Just before noon on a Thursday in July, Ridge Vineyards’ head winemaker and CEO Paul Draper sits down for a blind tasting at his winery high in the Santa Cruz mountains above Silicon Valley, an hour south of San Francisco. Joining him are his winemaker, vineyard manager, lab supervisor, and me. Few wineries regularly blind-taste their own wines, but it is standard practice at Ridge. We all take a few minutes in silence to sniff, swirl, sip, and spit the red wines in front of us. Despite subtle differences, each of the wines possesses a core of red berry fruit overlaid with spice, herbs, and bramble. Though the identity of the wines is unknown, it is readily apparent to me what grape they are made from: Zinfandel, the grape that Ridge made famous. Everyone at the table is asked to make remarks on the wines. As we speak, Draper furiously scribbles down our impressions and asks a few questions about preferences. It’s all very democratic—Draper obviously cares more about hearing his staff’s opinions than voicing his own.
I’m reminded of the first time I met Draper, years ago in Paso Robles. After a tour of a Paso Robles winery, I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman standing next to me around the hors d’oeuvres. With his shirt open two buttons and sporting a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and fashionable glasses, he had the look of a dashing professorial type—architecture or literature, perhaps. I was instantly impressed with the depth of knowledge and insight of this stranger. Though I was the young wine writer, he clearly knew a lot more about wine than I. Yet he engaged me quite deeply, asking me questions and listening thoughtfully to my remarks. The exchange was flattering and inspiring. The next day I ran into the gentleman again at a wine conference. This time he was introduced to me by one of the festival’s organizers: “Do you know Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards?”
The humbleness and openness with which Paul Draper, one of California’s most accomplished winemakers, engages others is striking. He’s the same here at his staff tasting room as he was with a stranger in Paso Robles. The blind wines are revealed: four recent vintages of Ridge’s Geyserville, a Zinfandel-dominated wine containing small percentages of Petite Sirah and Carignane, including the unreleased 2005. That young wine was the consensus favorite of the group, and a stunned Draper says, “It was clearly my favorite, but I didn’t expect it to be, as I have truly loved the 2004. I didn’t know the ’05 was that good. But that’s why we blind taste. You have to be honest with yourself.”
This honesty has lately been paying off for Draper and Ridge in spades. In the last decade the 71-year-old Draper has been handed almost every award in the industry, including being named Man of the Year by Decanter magazine in 2000, Winemaker of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, and Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional by the James Beard Foundation in 2007. At last year’s well-hyped re-creation of the famous 1976 Paris tasting of wines from California and France, the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello (a Bordeaux blend), trounced all competitors. Then, remarkably, in a side tasting of contemporary wines, the 2000 Monte Bello took top prize over a field of top California Cabs.
Yet, despite having two wines (separated by three decades) deemed the best by a panel of the world’s top tasters, an amazing feat of quality and consistency, Ridge has not become an exclusive or inaccessible place. “We’re trying to do everything we can,” Draper says, “to make sure we don’t become a cult winery where people are buying the wine to impress somebody or to resell it. That’s not our style.”
Perhaps Ridge has also kept itself from spiraling off into cult-dom by its steadfastness to Zinfandel, often considered a humble, inelegant grape. Despite the acclaim for Monte Bello, the majority of the nation’s wine drinkers probably associate Ridge more with Zin than Cabernet, since Ridge’s many Zins can often be found on store shelves, whereas the Monte Bello is highly allocated to mailing lists. But Ridge is not just another Zin producer. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Zin barely registered on the radars of wine connoisseurs. Under Draper, Ridge legitimized the grape as a vessel of California heritage and winemaking art.
The joint project of a group of Stanford University research engineers, Ridge Vineyards was founded in the early 1960s on a 19th-century Cabernet and Zinfandel vineyard called Monte Bello. The owners planned to specialize in Cabernet, but there was so little of the grape available at the time that they decided to add Zin to their program. In 1969, Draper, a polyglot and polymath with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, came to Ridge following a few years of pioneer winemaking in Chile and some time in Bordeaux. The 33-year-old Draper had no formal enological training, only a keen mind, a taste for fine French wine, and a knowledge of traditional methods. It was a perfect fit of winemaker to winery.
