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Words About Wine
A feature of Robin Garr's Wine Lovers' Page

On the Wine Road:

My Visit to Ridge Vineyards

By Tom Troiano

© Copyright 1997 by Tom Troiano. All rights reserved.

I'm new to this group so I thought you all might enjoy reading this:

On Wednesday 6 November 1996 I was given a private tour/tasting at Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino, California. Several friends have asked for my "notes" so here goes. The true wine fags and romantics will probably enjoy this most; others may wish to quit early and use the paper to start a fire.

The visit was arranged by Mr. Roger Ormon at Brookline Liquor Mart (BLM)/Classic Wine Imports in Boston, Massachusetts. I am truly grateful to Roger for setting this up. I might as well say it now - this visit was really fabulous!

I was in my car to drive the 30 minutes from my hotel to Ridge Vineyards at about 7 AM PST even though my appointment was for 9 AM. I couldn't sleep at all the night before. It was like trying to get to sleep on Christmas Eve when you were 5 years old. Before ascending up into the Santa Cruz Mountains I stopped at a McDonald's in Cupertino for some coffee. I entered the McDonald's with a copy of David Darlington's Angels' Visits under my arm. Angels' Visits is a fabulous book about Zinfandel and its origins in the United States. The title comes from the following quote which Darlington unearthed during his research:

I have yet to see the red wine of any variety that I would prefer to the best samples of Zinfandel produced in this state. Unfortunately, these best examples are like angels' visits, few and far between.

George Husmann, Grape Culture and Winemaking in California, 1888

Darlington spends most of the book discussing the origins of Zinfandel (one leading theory is that it was created "under glass" as a table grape by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society for the "Boston Brahmins") and describing his numerous visits to California's two most famous Zinfandel producers - Ridge and Ravenswood. I took the book into McDonald's so I could brush up on a few things. What was the new strain of Cabernet Paul Draper (Ridge's winemaker) planted in the late 1980s? Who owns the vineyards near Geyserville where Ridge buys the grapes for its famous "Ridge Geyserville Proprietary Wine"? What is the name of the Japanese businessman who recently purchased Ridge Vineyards (don't worry he can't take it anywhere!!!)? The whole scene in McDonald's reminded me of my undergraduate years at The University of Illinois. Every semester during finals week I ate breakfast while reading a textbook. There was one major difference though - I actually read Angel's Visits twice from cover to cover in the last week and some of those college textbooks where never opened until those famous breakfast sessions on the day of the final exams.

I left McDonald's at about 8:00 AM and began my drive into the mountains. Ridge Vineyards is high above the town of Cupertino on the Monte Bello Ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The last 4 miles consists of about 40-50 hairpin turns and about a 2,000 foot climb. There were no guard rails and so one errant move could be disastrous. I was really nervous about getting back down this road after drinking wine! Fortunately, my rented Cutlass Supreme was fairly new so I didn't worry too much about over heating the engine. Darlington pointed out in his book that when he saw a batch of Chardonnay "boiling over" (it really wasn't) in a fermentor at Ridge it reminded him of his car's radiator after it climbed up Monte Bello Road.

As I entered the Ridge Vineyards property at about 8:45 AM I was greeted by Laura Wallace. Laura is the manager of the wholesale department and she works closely with the 1-2 distributors of Ridge wines in each state. Fortunately, Classic Wine Imports is the only Massachusetts distributor of Ridge wines and they were also Ridge's first out of state (out of California that is) customer (in the mid 1960s). So, a referral from Classic goes along way at Ridge. Laura and I chatted for about a half an hour outside the lower winery (Ridge has two wineries on Monte Bello Road - an upper and lower) about everything from soil, to elevation, to age of vines, to winemaking, to wine critics, and so on. There was something I liked about Laura but I couldn't figure out exactly what is was. Sure, she knew more about wine than any woman I'd ever met but there was something else. It became obvious when she said she had attended Indiana University. In my humble opinion, all truly nice people have spent at least some part of their lives east of the Mississippi River and the closer to the river the better. When the conversation stumbled for a minute Laura invited me inside the lower winery and asked if I would like to taste some wine. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven (more on religion later) and the only response I could offer was "well I could think of worse things to do at 9:00 AM in the morning". Laura laughed commenting that she once had to suffer through a vertical tasting of Chateau Margaux and Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet at 8:00 AM in Miami, Florida.

