Out on its own in California

Image of Jancis Robinson

California wine can be frustrating for those of us who live outside the US. Thanks to recent swollen crops and plummeting sales of California’s many ambitiously priced wines, there is a glut of good wine – much of it finding its way into keenly priced bottles carrying a plethora of negociant labels. American wine buyers are currently spoilt for choice in the $10-$30 a bottle range.

But in California’s major export markets, such as the UK, practically all we see are the cut-price likes of Blossom Hill, Gallo’s cheaper lines, Sutter Home and Turner Road. Clusters of smarter California wines can be found lingering on posh restaurant wine lists around the world, bearing vintages that attest to a wave of enthusiasm on the part of a past sommelier, or a particularly favourable exchange rate, but they tend to sell painfully slowly. While the California economy was booming, it sheltered high-end producers in the golden state from the harsh reality that their wines are overpriced compared with international competition.

With such a vast and long-buoyant domestic market on their doorstep, few California wine producers put much effort into exporting. But in these leaner times, many of the California wine operations that are not backed by a large fortune are suffering badly. They are not helped by the limited options available within the confines of the US’s highly regulated distribution system. Direct shipping to consumers can be severely restricted, and the diminishing number of distributors tend to represent too many labels to give any but the most powerful enough attention.

Then there is the question of style. It has become routine for California’s red wines, and some of the whites, to notch up alcohol levels of 15 per cent and above, their colour “enhanced” not unusually by a shot of a grape concentrate such as Mega Purple. 

Napa Valley Cabernets, arguably California’s signature wines, have come to be picked later and later, by winemakers apparently terrified of the slightest hint of herbaceousness or tannins with any chewiness to them, so that they typically taste sweet, strong and so smooth that they can be more like cocoa than the archetype of Cabernet-based wine, red bordeaux. Not necessarily bad but certainly not the most digestible or food-friendly style of wine.

One California winery provides a particularly obvious exception to all these generalities. Ridge, perched on a ridge 900m above the Pacific on the San Andreas fault above Silicon Valley, has been producing appetising, claret-style wines for half a century and has built up a faithful international clientele. Monte Bello, its top wine made from its finest bordeaux grape varieties, grown in the 19th-century vineyards around the 1886 redwood winery, is modestly priced by California standards. The second, earlier-maturing wine labelled Santa Cruz Mountains Estate is a steal. The average alcohol level of these wines over the past 10 years has been just over 13 per cent.

Paul Draper, Ridge’s chief executive and head winemaker, visits the UK, Ridge’s most important export market, at least once a year and travels widely in the rest of Europe. What may help Ridge wines appeal to the British, apart from the relatively moderate pricing, is the team’s steadfast adherence to traditional winemaking techniques and a style that is unashamedly modelled on that of the bordeaux first growths, with the twist that Draper and team favour well-seasoned American oak above barrels imported from France.

A small group of wine writers and wine merchants gathered in California last week to celebrate Ridge’s half-century and Draper’s 40 years on the ridge (where he lives). These anniversaries are approximate. It was in 1959 that Ridge’s wooden barns and ancient vines began to be recuperated by a small group of Stanford scientists who decided to indulge in low-tech winemaking as a weekend hobby. By the 1960s they were producing small amounts of highly ambitious wine and, at the end of the decade, decided to hire a full-time winemaker. The still robust Monte Bello 1970 was Draper’s first solo vintage. The more fragile 1971 performed well at the famous Judgment of Paris France v California tasting in 1976 and was the overall favourite in the rerun 30 years later.

Since 1986 Ridge has been owned by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Otsuka but you certainly wouldn’t know it. The Ridge team is still more like a group of inspired academics than anything remotely corporate. Formal oenological training is eschewed. Draper claims that his wine training was tasting the great wines of Europe and remains suspicious of anyone inculcated with winemaking orthodoxy. “We have to retrain anyone who arrives with an oenology degree,” he maintains. Current winemaker Eric Baugher is a microbiologist who came to Ridge in 1994 via a graduate project in its surprisingly high-tech lab. At Ridge, wine is made by blind tasting, tasting and tasting again.

When we arrived at Ridge for the celebrations, our first task was to taste two samples of the 2008 Monte Bello blind and decide whether the one with an additional 9/10 of one per cent of first press wine was superior to the sample without. That night, with a fine, non-flashy dinner at Marché in Menlo Park, we sipped a dozen vintages of Monte Bello back to 1968, the only wine of the lot that was less than magnificent. 

The following day we moved en masse to Sonoma, centre of operations for Ridge’s other great speciality: old-vine Zinfandel. Typically, when it was discovered that this variety, long associated with California, had its origins in Croatia, Ridge’s head viticulturist David Gates, who has been at Ridge since 1989, went there to see for himself.

Most California Zinfandel is massively proportioned, with flavours ranging from jammy to porty. But Ridge’s single vineyard Zins are unusually restrained, structured, refined and complex. Again over dinner, at the Healdsburg Hotel’s Dry Creek Kitchen this time, we tasted a dozen Ridge Zinfandels back to a Lytton Springs 1973, the only wine over the whole two days that seemed to show any sign of age. Zin needs higher alcohols to show its character but, in contrast to the California norm, most of these wines were just over 14 per cent.

In the bowels of the Monte Bello winery, the goatee-wearing 74-year-old Draper had told us portentously, “High alcohol is the choice of the proprietor. It is not dictated by global warming.” It is probably just as well that he lives in such relative isolation.

More columns at www.ft.com/robinson

Some Ridge favourites

Chardonnay Monte Bello 2006 from $39.99 and £34.75
Santa Cruz Mountains Estate 2006 from $32.99 and £28.49
Monte Bello – virtually any vintage from $89.99 and £79.99
Geyserville and Lytton Springs Zinfandel – almost any vintage from $24.95 and £23.49

Stockists from www.winesearcher.com.

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