Ridge’s founders had already begun making Zinfandel production from pre-Prohibition vineyards they found up and down the coast, from Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County to Geyserville in northern Sonoma County. The program expanded under Draper in 1971 to encompass another Sonoma vineyard, Lytton Springs, as well as York Creek on Napa’s Spring Mountain. Today, Ridge makes about 10 Zinfandels, though some of them are only available at the winery. Of these, the two Sonoma Zins are the brightest stars.
These wines turned out not only to be an ideal platform to reintroduce Zinfandel to an American populace with a growing interest in wine, but they also agreed with Draper’s belief in making single-vineyard wines. Vineyards like Geyserville and Lytton Springs, which have vines as old as 120 years, contain not just Zinfandel, but also Carignane and Petite Sirah grapes that go into the wines. Therefore the wines are not expressions only of Zinfandel the grape, but of the vineyard and all its diverse contents.
Draper’s reverence for great vineyards borders on the spiritual. “We don’t know exactly why some vineyards work and some don’t,” he says. “But when you find that magical connection of vine to land, it becomes your duty to respect it. We only guide and tend these plants. All the magic comes from them.”
A big believer in the goodness of old vines, Draper says that vines have to mature for nearly half a century before they can deliver ripe flavors and tannins at moderate alcohol levels. But age is not the only factor for which Draper chooses a vineyard: “I’ve tried dozens and dozens of different old Zinfandel vineyards and we only work with 12 or 14. Even if the vineyards were 50 to 100 years of age, we rejected many of them because they didn’t produce a consistency of flavor that we liked.” His selectivity in vineyards has allowed him to make Zinfandels in the food-friendly and balanced style that he prefers. Ridge Zins are not blockbusters, but rather rare examples of the varietal that are elegant, harmonious, and able to age gracefully for decades.
And one could hardly find words that better describe Draper himself. Like his older vintages of Ridge, he is mature and sophisticated yet still humming with youthful vitality. In conversation, he regularly invokes personal history—vintages from the 1970s, his time in Chile, visits as a young man to the Chateaux of Bordeaux, his father, the farm he grew up on in Iowa. It’s clear that he doesn’t look at wine—or at life—solely on a year-by-year basis. He sees a continuum, marked by seasons, of connection to the land and the production of something alive and spirited. Turning grapes into astounding wine is part of a larger story for him.
“De Gaulle said, “Any enterprise that does not have a transcendent purpose is never going to achieve gratification,’” Draper says. “I think that’s true. If all you’re doing is manufacturing this wine and you don’t have a vision that transcends that simple bottom line, the endeavor is never really going to be great or it’s never going to be as great as it could be.”
Draper’s vision clearly transcends any bottom line. And, yes, the wine is great.
Here are four of the most widely available Zinfandel-based wines made by Ridge Vineyards.
Ridge’s first vintage from this northern Sonoma vineyard was 1972, when the vines were around 80 years old. The vineyard now contains Zinfandel, Petite Syrah, Grenache, and Carignane vines that are more than a century old, as well as 50-year-old and 12-year-old versions. The wine is typically about 75-80% Zinfandel, 13-18% Petite Sirah, and the rest Carignane. Generally considered the larger and more tannic of the famous Ridge pair of Zinfandels, Lytton Springs typically sports forward red-berry fruit, an enchanting note of spice, and stout structure.
Ridge’s other famous Zinfandel comes from this vineyard on the western edge of the Alexander Valley, not far from Lytton Springs. The vines are primarily Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignane, and they range in age from 11 to more than 120 years. The wine is lush and rich, but generally more graceful and restrained than Lytton Springs, with slightly less assertive tannins and a lovely flowing structure.
A rarity for Ridge, this wine is made from 100% old-vine Zinfandel. While it tends to not have the long-term aging capability of the field blends, it’s enjoyably drinkable on release and full of the vibrant, juicy, wild-berry fruit for which Zinfandel is famous.
This vineyard is owned by Draper’s old friend Fritz Maytag (they made wine in Chile together in the 1960s), who also owns San Francisco’s Anchor Steam beer. The vineyard is famous not just for Zinfandel but also for Petite Sirah, which has been bottled on its own in vintages past. The wines are known for a depth of purity of dark fruit flavors and rounded, rich tannins.