Five appellations, with six appointments in fourteen days. That was our calendar in late April through early May, and we couldn’t have asked for a finer return to California wine country for the first time since 2002. We decided right from the get-go that we were going to do it right this time; no exhaustive three of more appointments per day, and not even one appointment every day. We were going to enjoy ourselves, take our time, see some of the state and concentrate on a select group of producers, two of whom were new to our experience and three with whom we were very familiar.
Our travels took us to Napa Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Mendocino County, Paso Robles and the Santa Cruz Mountains. On off days, we simply toured or renewed acquaintances with old friends like Allan Bree, Frank Joyce and John and Pat Wolf. And of course, there was never any lack of good food and wine, as we’ve already detailed with recent blog entries.
Our site visits were all marvelous, and included appointments with John Olney at Ridge Lytton Springs, Julie Johnson at Tres Sabores, Mario and Danelle Storm Rosati at Rosati Family Winery, Jason Haas at Tablas Creek Vineyard, Paul Draper at Ridge Monte Bello and Sean Thackrey at his barn… OK, it’s REALLY Sean’s office-auxiliary storage facility outside of Bolinas and equipped with a kitchen many would envy.
We made extensive use of the video camera, and indeed, some of our reports could have stood on that footage alone – candid as they are, but there are always anecdotes and tasting notes to be included.
Our trip report begins in reverse, with accounts of our last two visits, with Paul Draper and Sean Thackrey. We met with the two of them just a few days apart, and couldn’t help but be struck by the differences in style and technique of these two otherwise brilliant winemakers. Subsequent reports will follow individually in quick succession.
The Philosopher & the Provocateur
Having the opportunity to spend a few hours talking wine with one of the great winemakers of California is a rare and special privilege. Having two such opportunities in the span of a few days is almost mind blowing, but such was our lot during our recent hiatus on the Left Coast, when we spent afternoons with both Paul Draper and Sean Thackrey.
The two men are rather different in style. Draper, CEO and chief winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, has a scholarly look about him and heads a team that is meticulously analytical in just about every aspect of the winemaking process. Thackrey, on the other hand, has a more Bohemian demeanor, and employs an intuitive, seat-of-the-pants technique to produce his brilliantly quirky eponymous wines named after night sky constellations. Draper embraces the concept of “terroir,” while Thackrey dismisses it. Draper chooses his words well, tending to avoid making provocative statements, but Thackrey, ever the iconoclast has no such reservations, as was evidenced by not only the interview conducted by our own Allan Bree several years ago, but by comments he made during our visit with him.
Neither man has any formal winemaking training. Draper is an adherent to natural winemaking techniques, but in a thoroughly modern setting. Thackrey actually employs methods that are hundreds of years old, culled from his extensive collection of ancient books and manuscripts on winemaking, and it’s a well-known fact that his winery is outdoors. But whatever their differences or similarities, it certainly can’t be denied that both have been crafting remarkably fine wine for decades.
Our reports feature extensive use of candid videos, supplemented by brief written narratives and tasting notes. It is our hope that our viewers and readers will get some sense of the excitement and pleasure that we felt enjoying the company of these two very exceptional and impressive gentlemen!
Paul Draper ~ Ridge Monte Bello ~ May 6, 2010
When we booked our flights to the Left Coast, one of our first thoughts was that we very much wanted to visit both Ridge locations. We had yet to see the “new” eco-friendly Lytton Springs facility, and while we’d been up on Monte Bello Ridge twice for Day in the Vineyard celebrations, we’d never actually visited the upper winery, located further up Monte Bello Road.
I contacted our good friend Christina Donley, Ridge’s Midwest Regional Sales Representative, to see if she could help in making arrangements, and she succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Not only were we scheduled to visit with John Olney at Lytton Springs, but Mr. Ridge himself, Paul Draper, agreed to give us the full tour of the upper winery. We prevailed upon Allan Bree to join us on the ridge, for which he needed little coaxing, and we were also joined by Facebook friend and fellow blogger Wes Barton, who recently took part in Ridge’s “Wine Blogger’s Tasting: The Monte Bello Vertical!”
We arrived a bit early and were met by Christopher Watkins, Monte Bello Tasting Room Manager and Blog Master at 4488: A Ridge Blog. We chatted briefly and when it was time for our appointment, we drove up to the winery, where Mr. Draper was waiting for us on the crush pad. We spent some time there, while he explained salient points of how that part of the operation worked, as well as the geology of the site and other items of interest, then we walked down to the barrel room. After a talk about how assemblage process, he drew us each a taste of some baby Monte Bello.
2008 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello Barrel Sample Final Assemblage, 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 13.3% alc: One of the very rare Monte Bellos that contain no Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot, this exhibits the classic Ridge profile, even in its infancy. It shows clean, dark color, and exudes a lovely perfume that follows through beautifully on the palate, offering a blend of sweet, ripe fruit, with a solid earthy anchor and a lingering minerality on the finish. Elegant and refined, yet with the structural backbone for many years of aging and development, this promises truly great things to come.
From there, we adjourned to a side tasting room for more goodies.
Monte Bello 4 Vintages Blind: Paul says that Eric Baugher, Ridge Vice President and Winemaker at Monte Bello, frequently likes to blind taste groups of wines for purposes of comparison, and suggested that we try his latest groupings. These had been open for 24 hours, but had held up well and showed some interesting differences in character, although all were quite fine. Here are my very brief snapshot impressions.
