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Ridge Vineyards 60th Anniversary Tasting: Stately progress

A celebration featuring 20 vintages of the epochal Californian red, Ridge Monte Bello.

By Simon Field MW

Simon Field MW attended a celebratory vertical of 20 vintages of Ridge Monte Bello, the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains that has played a defining role in the story of modern California wine.

The Monte Bello Road was carved from the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1870s. The first vines were planted, and there is evidence of the production of an 1892 vintage. Prohibition came and went, and the vision disappeared into the fog, the myth of Valhalla almost forgotten. Almost, but not quite. It seems that 20 acres (8ha) of Cabernet Sauvignon were replanted in 1949 (by whom it is not clear), and these came as part of the deal when, ten years later, four Stamford electrical engineers bought the surrounding land in order to pursue geological studies. The description of a shed perched upon a ridge, the Pacific Ocean on one side, what became known as Silicon Valley on the other, is suitably romantic.

One of the four, Dave Bennion, became enchanted by the vines. Nature at its most raw and its most pure. He was not a “wine man” and probably didn’t realize that UC Davis was in its pomp; hygiene and control were the watchwords, natural yeast and stainless steel the lieutenants of propriety. Bennion wasn’t especially interested in that side of things. This remote vineyard fascinated him, however. He hired the young Paul Draper to make the wines and asked a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé to upgrade the shed. A winery was chiseled out of the limestone. The first Monte Bello wine was dated 1962—and here we are, 60 years on, celebrating the anniversary with a tasting of 20 of its finest incarnations, from 2019 all the way back to 1964.

Monte Bello now covers some 370 acres (150ha) and gained full organic accreditation in 2011. Cabernet was king for a long time, but in the 1980s, Merlot was added, then Petit Verdot and finally Cabernet Franc. Today, the wine is always a blend, Cabernet Sauvignon always primus inter pares. Ridge is located in the northern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains, at the pinnacle of three counties (Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, and San Mateo), its forests and rugged tracks hosted by decomposed limestone and Franciscan rock—the terroir therefore different from Napa and Sonoma, where there is no limestone. The vines are maintained in separate parcels (45 lots in total) and renourished by a sustainable philosophy, with focus on cover crops and integrated pest management. Only 15 miles (24km) from the Pacific Ocean, and at altitudes between 1,300 and 2,700ft (400–820m), Ridge is an exemplar of New World cool-climate viticulture. “As cool as Bordeaux but without the rain” is how Draper describes it. From the outset, he was not interested in the high-octane wines of California. Château Latour was his role model.

Paul Draper, the “semi-retired” winemaker who will be forever associated with Ridge.

Stately progress over six decades

Sixty years on, Paul is semi-retired, for want of a better word. He was not present at the BAFTA tasting but had a hand, deus ex machina, in its detail—from the vintage selection, down to the decanting regime. His philosophy is shared by the current head winemaker and CEO John Olney and the chief viticulturist David Gates, who led the tasting. The focus is on continuity of style informed by a lack of intervention in the winery, though Olney admits that sometimes there is a requirement to deacidify. This itself marks out just how special Monte Bello is; the majority of California wineries will be looking to add acid rather than to take it away Yeasts are natural, macerations short, and there is no filtration. We are amazed to see that only one of the 21 wines exceeds 14% ABV. Many critics, for many years, failed to spot the nuances. Paul Draper’s fascination with American oak persists (there must be “some difference from Bordeaux,” he jokes), though there will usually be 5 percent or so of French barrels employed to season the seasoning.

