To find a winery in California specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel is hardly a challenge in today’s wine landscape. But for wine professionals and collectors, Ridge Vineyards sits at the top.
“Ridge is so American and so itself and so unabashedly Californian in a very balanced and beautiful way,” says Ryan Mullins, a sales consultant for the Atlanta division of Winebow, which distributes Ridge Vineyards.
What sets Ridge apart has a lot to do with its site, long history, and the winemaking principles the winery was built upon. Its reputation is intrinsically tied to the Monte Bello Estate, which sits near the edge of the Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Using low-intervention winemaking practices, the Ridge team translates the high elevation, coastal influences, and limestone-rich soils of Monte Bello into the site’s namesake wine, as it has for more than 60 years.
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Ridge’s expansion into exceptional California vineyards in Sonoma County, Paso Robles, and the Anderson Valley has only amplified its dedication to site-specific winemaking. And as market trends and consumer tastes have changed throughout the years, Ridge has remained steadfast in its commitment to creating tasty, balanced wines from the varieties that are best suited to its sites, thereby etching itself into the American wine industry zeitgeist.
The Genesis of Ridge Vineyards
Though Ridge Vineyards wasn’t established until the early 1960s, the winery’s history dates back nearly a century before that. “The extreme history of the Monte Bello site is another thing that really differentiates [Ridge]. There are few California wine businesses around in 1885 that are still here,” says Jay James, a Master Sommelier and the president of Benchmark Wine Group, which sells Ridge wines.
The story of Ridge begins with Osea Perrone, an Italian doctor who purchased 180 acres of property near the Monte Bello Ridge in 1885. Perrone built a winery into the mountainside, terraced the slopes, and planted vineyards, and by 1892, he released his first wine under the Monte Bello Winery name. Winemaking continued—with the exception of the Prohibition years—until 1943.
Though Perrone was the first to use the Monte Bello name, several others were making wine atop the Monte Bello Ridge over this time period as well. In 1949, theologian William Short purchased an abandoned vineyard just below the Perrone property and planted seven parcels to Cabernet Sauvignon.
But just a decade later, he decided to sell the property as well, transferring it to Stanford Research Institute scientists Dave Bennion, Hew Crane, Charlie Rosen, and Howard Ziedler. “The involvement with Ridge from the beginning gave another dimension to [their research] life,” said Paul Draper, who joined in 1969 as Ridge’s first head winemaker, in the video “Ridge Vineyards: The Early Years.”
Though the partners did not originally intend to make their own wine, Bennion’s experimental half-barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon (from the vines that Short had planted 10 years earlier) changed their minds. In 1962, they established Ridge Vineyards—the same year they produced their first Monte Bello, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based, Bordeaux-style blend.
“The ability of the original four partners, and then Paul Draper coming on a few years later, to recognize what that site held and how special it was and to put the difficult labor in to resurrect it is a tremendously unique story,” says James. “That land is so special.”
A Rising Star in Fine Dining
1976 was a big year for Ridge Vineyards: First, its participation in the Judgment of Paris yielded the winery’s first glimmer of fame. Although it only placed fourth in the legendary competition, it was a part of a class that proved that California wines could make a global impact.
Later that year, Ridge was featured in the Northern California Regional Dinner, an event that highlighted local California ingredients and wine at the Michelin-starred Chez Panisse—marking the first time California farm-to-table cuisine was really celebrated in fine dining. This served to elevate the winery in the eyes of American chefs and fine dining critics.
As Ridge grew, so did its presence on restaurant wine lists—largely thanks to Draper, according to John Olney, the head winemaker and COO of Ridge Vineyards, who joined the winemaking team under Draper in 1996.. A known figure of the California wine community, Draper enjoyed engaging with sommeliers, wine buyers, and sales reps. He often preached the importance of building relationships within the restaurant industry to the winemaking team, says Olney. “We still place great importance on that because that’s one of the key gateways for people to find out about Ridge and have the opportunity to taste it, since everyone can’t make it out to the winery,” he says.
It was also Draper who pushed for Ridge’s export to Europe. “Paul really felt that if you’re going to have the chance to be considered one of the great wineries, certainly in the U.S., then it’s important to be recognized in Europe as well, given the history and the tradition of wine and winemaking there,” says Olney.
What solidified Ridge as a top winery of the world, however, was when it won first place at the 30th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris wine competition in 2006, signaling the ageability and consistency of Ridge’s wines. “The point that a lot of winemakers made in ’76 after the results was, ‘Well, California’s warmer. Their wines are riper, they’re fruitier, so they’re going to taste better when they’re young, but of course ours age much better,’” says Olney. “And to see Ridge at 30 years old just be that fresh, that alive, that vibrant—I think that more people heard about Ridge because of that than the initial Judgment of Paris.”
Monte Bello’s Unmistakable Character
Today, the high-elevation Monte Bello Estate comprises four properties, which include the land previously owned by Perrone and Short. “If you look at Monte Bello, the proximity to the ocean is critical,” says Olney. “And the fact that the ridge is really the first wall that all of that cold air and that fog hits, and it really does act as this air conditioner over the vineyard.”
The soil sets the estate apart as well: The vast majority of the soils within California are volcanic in nature, but in the Monte Bello vineyards, limestone dominates. “With the exception of some in Paso Robles, you never see limestone,” says Olney. “So there’s that very unique soil factor.”
