People with true vision and guts blow me away. Their sheer stamina to stand up to others who doubt or giggle gives me inspiration. One person who embodies this attitude is Paul Draper, a man who inspires not just me, but many in the wine world. Paul has been winemaker and CEO of Ridge Vineyards since 1969, creating a cutting-edge wine brand that doesn’t suck up to anyone: “If people stop buying our wines, then we’ll change it up. But that hasn’t happened in 38 years,” Draper says. Fighting words, but he backs them up.
For those who don’t know or have regrettably never tasted Ridge wines, run, don’t walk, to the nearest wine shop (you won’t find it at Publix). With each vintage, the wine comes so close to godliness that I frequently worship at the Temple of Ridge. Retail prices range from $25 to $100, depending on which label attracts you: elegant, creamy chardonnays; fruit forward, challenging red zinfandels; or ball-bearing-yet-balanced cabernet sauvignons.
Draper’s philosophy is that wine is created in the vineyard, not necessarily in the winery. He focuses on the character of the vineyard site, strongly believing — like most European winemakers — that the fruit from different plots tastes different. So Ridge labels all of their wines by vineyard site, rather than grape varietal like most California wineries (however, occasionally you will see a Ridge labeled by varietal). They have contracts with some of the best farmers across the state, establishing fame where they buy, like Pagani Ranch, a 100-year old plot in northern Sonoma Valley. Ridge’s flagship vineyard, Lytton Springs, comes from vines that are 120 years old. These old vines have limited output. The fruit, however, is intensely concentrated, jammy and decidedly decadent. The resulting wine is heaven.
And to think that many wineries yank out vines when they don’t produce well anymore.
Although it depends largely on great fruit, a big part of Ridge’s success lies in blending expertise. Many older vineyards are planted with a mixture of grape varieties, called a “field blend,” and Ridge blends several of the choices to create a unique flavor for each vintage. Draper feels that good cooks don’t use the same recipe each time, so Ridge follows the same mantra to make the best wine. Part of that recipe includes using American oak instead of French for barrel aging, and ensuring that the wood is air- rather than kiln-dried. The former softens the oak tannins and the resulting wine tastes smoother and is easier to drink. Ridge strives to produce elegant, drinkable wine that’s ready now but can also improve with age. Draper knows that most Americans don’t have cellars, nor the patience to wait on wine. I’m glad one inspired winemaker accepts reality and gives the people we want.
2004 Zinfandel Lytton Springs Two words: fucking beautiful. Same character as the Geyserville, but more acid/tannin balance, and more forthcoming with flavor. Let it sit in your glass for 15 minutes and it gives even more. Sweetness = 2. $30. 5 stars
2003 Zinfandel Geyserville A bit shy in the beginning, then it lets loose with violets, dried cherries, freeze-dried coffee, raspberry concentrate, blueberry and roses. Sophisticated and gorgeous. Sw = 2. $29. 4.5 stars
2004 Zinfandel Ponzo Vineyards Like a cute, fun girl at fancy soirée. Bright, fun raspberry jam with tart acidity. Silky and elegant on the finish. Sw = 2. $23. 4 stars
2003 Ridge Chardonnay Santa Cruz Buttery, rich vanilla, tangerine, mango, and banana on the finish. Has some gorgeous acidic minerality as well. Sw = 3. $30. 3.5 stars
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Rich and mildly tannic, with tart cranberry and gushing dark cherry. Very well balanced and drinkable now. Sw = 1. $26. 3.5 stars
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.