A benchmark tasting, this, though the bench was indented even more profoundly with the two Judgment of Paris tastings (California versus Bordeaux) that first served to bring Europe’s attention to the great wines of California. In the original Judgment, organized by the late, great Steven Spurrier in 1976, the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello came fifth overall and was the second-highest-scoring California wine; 1973 Stag’s Leap topped the chart. In the 30-year anniversary “rematch” in 2006, Ridge Monte Bello 1971 came out top. A wine for the longer term, self-evidently. And in London in 2022, Ridge definitely comes out on top. The only qualm is somewhat greedy and selfish—namely, that we were not able to taste even more from the pantheon; 2017, 2013, 2002, 1992, and 1974, inter alia, are all highly appreciated vintages. L’embarras de richesses. As we are tasting at BAFTA, home of British film, our host, Alex Hunt MW, from the UK importer Berkmann Wine Cellars, describes the 21 snapshots of the Ridge story told in reverse: a series of photographs rather than a film, maybe. On an entirely human timescale, we capture the life of a great institution through its finest wines down the years. Time’s arrow takes us to the heart of the dark wine and allows us to assess its stately progress over the six decades.

Ridge head winemaker and CEO John Olney. Photography courtesy of Ridge Vineyards.

Tasting

The Dolby Rooms, BAFTA, London; October 25, 2022

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Flight One

2019 Ridge Monte Bello (82% CS, 9% M, 8% PV, 1% CF)

A “rare and charming vintage,” pace John Olney, all the fruit now farmed organically. A large crop, with 41 lots assembled separately in the antechamber of the final blend—a record at Monte Bello. Mint, menthol, easy summer fruits, and a soft, luxuriant texture. Quite forward, one might think. I wonder how Ridge 1962 would have tasted in 1965… Fine tannins, notes of raspberry; opulent but very approachable, with no rough edges. Oak sits on it a little for now; a corset of potential. | 93–95

2011 Ridge Monte Bello (88% CS, 8% M, 4% CF)

Holding a regal color; more smoky, briary, peat; graphite, iodine; a Protestant austerity. There is a mid-palate dignity; cassis billows at the back; soft pepper and spice, very refined and restrained. From the severity of the nose, one is beguiled by the soft cushion of charm, upstanding acidity, focused and correct. There is a hint of raisined complexity but no sign of surmaturité. A cool year, with a latish harvest, completed on November 8, its work done by dancing around the tempests. | 92

2009 Ridge Monte Bello (72% CS, 22% M, 6% PV)

With the pendulum swinging from Cabernet to Merlot in 2009, the wine is, unsurprisingly, slightly fatter, more regal and Falstaffian, but lacking, maybe, the immense precision of the 2010. A little adolescent fuzz, smoke in the forest; a touch drying on the finish. The grip of youth maybe, full of passionate Yeatsian intensity. | 93

2007 Ridge Monte Bello (79% CS, 10% M, 9% PV, 2% CF)

A somewhat idiosyncratic season: David describes the near-wintery conditions in early October and then, on the 23rd, temperatures soaring into the high 80s F (low 30s C). Petit Verdot gets the call-up this time and immediately seduces with a whiff of violets, plum, and mint; eucalypt, gorse, fir, something a little primordial. There is a touch of evolution at work here, Darwinian in its most positive sense: tar, roses, fennel, caraway seeds, a spicy backdrop, a robe of pepper… The tannins are firm, the acidity composed and balanced. Minty on the back, assertive at the moment, nearly didactic. | 93

2005 Ridge Monte Bello (70% CS, 22% M, 6% PV, 2% CF)

Do the vicissitudes of the Pacific differ from those of the Atlantic, when comparing Ridge to, say, Latour? Maybe, but fundamentally possibly not. Be that as it may, they certainly made their presence felt in 2005, churning yields and challenging the ripening process. The result, as so often in a tense vintage, focuses on wines of concentration and personality. A hint of terra-cotta evolution at the rim, otherwise profound of color, the nose anonymous through the rigor of latent complexity, the palate brimming with potential, tobacco-tense dryness, spice, and a Latour-like layered grandeur. A complex, diverting beast; predating on potential. Alex was wise to double-decant this one. | 96

