Food & Drinks

Legendary Winemaker, Paul Draper, Reflects On The 60th Anniversary Of Ridge Monte Bello Vineyards

High on a mountain top overlooking Silicon Valley lies a legendary vineyard – Ridge Monte Bello. Its history and its legacy have been established by two wine visionaries: Osea Perrone, an Italian immigrant who first planted the vineyard in 1886, and Paul Draper, who joined Ridge in 1969 as winemaker. This year, Draper, in his position as Chairman of the Board, celebrates the 60th anniversary of the rebirth of the legendary vineyard and winery in 1962.

To commemorate the occasion Draper and other members of the executive team held an intimate anniversary lunch at the mountain top winery, situated at a 2800 foot elevation. Around 20 people attended, winding their way up the hair-pin turns of the very steep hills that make up one of California’s most unique wine appellations – the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

During the 4-hour lunch, which featured 7 courses and 10 wines (see menu pairing below), the 86-year old Draper beguiled the members of our table with 5 mesmerizing winemaking stories.

Story 1: Opera Stars Take Horse-Drawn Carriage to Ridge Vineyards

Many people wonder why someone would establish a vineyard and winery in 1886 high on a summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains. “Perrone, the guy who started this winery, was originally from Italy, and they used to plant many vineyards on the top of mountains in Italy,” explained Draper. “He built terraces here, planted the vines, and then dug out the limestone cellar we still use to this day. They also used redwood trees in the construction.”

Draper paused to take a sip of wine before continuing: “Overtime, Perrone became very famous and he invited opera stars from San Francisco to visit the winery. They used to take a train from San Francisco to Palo Alto, and then get a horse drawn carriage up the mountain. It used to take them all day to get here. Once they arrived, they stayed several days feasting, enjoying the wine, and singing. They really used to sing for their supper,” Draper quipped.

Story 2: Paul Draper as Self-Taught Natural Winemaker

Draper was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, and then attended Stanford University, where he obtained a degree in philosophy. “I wanted to be a winemaker from the time I was 16,” stated Draper, “but when I got to Stanford I discovered I wasn’t very good at chemistry. When I graduated I joined the army and went to Italy and France where I learned more about wine. Later I got a job in the cellar at Chateau Souverain, and eventually ended up in Chile (with the Peace Corps) where I learned traditional winemaking.”

Paul also spent a lot of time reading old French winemaking books from the 19th century, where he learned about “natural winemaking,” or non-interventionist practices. These included using native yeast, gentle pressing of the grapes, and no additives, except for minor sulfite additions to preserve the wine – methods he used when he landed the winemaking position at Ridge in 1969. “I ended up calling it pre-industrial winemaking because we don’t use modern technology here at Ridge,” explained Draper. “We are vineyard driven. We don’t use invasive press machines or optical sorters because they make everything taste so uniform.” (see video below)

Draper’s natural winemaking philosophy paid off relatively quickly, when his Ridge Monte Bello 1971 Cabernet Sauvignon achieved 5th place in the famous Judgement of Paris wine tasting. According to author, George Tabor, the 1971 Ridge wine came just after Stag’s Leap, Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Montrose and Haut-Brion in the line-up.

Story 3: A Blind Wine Tasting with a Samurai

In 1986 Ridge Vineyards was purchased by Otsuka Pharmaceutical in Japan. “They have been wonderful to work with all of these years,” stated Draper, “and I have visited them in Japan many times.”

On one such visit, Draper said, “I had an interesting dinner with a samurai who was known to have a great palate and loved Bordeaux wine. He told me that no California wine has the finesse of a Bordeaux. I told him he was wrong, and decanted a 1970 Chateau Latour and a 1970 Ridge Monte Bello to blind taste him on it. Everyone at the dinner was very nervous, but the samurai correctly identified the wines, and then he said, ‘I was wrong. This California Monte Bello is a great wine.’ So then we became close friends.”

Story 4: Ridge Petitions the TTB for Transparent Wine Labels

Draper has always been very transparent about how he makes his wine, and was one of the first people to try to put ingredients on his wine labels. “I think people should know how the wine is made,” said Draper. “However, when I first asked the TTB (federal agency that approves wine labels) if we could put ingredients on the label, they said no. However, a few years later Randall Graham started doing it, so I went back to the TTB and they finally agreed.”

That year was 2011, and Ridge has been including ingredients on their wine labels ever since. For example, the Ridge 2019 Monte Bello lists ingredients as: ‘hand-harvested, organically grown grapes; indigenous yeast; naturally occurring malolactic bacteria; oak from barrel aging; SO2.’ However, to date very few other U.S.wineries have followed Ridge Vineyard’s honest and open approach to ingredient labeling – even though the Biden administration and groups in the European Union are proposing it.

Story 5: Finding the Soul of a Vineyard Through Organic Farming

Towards the end of the lunch, Draper discussed the impact of global warming and the changes they were making in their vineyards. “In terms of global warming,” said Draper, “we have been worried about it. We have looked at studies on the best way to face the vines and discovered that NE/SW is best for us. We have stopped pulling leaves, so the bunches can have more shade. When I first started here, the Monte Bello cab came in naturally at 12.5% alcohol and 3.3 to 3.4 ph. Now it is higher. However, the limestone soil, plus the climate is what makes the wine so great here. We’re so high up that we don’t get that much fog, but when we do, it’s cold, wet and windy.”

Ridge has been farming organically for years, and owns the largest amount of organically certified vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Sonoma County, where it operates the famous Geyserville and Lytton Springs zinfandel vineyards. Ridge is also a member of the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA), and is taking actions to reduce its carbon footprint.

“Top quality vineyards are the key to success,” stated Draper. “Mainly, it’s been a matter of searching California for vineyards that make themselves.”

Menu for Ridge Monte Bello Vineyards 60th Anniversary Lunch

  1. Local Greens with Lemon Vinaigrette with Ridge Monte Bello 2012 Chardonnay
  2. Caramelized Onion Galette with Ridge Monte Bello 2006 Chardonnay
  3. Osso Buco on White Polenta with Ridge 1999 Geyserville Zinfandel and 1999 Lytton Springs Zinfandel
  4. Rack of Lamb with Roasted Potatoes and Green Beans with Ridge Monte Bello 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1993 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon
  5. Humboldt Fog and Mt Tam Cheeses with Ridge Monte Bello 1977 Cabernet Sauvignon and Ridge Monte Bello 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon
  6. Duck Rillette with Fuyu Persimmon with Ridge Monte Bello 1964 Cabernet Sauvignon
  7. Buttermilk Cake, Ganache ,Coulis and Fresh Raspberries with Ridge Essence Late Harvest Zinfandel

Christie’s London to Offer Rare Collection of Ridge Wines

As another way to celebrate their 60th anniversary, Ridge Vineyards just announced that they will work with Christie’s Auction House in London to present 60 lots of their finest bottles, magnums and large formats. The auction will take place on December 1 and 2, 2022, with the proceeds of Lot one to be donated to World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that provides meals and support in response to global humanitarian, climate, and community crises.

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