Once inside Laura introduced me to Michelle (who's last name escapes me). Michelle runs the tasting room at the lower winery. Laura said that she had to go off and attend to some business but that I was in good hands with Michelle. Michelle and I chatted about some of the same things I talked about outside with Laura and then she pulled a half bottle of wine out from behind the counter where she stood. Michelle proceeded to pour me a glass of their 1992 Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. For those not familiar, Ridge is world famous for their Monte Bello Cabernet. This wine has been compared to First Growth Bordeaux (in 1855 the great red wines of Bordeaux were ranked or "classified" into five categories - First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths) and it is the love of all the people at Ridge Vineyards. The winemakers over the years have used Chateau Latour (a First Growth from the town of Pauillac in Bordeaux) as their model for Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet. While Ridge is recognized as one of the few great producers of Zinfandel, Cabernet is really their love. Zinfandel pays the bills.

The Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet is made from Cabernet which doesn't make the cut for the Monte Bello Cabernet. The grapes aren't second quality but they are generally from younger vines (many were planted in the 1980s, for example) and from lots that just don't meet all the criteria for blending into the Monte Bello Cabernet. The Monte Bello Cabernet, for example, may only receive 40% of the fruit that was harvested at Ridge. The remaining 60% MAY go into the wine I was about to taste (or it may be sold off). The Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet showed lots of bright cherry fruit in the nose. As expected there wasn't the tannic backbone of a young Monte Bello and the American oak was barely noticeable. I assumed (but forgot to ask) that the Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet spent less time in oak than the Monte Bello. For those who care, Ridge only uses American oak. They believe that the pours in the American oak are more favorable for what they are trying to do (than French oak - its probably a lot cheaper too). One of Ridge's major sources of American oak is actually in Illinois - the state where Paul Draper was born (perhaps near the Mississippi River!). As the Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernet opened up in the glass the nose exhibited some exotic spices, vanilla and eucalyptus. The wine was absolutely delicious - a nice blend of dark berry fruit, chocolate and mint. What a great way to start the day (it was probably 9:30 AM PST)! The 1992 Santa Cruz Cabernet will be a fine wine for the next 5-10 years. If I had stopped here I would have been extremely impressed with this "little brother". Unfortunately (for the wine - and fortunately for me), the next bottle that appeared from behind the bar was the 1992 Monte Bello Cabernet!

Michelle said that I was really lucky because a group of German Sommeliers was there the day before and she saved me about one quarter of a half bottle of the Monte Bello Cabernet. She said the Monte Bello is almost never poured in the tasting room. Michelle said that they did blanket the wine with Nitrogen the day before so the wine should perform as if it were just opened within the last hour or so. In the nose the wine showed lots of cherry fruit, with hints of leather, pencil lead, alcohol, and cedar. The nose was similar in style to the Santa Cruz but orders of magnitude more powerful and complex. The palate showed many layers of dark cherry fruit, chocolate and cassis. The wine had a strong tannic backbone (unlike the Santa Cruz) and should be capable of aging for many years. What impressed me most about this wine was the velvety complex integration of fruit and tannins. While still a bit tannic the wine is actually drinkable now. It will, however, be much better in time as the tannins mellow and the fruit opens up. Boy, life is good!

After using every superlative I could think of to describe the Monte Bello Cabernet Michelle pulled out a bottle of the 1994 Ridge Geyserville Proprietary Red Wine. I was happy to see this because I recently procured six bottles of this wine from BLM. This wine used to be labeled Zinfandel but because it is a field blend from a very old vineyard (owned by the Trentadue family) Ridge wants to have the option of using less Zinfandel in the final blend than California law allows. The 1994 Geyserville actually contains about 60% Zinfandel, 28% Carignan, 8% Petite Sirah and 4% Mataro. This blend is typical of the type of wines the early Italian immigrants produced in California in the late 1800s. The 1994 Geyserville showed an incredible nose of exotic oriental herbs and spices, smoke and pepper. Unfortunately, tasting this after the Monte Bello Cabernet was a bit difficult for me (I know, life is hard). While I believe the fruit was somewhat shielded by tannins the wine was clearly less tannic than the Monte Bello so it was difficult to judge the fruit. The nose was clearly the highlight of this wine on this day. As Mr. Draper pointed out (in David Darlington's book) the nose can represent over 50% of the pleasure in a wine (a higher percent for me since I'm color blind!) - and clearly this nose was a winner. While the fruit was a bit understated and less complex than the Monte Bello it was certainly there hiding behind the tannins. There were some hints of raspberry and strawberry hiding there somewhere. This wine should be cellared 3-5 years. I'm glad I bought some; in time, this will be a fine Geyserville.