2001 Ridge Monte Bello (56% CS, 36% M, 8% CF)

A controversial vintage, with an unusually high proportion of Merlot and a higher-than-normal ABV. (This is the only one notching up 14% in the tasting; nota bene, Napa compadres.) John describes the year as “self-conscious”; at the assemblage stage, 22 Merlot lots were selected, several Cabernet sites not getting the nod. Atypical? Maybe, but not overly ripe. Pragmatic? Certainly, but that should not be seen as a negative per se. A failure? Most definitely not, for all John’s modesty. A striking, regal nose, high-toned but not volatile; a plush lift, layered velvety tannins, plummy fruit, mulberry, an expansive slightly decadent feel, opulent and rich; then a pleasingly textured finish. A less austere style. | 92

1999 Ridge Monte Bello (72% CS, 25% M, 2% CF, 1% PV)

Another strong showing from Merlot, though it is less evident en bouche than elsewhere. A cold, rainy spring bequeathed a late cycle, both yields and quality uncompromised, nominally in the case of the latter attribute. The faintest hint of reduction quickly blows away. Thereafter, a lovely graphite nose, the broad palate singing confidently, with pure, pinpoint tannins, a real sense of place and bucolic backdrop, from high above the valley. Notes of licorice and fig emerge slowly. One can hear the wind blowing through the pines, a sense of remoteness, an unabashed, symphonic dignity. An unfinished symphony, two decades on… | 95

Alex Hunt MW of UK agents Berkmann Wine Cellars leads the tasting. Photography courtesy of Berkmann Wine Cellars.

1997 Ridge Monte Bello (85% CS, 8% M, 4% PV, 3% CF)

An unusual year bookended by torrential winter rains and, rather surprisingly, the earliest vintage since 1962. 45% of the Monte Bello wine was rejected at the final assemblage stage, the balance nonetheless dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is, accordingly, deeply colored, though maybe equally monochrome when it comes to fruit profile: mulberry and cassis to the fore, vestigial ripeness challenged—intellectually at least—by the lower ABV (12.9%). | 94

1995 Ridge Monte Bello (69% CS, 18% M, 10% CF, 3% PV)

Both the inclusion of a little more press juice and an inherent ripeness explain away the deep, almost-onyx color here. There is a dark-roasted coffee aromatic, plump, dark mid-palate fruit, blue fruit rather than cassis in this instance (myrtle and loganberry to the fore), then an attractive spicy backdrop. Big-boned, with just a touch of VA and dark-chocolate character (After Eight mints, perhaps). The tannins are plush but do not lack for dignity at the back of the palate. This ’95 is still youthful, with grip and character aplenty. | 96

1985 Ridge Monte Bello (93% CS, 7% M)

Cabernet Sauvignon is very much in evidence in the 1985; a fox-russet rim, then red fruit and blue fruit arm in arm, spice and herbs lending support; there is a distinct claret-like graphite thread, with a mellow, dignified, and savory evolution streaming down its middle. The tannins are still fairly stern, their authority undimmed by time. Plateauing pleasingly. | 91

1977 Ridge Monte Bello (97% CS, 3% M)

An early-pick, drought year, and a Cabernet year more than any other. The wine whispers extraction, with a hint of Brett, maybe. Beyond that, wild strawberries, with a meaty, profound subtext, acidity holding its own through the labyrinth of dark chocolate and pepper. A touch drying on the finish, but elegant; very complete, with a Bovril, beef-broth muscularity at its core. Autumn approaches for this one. John says that it would be ideal with côte de veau, which sounds like a nice prospect. | 92

Flight Two

2018 Ridge Monte Bello (74% CS, 17% M, 7% PV, 2% CF)

A “generous and sensuous” vintage—so much so that the pump-over regime had to be moderated in the name of balance. Compote, glazed raspberry, black cherry, and fig stand out; there is almost a boiled character, or perhaps let’s say very definitely ripe. Plums and white chocolate to the fore, then a rather unexpected texture; loose-knit yet playful. Typical young Monte Bello, with the constituent interplay, quite understandably, a little disparate at the moment. | 93–95