“I think sommeliers are more in love with Ridge than average consumers are.” – Ryan Mullins, Winebow
The site’s character carries through to the flagship Monte Bello. “The Monte Bello always smells like eucalyptus, more herbaceous [than your average California Cabernet]—greener, but not in a bell pepper way,” says Rebecca Flynn, who was most recently the general manager of Red Hook Tavern in Brooklyn. “It’s that high-elevation, single vineyard effect.”
Olney credits Ridge’s success to its ability to recognize and specialize in single vineyards early on. “The site is much more important than just the brand,” says Olney. “It was a terroir-driven philosophy from the start.”
Throughout the years, Ridge’s operation has expanded to include vineyards in Sonoma County, Napa Valley, and Paso Robles, and it works with grapes from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to Falanghina and Valdiguié. Nonetheless, understanding the varieties that work with the specificities of the vineyard has been the winning formula for Ridge. “It’s kind of simple in the sense that you need to have the ideal site matched to the ideal microclimate matched to the right grape varieties,” says Olney.
The Impact of Paul Draper’s Winemaking Philosophy
But Ridge’s viticultural and winemaking philosophy has been just as important to the winery’s success as its planting philosophy. Instilled by Draper more than five decades ago, Ridge takes a hands-off approach to winemaking.
“Ridge is a philosophically low-intervention winery. That’s something that sets them apart from larger-scale commercial wineries,” says James.
In practice, that looks like sustainable and organic farming practices in the vineyard, along with hand harvesting and precise picking times. In the cellar, Ridge relies on native yeast fermentations, uses minimal sulfur dioxide as a stabilizing agent, and avoids adjustments and manipulations to wines. While this might not seem revolutionary in the era of natural winemaking, it’s an uncommon philosophy to have carried through six decades, especially during the boom of California winemaking.
“A lot of the practitioners of that style of winemaking are much smaller than Ridge and with less history,” says James. “They’re starting their reputation, whereas Ridge has always had a reputation for it.”
Though Ridge isn’t afraid of using new technology, they aren’t quick to jump on the latest winemaking fad, says Flynn. “Compared to other well-known California producers, Ridge has way less fruit, ripeness, and oak,” she adds. “They don’t change what they’re doing based on trends. They didn’t get way more opulent in the ‘90s, for example.”
A Champion of Zinfandel
Ridge may be best known for the Monte Bello, but there’s no mentioning the winery without noting its contributions to California Zinfandel. “Ridge has been and continues to be one of the touchstones of what Zinfandel is and should be,” says James.
Ridge first began experimenting with Zinfandel in 1964, working with 19th-century vines planted near the base of the Monte Bello Ridge. The wine was so delicious that the team decided to reclaim the Monte Bello terraces and expand their Zinfandel production. They soon began working with two old-vine Zinfandel sites in Sonoma County: Geyserville (in 1966) and Lytton Springs (in 1971), both of which are now estate vineyards. With occasional morning fog, warm days, and cool evening breezes, both sites’ climates and soils make them ideal for Zinfandel production, Olney notes.
“Letting people experience Zinfandel as a grape that can be just as much about place when it’s planted in the right place has done a lot to promote Zinfandel for us, as something more than just a jammy fruit-forward wine,” he says. The Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines are Zinfandel-based blends, and Ridge produces a number of other Zinfandels as well.
Though most consumers associate the grape with high alcohol and bombastic fruit, Ridge’s Zinfandels are known for their relative restraint. “Zinfandel, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, was trying to be everything to everyone,” says Mullins. “But Ridge has always kind of stood out on its own by keeping the alcohol in check and making wines that show a sense of place rather than just following the latest wine fashions.”
An Industry Darling
Despite its critical acclaim, the winery has kept a relatively low profile. “I think sommeliers are more in love with Ridge than average consumers are,” says Mullins. “Consumers dig on them for their hedonistic style when they’re young, but few know that the wine should be sitting in the cellar next to your premier cru and Grand Cru Burgundy.”
Even with its long-standing history of high scores from critics and fanfare from wine professionals, the brand maintains its obscurity. It seems that only if drinkers know about it will they reach for it at specialty wine shops. “It’s one of those things where, if you know, you know,” adds Mullins.
James says that makes the winery ideally situated for expansion. “They sit in the middle of this spectrum of wines that everybody knows and then extreme esoterica,” he says. “That allows them to be still appreciated by the ones who are in the know and discoverable to the new cohort that’s coming up in wine.”
As Ridge looks to the future, some aspects of expansion are already in motion. The winery recently began dabbling in Rhône Valley varieties, releasing its first Grenache Blanc from Paso Robles in 2018. “That is a great example of a variety that adapts very well to warm weather,” says Olney. “Paso Robles is a very hot region, and yet we’re able to comfortably make a wine that’s around 13 to 13.5% alcohol at the most, with great acidity.”
Olney expects a few other varieties will be added to the roster in the years to come, and there may be more movement in cooler climate areas for staple grapes like Zinfandel. Still, the core of Ridge’s production will remain. “In terms of the philosophy, and the approach, and consistency, it’s my hope that we stay the course,” says Olney.
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Janice Williams is a New York City-based freelance writer covering wine and spirits. Certified WSET Level II, her work has been featured in print and online publications, including Newsweek, Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Uproxx, and Thrillist, among others. You can follow her work on Instagram @browngirldrinkswine and website janicewilliams.net.