By this time it was nearly 10:30 and I was starting to check my watch. I needed to start to descend down Monte Bello Ridge by 11:30 in order to drive the one hour or so to San Francisco International airport to make my 1:30 PM flight home to Boston. I mentioned to Michelle that I probably need to leave soon and she quickly replied with "you've got to try something". Michelle bent down behind the tasting counter and pulled up a bottle of 1993 Ridge Zin Essence. The Zin Essence is a late harvest wine made from grapes which have been left on the vine to shrivel. If you've ever seen late harvested grapes they are very interesting. They look almost like raisins and are often covered with a mold called botrytis. This mold is called the "noble rot" in Bordeaux. The best Sauternes are often made in years with lots of botrytis. The Zin Essence is made very rarely at Ridge - perhaps twice or three times per decade. 1993 was the last time they made this wine and there are no plans to make it this year. I could smell an aroma of blueberries the moment this wine was poured. As I swirled it in the glass the entire room seemed to fill up with the smell of blueberries. A more thorough examination (I stuck my nose in the glass!) actually showed hints of blueberry, cherry, raspberry and blackberry. It almost seemed like they threw some berries into the fermentors. On the palate the wine was incredibly smooth and silky. Since it is not fortified/arrested (as in port) it was not overly alcoholic. Michelle joined me on this wine. She admitted that is was one of her favorites. I knew I liked her! We stood there and chatted for what seemed like a half an hour as we enjoyed all the aspects of this wine. She told me how she has reduced raspberries in this wine and poured it over a bittersweet chocolate torte that she made. At this point, I was even more impressed with Michelle - she had found a wine and chocolate combination! For those who know me well, I've been searching for wine and chocolate combinations for 10 years. Moscato d'Asti works well but this is better. I told Michelle that I need to get some of this! I should point out that somewhere along the way Michelle told me that she grew up in New Jersey and that she still "Summers" on Martha's Vineyard. Again, my theory that all nice people have lived east of the Mississippi was accurate.

By this time it was nearing 11:30 and I needed to leave (or be divorced). I asked Michelle if I could buy some wines - she said "of course". I decided I wanted to buy wines that weren't readily available in Boston. I bought some Zinfandels that are part of Ridge's Advanced Tasting Program (ATP) which is a program that experiments with small batches of wine. I purchased a single vineyard (the grapes came from one specific vineyard) Zinfandel from the Lytton Springs Estate (often the fruit that went into this wine goes into their famous Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel), some Chardonnay, some Cabernet and the Zin Essence. Finally, I also bought (in a moment of weakness - how can you blame me after all the wine) two bottles of Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet.

Michelle recommended that I take a short walk up into a small vineyard above the lower winery before I left. She said that there were particularly great views from this location. As I walked (stumbled?) up the rocky path I passed a sign that said "beware of rattlesnakes!" I passed some very old Cabernet vines which were beginning to show some Fall Foliage (Laura had told me earlier that Fall is pretty short in the Santa Cruz Mountains). As I stood there looking down on Cupertino, the South Bay and numerous mountains in the distance I guess I got a bit religious (the wine might have also had something to do with it). Like my wedding day, the births of my three sons and the ordination to priesthood of a close friend I thought that God must be looking down on me on this day and he must be looking down on this place (most every day). Although he likely created this place for his own viewing pleasure he is willing to share with those that will allow it. Peter Gammons, a baseball writer, once wrote that he believed God was the reason that the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees were forced to play a one game playoff for the 1978 American League Eastern Division Championship. God wanted to see one more game that year between the two greatest teams in baseball. Unfortunately for Bostonians, we would have just assumed not play that game. Like those baseball teams, Monte Bello Ridge is clearly special. The location is dramatic and the people are even better. The winemakers use classic Old World techniques to achieve greatness (not the techniques which are learned in the chemistry labs) and those lucky enough to sample the fruits of their labor (pun intended) are truly blessed by God.

I returned to the tasting room having taken a few pictures (I took one of the rattlesnake sign) and I collected my box of wine. I thanked Michelle for lovely morning and gave her two bottles of syrup from Vermont. I said I felt funny bringing wine and so I brought some syrup. She thanked me and said she would make pancakes for everyone one day this week. I left Ridge about 11:45 and somehow (God was watching me, remember) made it back down the mountain and over to San Francisco International Airport. It was one the most fun Wednesday mornings I have ever had!

Tom Troiano, a Boston-area wine lover and father of three, penned this report to share with his friends after a recent wine-country trip.

A Word About 'Words About Wine'

If your love of wine inspires you to want to write an article or essay about the subject, or if you've had a wine-related article published in print that you'd like to share with wine lovers on the Web, I'll be happy to consider placing it on the Web in this new feature of my Wine Lovers' Page.

Although I can't offer to pay for submissions at this time, I'd like to see this feature become a showcase for serious wine journalism and essays in a format longer, more thoughtful, and less transient than message board discussions.

I'll be happy to consider both previously published work (as long as you retain copyright rights) and unpublished work, and while I reserve the right to reject submissions on the basis of content or style, I'll make every effort to be generous in those judgements and err on the side of inclusiveness, in order -- I hope -- to build a good collection of quality Words About Wine. If you'd like to propose an article now or show me one that you've already written, please feel free to send me E-Mail.


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