone slope and finished building what became the Montebello Winery in 1892. Prohibition put the kibosh on its production, and the winery closed its doors by 1938.
Eleven years later, a neighbor, William Short, planted cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay near the old winery. Fast-forward to 1959, when three scientists from the Stanford University Research Institute heard about the new plantings and purchased some of Short’s fruit. By 1962, they were selling a wine commercially. And in 1966, the trio purchased what was Perrone’s facility. At last, Ridge Vineyards was born.
Throughout the ’60s, Ridge was very much a labor of love with friends and family working around their day jobs to keep the wine flowing. Finally, in 1969, the first employee was hired, a young winemaker named Paul Draper. Though Ridge started out as a cabernet house, Draper turned one eye toward zinfandel. His efforts helped shape its impeccable reputation for both grapes.
The winery was sold in 1986 to Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., but Draper has remained the face of Ridge, going on to become a legend in his own right. He was named CEO in 1988.
One of his disciples, Eric Baugher, who started out as an in-house lab tech in 1994, says, “Working with Paul is so amazing. He’s such a great guy.”
After 17 years, that says something.
Baugher is now the vice president of winemaking at Montebello. He modestly credits the vineyards and Ridge’s dedication to minimal intervention, along with the model set by Draper, for the consistency and quality of the wines. With nearly 20 selections in its lineup, of which about two-thirds are made at the Montebello facility, this is no small feat.
Ridge’s flagships wines are the two known simply as Montebello and Geyserville.
Composed of just under 75 percent cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, petite verdot and cabernet franc making up the rest of the blend, Montebello is one of California’s most acclaimed vineyards. The wine that bears its name was one of the top-rated California wines at the famed Judgment of Paris in 1976, and it can age for decades.
Like all of Ridge’s wines, Montebello is aged in American oak barrels. When the wines are young, the oak can be pronounced, but after a few years it starts to integrate and rarely dominates the fruit.
Geyserville made its debut in 1966. While zin makes up the majority of the blend, it does not always account for 75 percent, the minimum required by law for labeling a bottle by grape name. Hence, it’s just known as Geyserville. Call it what you want, but it is one of the most age-complex and -worthy zin blends made, thanks to its high acidity.
There is no question that other producers have made great zin and Bordeaux blends in California, but few have excelled at both. Ridge’s wide-ranging influence has inspired folks such as Al Brounstein of Diamond Creek as far back as the 1960s and, more recently, Michael Dashe of Dashe Cellars.
For these and other accomplishments, there is no doubt Ridge will go down as one of the most important wineries in history.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.