Visiting Ridge Monte Bello

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ridge Monte Bello tasting room
I've enjoyed wines from Ridge Vineyards for years. As the saying goes, "Nobody ever got fired for ordering Ridge" at a work dinner - especially their reasonably priced Zinfandel-driven wines from Sonoma.

But their crown jewel is Ridge Monte Bello - a red blend crafted in their vineyards and winery perched atop the Santa Cruz mountains overlooking Silicon Valley. Monte Bello aims to be the most age worthy North American wine, made in a Bordeaux style aged in American oak barrels.

Since their Monte Bello winery (not to be confused with their other location in Lytton Springs 120 miles north) is so close to work trips to San Jose it makes for a tempting quick weekday tasting.  But until recently I was never able to finagle a visit. I'm glad I did though because the visit was amazing and I've got a much better understand of why Ridge is one of the greatest American wineries.

Getting there


The 4 mile drive up to Monte Bello was even more interesting
than usual due to heavy spring rains this year
It seem all of the best winery visits start with cautionary instructions on how to get there, and getting to Monte Bello is no exception. Although it's minutes from the heart of Silicon Valley (Apple's Headquarters are just 10 miles away) the five mile drive up Montebello Road is as beautiful as it is treacherous.

Thanks to unprecedented spring rainfall in the region shortly before my March visit, portions of the road were washed out. Makeshift waterfalls cascading down the hillside combined with hairpin turns made the approach reminiscent of Maui's Road to Hana. 

The approach helps establish what a special place Ridge Monte Bello is. With many wineries there are neighbors with nearly identical terroir: Always inferior if you're the more prestigious winery, always just as good if you're the up and comer. But with Ridge there are hardly any neighboring wineries of note with access to the same soil and microclimate.

Brief history


View west from Monte Bello towards Rhys Vineyards
Monte Bello's history as a vineyard, and therefore Ridge's history as a winery, goes back to before prohibition. Here is a useful timeline. In 1962, four Stanford University's Research Institute scientists bonded the winery and produced the first bottle of Monte Bello.

In 1966 the first vintage of Geyserville was produced, establishing what we know today as the two most noteworthy offering from Ridge: Their flagship Monte Bello Bordeaux blend that sells for $175, and their single-vineyard Sonoma Zinfandel driven blends that sell for around $40.

In 1969, Paul Draper joined Ridge as winemaker. Draper is a true pioneer of California wine and one of the most admired winemakers in the world with influence that extends beyond North America.

In 1994, current Monte Bello winemaker Eric Baugher joined Ridge.

During my visit, I had the privilege of meeting and barrel tasting with both Baugher and Draper.


Tour


Ridge Monte Bello welcomes visitors on the weekend without appointment. On weekdays, appointments are needed and most likely would occur between 11a and 4p so keep that in mind if you're considering an after-work caper.
Tasting room
The architecture of the tasting room and winery reflect Ridge's proud history. Structures have been maintained, remodeled, added-on, and modernized in harmony with the terrain. Tastings occur in what was the original winery long ago. The wine is now made at a separate facility another mile up the hill (at 2,700 ft) where I met winemaker Eric Baugher for a tour and some barrel tasting.

As much as I thought I was familiar with Ridge, you never really get a feeling for a winery's true personality until you visit, and as importantly meet the people behind the winery.


Prior to visiting, I reviewed their website and noted that Paul Draper retired in 2016. But as luck would have it, he was there the day I visited. It was somewhat surprising to see him, but given that Ridge has been his life's work it's understandable he'd still be involved at the winery.

Draper was giving a couple of upcoming young winemakers a tour, comparing notes with them on winemaking techniques that flew over my head without further description (submerged-cap fermentation, anyone?).
Paul Draper and Eric Baugher
He's as passionate about experimentation as he is with sharing techniques and datapoints with others. For example, I remember visiting Bodegas Carchelo in Spain where Director of Enology Joaquín Gálvez cited his time learning at Ridge Vineyards as highly influential.