2016 Ridge Monte Bello (72% CS, 12% M, 10% PV, 6% CF)

Late-winter rains eased the ensuing drought; the roots were able to seek solace through the fractured limestone. Purity of color and intent; deep, opalescent, aubergine, and plum, the latter evident on the palate, to. A tight-knit, fascinating Monte Bello, with tobacco, flint, and even oyster shell tempering the more usual fruit descriptors. A seductive and intriguing interplay between the austere and the approachable; attractive, therefore. And then some. | 94–96

2014 Ridge Monte Bello (75% CS, 18% M, 5% CF, 2% PV)

Strong, plush color; firm at the rim, with a hint of VA, but only a modest hint, and this is good VA, adding interest rather than woe. A very “complete” and articulate wine, despite the lack of water throughout the season. Everything is well-placed, everything eloquently reassuring. No rough edges here; everything parses elegantly. Refined and precise, all shaping up very nicely. | 95–96

2008 Ridge Monte Bello (72% CS, 28% M)

Another appreciable contribution from the Merlot in 2008. This year was notable for two intense storms in April and a heat spike in May. The wine is made in attractive, seductive style, fleshier than some and maybe more approachable in youth; caution is not required even in relative youth, such is the magisterial composure on display. I like very much the soft spice, the white tobacco, the grip on the finish. Today, this is wonderful for sure. | 95

2006 Ridge Monte Bello (68% CS, 20% M, 10% PV, 2% CF)

Big, bold color, partly down, seemingly, to the unusually high component of Petit Verdot, which also lends spice further down the road. The wine has a forward, slightly assuming palate, and is temperamentally soft. There is, however, a cascade of supporting acidity, magnificent, restorative tannins, and a firm but not overbearing finish. Starting to come into focus. | 94

1996 Ridge Monte Bello (80% CS, 11% M, 9% PV)

The most seductive of noses, with little hint of development; leathery eloquence complements the dark-fruit character, however. A mid-May storm was followed by a fortnight of tempestuous weather, which served to reduce the yields, quite drastically on the lower slopes. Quality has not been endangered, however; quite the reverse. There is superb power on the finish, outstanding quality throughout. Hints of exoticism, wintergreen, and dried herbs, a latent austerity. “Low yields have made this a great wine,” says John, who also compares it to top-flight Pauillac or maybe even Haut-Brison. One is disinclined to disagree. | 97

1994 Ridge Monte Bello (73% CS, 15% M, 9% PV, 3% CF)

1994 was marked by a late harvest and high diurnal variations during the growing season. Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc play a small but significant part here, contributing color, texture, spice, and acidity. The wine is unusual—all the more so, given its age; there is an incredibly creamy yet almost resinous character, an apparent contradiction, then a swell of ripe, dark-berry fruit, all held in check by tight tannins. The texture boasts a fine weave, chalky yet plush, rich yet measured—a web of pleasing contradiction. Intriguing. | 95

1988 Ridge Monte Bello
(95% CS, 3% M, 2% PV)

Excessive heat just before harvest throughout the region was only partly tempered by the altitude and oceanic aspect of the western Santa Cruz Mountains. This is an elegant older style, with a hint of Brett and firm, rather severe tannins. Hard to love in such company. It does not fail, however, to earn our respect. | 93

1964 Ridge Monte Bello (100% CS)

From the era of Cabernet Sauvignon only, and only one of the four bottles at our tasting passes muster, so a very small pour and the wine is tasted immediately, in silent devotion. One recalls churches before the congregation has arrived: silent austerity; a whiff of incense from matins; vanishing vestigial fruit, game, and truffle in autumn before the shoot… fragile and rare. Chief winemaker John Olney holds this up, somewhat waspishly, as “the Ridge model and not the Parker model.” The wine is more fragile than the statement, and yet from its delicate poise we can understand perfectly what he means. | 90

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