A: Sweet oak aromatics over intense cassis, almost syrup-like flavors; absolutely lovely, and of course, Mr. Ridge had this one pegged.
2006 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello Find this wine
B: A little shy on the nose, and slightly stemmy, with pretty black currant and blackberry flavors.
2005 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello Find this wine
C: “Breakfast aromas” of coffee and toast suggest that this is the youngster of the bunch, which proves to be the case. A nice core of black currant fruit, along with what Kim describes as “black licorice and poppy seeds.”
2009 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello Barrel Sample
D: Throws a pretty perfume, and not quite as intense on the palate as ‘A.’ Well mannered California claret with earthy undertones.
2007 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello Find this wine
It was quite interesting and instructive, not to mention downright fun to see how things like this work at Ridge, especially with Paul leading the tasting. Next came a descent into the bowels of the building, where more barrels are stored in a very rustic setting; remember, the winery dates back to the 1880s. There, we got a taste of a barrel sample that will turn our colleague Alan Kerr aka Canadian Zinfan green with envy. (It should be noted that Mr. Draper mentioned receiving a report of Chef Kerr’s striking Lytton Springs tattoo, which gave Bree, Kim and this taster a good chuckle.)
2009 Ridge Geyserville Barrel sample: Toast and coffee overtones to the rich black raspberry character, with some earth underneath; silky smooth and already lovely, so hopefully we will pour our first bottle after release to enjoy with the Zinfan.
With that, we were finished with our tour of the winery, so we hopped back in the car and headed back down to the Tasting Room, where Christopher was waiting for us with more wines to taste. As we tasted and talked, I recognized in Mr. Watkins a kindred spirit, almost as if we were old friends, and who knows, perhaps we were in a previous life. I especially enjoy his blog entries regarding wine and jazz. He started us out with a first from Ridge, the inaugural Ridge Chardonnay labeled as Jimsomare.
2008 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay Jimsomare, 14.8% alc.: Clean, medium color, pretty pear and pineapple flavors and aromas graced with a kiss of sweet oak; Christopher commented on the nice combo of citrus and tropical fruit flavors, along with the good minerality and mountain character, good points all. Rich and silky smooth, yet with ample acids to pair with a variety of foods, not to mention cellar for a year or three. Perhaps not quite as deep as the SCM or Monte Bello bottlings, very nice in its own regard. Limited availability.
2007 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate, 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, 13.3% alc.: Clean, dark color, with a nice minerality that the subtly perfumed claret-like black and cassis character. Full bodied and sleek, with excellent structure and a silky texture. Rather Bordeaux-like, and that’s just fine with me. Find this wine
A few months back, we scanned and uploaded a number of vintage wine labels from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, one of which was the 1974 Havelock Gordon Napa Zinfandel “Paul Draper Selection.” Our old buddy Tom Hill had told us that this did indeed refer to the same Paul Draper we were tasting with, but didn’t know the specifics of the arrangement, so here was the perfect opportunity to ask him about it.
Christopher told us that they’d been sampling a number of 375 ml Library Selections lately, not only to see what stage of development they’re at in that format, but because there weren’t really enough of them left to sell. We humbly submitted to helping in our own small way with the evaluation process.
2002 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello, 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 13.3% alc.: Deep, dark color, rich and lovely and very Bordeaux-like; silky, elegant and refined, with notes of old wood and just a hint of “that” perfume. A lovely wine, with many years of pleasurable drinking ahead. Find this wine
1992 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Monte Bello, 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 13.5% alc.: Showing earthy old wood, a subtle herbaceous quality and lovely fruit; again, very Bordeaux-like, but with that special Ridge touch, or, “Draper perfume,” if you will. Really in a nice place right now, and in no danger of fading any time soon. To my comment regarding the Bordeaux-like personality, Mr. Draper reiterated that one of the main reasons he prefers using American oak is that he wants Ridge wines to have a uniquely American character and doesn’t want Monte Bello in particular to come off as a Bordeaux knock-off (my words, not his, but you get the idea). Find this wine
Wes Barton brought along a couple of old soldiers to share, and they were very interesting indeed.
1979 Ridge Paso Robles Zinfandel, 5% Petit Sirah, 13.9% alc.: Showing some bricking to the color, with a funky-in-a-good-way nose, and more of the same on the palate; somewhat like stewed tomatoes when first poured, but still quite alive, showing more raspberry fruit as it opens. Find this wine
1968 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Ruby Cabernet, 12.8% alc.: Old wood and mushroom, with a nice core of fruit still present; drinking like a good old Bordeaux. Find this wine
(Click here for Christopher’s take on these two wines; he got to devote a bit more time with them than we did!)
We ended up spending four hours on the ridge, and Bree summed up our feelings when he characterized it as perhaps the most amazing wine-related experience he’s ever had, and he’s not exactly a newcomer to this stuff. Paul was incredibly generous with his time, sharing a wealth of information and showing us things off the beaten path. It was a day that will stay with us for the rest of our lives, and should memories fade in our dotage, we have some great video footage to bring it all back home. Many, many thanks to Paul Draper, Christopher Watkins, Christina Donley and everyone at Ridge who made this most marvelous day a reality.