Eric Baugher is the winemaker responsible for Monte Bello these days, and clearly has the keys to the kingdom. He joined Ridge in the '90s after graduating from UC Santa Cruz with degrees in chemistry and biology. That said, he's not one to make calls rigidly based on measurements made in the lab. Far from it. He's successfully paired his scientific background with old school winemaking techniques to advance Monte Bello's legacy.

A recurring theme with both Baugher and Draper is experimentation and basing decisions on blind tasting. This encompasses everything they do. Determining the varietal composition of Monte Bello. Deciding which vineyard blocks should be considered. Informing which winemaking technique is best suited to the grapes their vineyards grow. They set up an experiment, test it blind, and decide what to do based on what they taste.

See also: Visiting Kosta Browne

The scale and attention paid to the famous Monte Bello bottling is worth discussing. The Monte Bello winery produces about 9,000 cases total (plus or minus depending on vintage). Of that, about 4,500 cases are Monte Bello proper. Of that, about half is sold to their mailing list and club members. That leaves only a couple thousand cases of the stuff to go around. Keep that in mind next time you're trying to decide whether to splurge on a bottle of Monte Bello: There's not much of it in cirulation through normal distribution channels.

The process of making Monte Bello starts with hand sorting of grapes. No optical sorting is used (it removes character and depth says their blind tasting). And at these volumes they can afford to hand sort. As a point of comparison Opus One with roughly 5x the production of Monte Bello does leverage optical sorting.

All Bordeaux varieties are de-stemmed. Monte Bello is aged for 16-22 months in ~91% new American oak. The result is a wine that averages 13% alcohol (+ or - depending on the vintage) built for longevity.

According to Baugher, Monte Bello is at its best 20 years after bottling. In my experience, great wines like this also show well in their youth, albeit without the integrated secondary characteristics that reward patience.

I mentioned that I've enjoyed Monte Bello more young (3-5 years after bottling) than after mid-term cellaring (say 8-10 years after bottling). Baugher wasn't surprised by this. Perhaps like the "dumb phase" that Chateauneuf goes through before emerging, it's probably best to let this age for the long haul if you're going to age it. If you're going to drink it at around 10 years (or younger) you'll want to decant it liberally.

I enjoyed a taste of '15 Monte Bello from barrel (absolutely leaped from the glass aromatically) and the more reserved (at this point) '16. What a treat.
The Monte Bello winery also produces some of Ridge's Zinfandel based wines, including the always outstanding Geyserville. This is somewhat surprising given its distance from Monte Bello and the fact that their Lytton Springs winery is in Sonoma near Geyserville. Evidently, they prefer to bottle certain wines at Monte Bello.

Overall, getting a chance to tour the winery with Eric Baugher was tremendous. He's got this quiet confidence about him that's in line with the Ridge brand. For example, regarding critics he said they don't need to alter their winemaking style to please critics since "Ridge has been around longer than any of them".

Tasting

After the tour I sat down for a tasting. Here are some very quick notes...

2015 Estate Chardonnay $55
Stony minerality with lemon and light feral notes. Pretty.

2014 Lytton Springs $40
A field blend with pretty red fruit and nice grip. Outstanding.

2014 Pagani Ranch $40
Approachable. A great "starter" wine, in a good way.

2014 Estate Merlot $55
No green here at all. Toasty oak on the finish. Grippy.

2014 Estate Cabernet $60
Really satisfying, complete wine with formidable tannins.


Then we got to the Monte Bello. One just about to be released and one with some age...

2014 Ridge Monte Bello $175
Aged 22 months in 95% American, 3% Hungarian, and 2% French oak. This is one of the most stunning wines I've ever tasted. Despite it's youth it's an absolute delight to drink. The balance of texture and gorgeous red fruit make this a compelling wine. Although it's constituent components are individually identifyable they're so appealing that once integrated this should be a tremendous Monte Bello.

1992 Ridge Monte Bello
13.5% alcohol. 80% Cabernet, 20% Merlot. Very pretty on the nose with candied cherries, leather, and cedar. Fully integrated and very clean. A delight to taste this at 25 years of age.

Bottom line


A visit to Ridge Vineyards is something I've always wanted to do. Getting to know what makes their brand special exceeded my high expectations.

After tasting the incredible 2014 I immediately did a Wine-searcher search for Monte Bello. Being a deal hound I thought for sure I could buy it for significantly less than retail but it turns out it actually is really scarce and hard to find discounts on.

One option is to join their Collector's Club where you buy Monte Bello as a future at a discount. For example, if you join and pay right now you'd get the 2016 Monte Bello for $105 rather than $175. You wouldn't receive it until 2019 but it is a way to get a significant discount on the wine. And I have a feeling they're not going anywhere and their prices are only going to increase.

They've got other wine club options as well. Their Z list is for Zin fans. And their ATP (Advanced Tasting Program) is for people interested in more esoteric bottlings. Joining all 3 gets you additional benefits.

I stopped by a local MA retailer. These are the bottlings we tend to see in our region:
Geyserville and Lytton Springs are two to check out for sure, but some of the other options are even more affordable and worth checking out.

As I was driving down the mountain after my visit I couldn't help but compare Ridge to Apple - whose new "spaceship" campus is visible from the vineyards. They're both admired brands that make unique products that are often imitated but rarely duplicated. True California pioneers.

View from Monte Bello towards Silicon Valley
Question of the Day: Have you ever visited Ridge at either of their properties? What did you think? What are some of your favorite Ridge bottlings?

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Giveaway: 2 Tickets to Boston Travel Show & Craft Beer Tasting

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Boston Globe Travel Show is coming to the Boston Seaport this weekend February 10-12, 2017.

I've been given 2 tickets to the Northeast Craft Beer Pavilion Session A on Friday February 10 from 6-8:30PM (a $70 value) to give away. These tickets include admission to the Boston Globe Travel Show. Because the Beer Pavilion is 21+ entrants and their guest must be 21 years or older. A form of ID will be required to pick up the tickets at will call along with entering the Beer Pavilion the day of the show.

I'll choose a winner at random from the entries.

Two ways to enter: 

  1. Leave a comment on this blog post saying you'd like to be entered in the drawing
  2. Tweet a link to this post
If you leave a comment and tweet a link you'll get 2 entries, increasing your chances of winning.

Contest closes Tuesday February 7th at 11:59pm eastern time.
Winner will be announced Wednesday morning by 9:00a.



Some highlights throughout the weekend include:

  • 3 sampling sessions and a Sunday Lord Hobo’s Brunch Bites & Brews at the Northeast Craft Beer Pavilion with tastings of nearly 100 beers and ciders from over 40 breweries
  • 1,000 Places to See Before You Die author Patricia Schultz will be hosting a two seminars: “Emerging Destinations: Iran, Cuba, Myanmar and Antarctica,” and "U.S. & Canada."
  • Pauline Frommer, Editorial Director of Frommer Travel Guides and award-winning travel journalist, will be speaking about "Insider Tips for Creating Great Vacations in All Price Ranges”
  • Boston Globe travel writer Chris Muther will give his tips for "The Digital Traveler: Best Apps, Photos & Travel Products"
  • Cultural dancer performances from the Philippines and Dominican Republic, including showing you some basic steps of Merengue and Bachata
Here's info on the breweries:

And here's my in depth guide to the show:


Questions or comments? Drop me an email or ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer

I'll look forward to selecting a winner from the comments and tweets.

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Dates set for Wine Spectator Grand Tour 2017

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wine Spectator Grand Tour 2017 dates and locations have been announced. They are:
  • Las Vegas May 6, 2017 (a Saturday)
  • Chicago May 9, 2017 (a Tuesday)
  • Miami May 12, 2017 (a Friday)
These events are high end walk-around tastings of 200+ wines rated 90+ by Wine Spectator along with a light buffet. Early bird tickets cost $225.

Las Vegas and Chicago are common locations for these events. I like the inclusion of Miami as [I believe] a new venue for us east coasters. Along with the New York Wine Experience each fall this presents a well balanced set of options for these tastings.

Is it worth it?

$225 is indeed a big chunk of change for a wine tasting. But like I've said before these events provide an efficient and enjoyable way to develop a relatable frame of reference for many of the world's great wines.

Here are reviews of past Wine Spectator Grand Tours:
I didn't make it to a 2016  Grand Tour event (they were in New York, DC, and Vegas but somehow didn't rise to the top of my priority stack). I couldn't help but check flights for the event in Miami. Lots of options for an out and back from Boston on AA. We'll see!

Are you planning to go to one of these events? Ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or drop me an email if so or if you've got questions about past events I might be able to help with.

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Blind Tasting: Two 92 WS 2014 California Pinot Noir Values

Saturday, January 28, 2017

2014 Hahn SLH vs MacMurray RRV head to head
Last week I wrote about the $10 off $50 AmEx Offer at Wine.com. I've got quite a few AmEx cards with this offer on them (16 in all at last count) so I decided to go for their StewardShip program that covers shipping on all orders for a year for a flat rate of $49.

Since I have StewardShip I can now stack the AmEx Offer with coupon codes and shop through a portal and get 25+% off. The key then is finding wines I actually want at good prices.

While I was poking around on their site I found a couple of compelling wines with good QPR (quality to price ratio). At least on paper: The 2014 Hahn SLH Pinot an the 2014 MacMurray Ranch Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir.

The Hahn SLH is a known commodity: Back to back vintages of 92 point ratings from Wine Spectator, high production and a readily available for less than its $30 release price. I've had prior vintages and have enjoyed this bottling.

The 92 point rating on the MacMurray was news to me because although Wine.com has it for $21.99 (at least here in MA), Wine Spectator lists its release price as $43. Wine.com claims the retail price is $52 so this wine comes right up when I do an Advanced Search on Wine.com and sort on Savings.

The wines arrived earlier this week. I popped them open and had my son pour them into separate glasses and remember which was which. Both wines were showing well, but the results were surprising...


Blind Tasting Notes


These wines look very similar visually. They cling to the glass similarly.

On the nose, I immediately think one is the Hahn and the other is the MacMurray, based on characteristics I associate with their respective appellations.  The one I think is the Hahn (from Santa Lucia Highlands) is more plush, with straightforward generous ripe strawberry notes. The one I think is the MacMurray is classic Russian River Valley brambleberry and cola notes.

The one I think is the Hahn is surprisingly dense on the palate. A lot of weight for a Pinot Noir, especially one that's shy of 50% opaque. Good depth of flavor. Hard to discern whether it offers a long finish -or- the heat is most evident on the finish. Very nice.

The one I think is the MacMurray presents itself the same way on the palate as on the nose. Cola for days. Nice fruit. Confident presence but not overstated. I really like this wine.

I'd be shocked if I got the appelations flipped on this one...

Shocker


I was absolutely stunned when my son told me the wine I thought was the MacMurray was actually the Hahn. I drink a lot of California Pinot Noir and have developed stereotypes on what wines from each region typically taste like.

I thought perhaps he might have been mistaken but when I poured additional tastes of each wine there was no mistaking which was which: These wines are dramatically different.

I kept both bottles open the rest of the night and the Hahn was undeniably more appealing to me. And given its higher production levels and wider availability I'd say that's a good thing for future easy purchasing.

2014 Hahn SLH Pinot Noir
14.5% Alcohol
26,500 Cases Produced
$30 Release Price

About 40% opaque in the glass, and medium bodied visually. Typical for a California Pinot Noir. Briar patch and cola on the nose and on the palate. Cola for days. Nice fruit. Confident presence but not overstated. I really like this wine.

92/100 WWP: Outstanding
2014 Hahn SLH on Wine.com (affiliate link)
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2014 MacMurray Ranch Russian River Valley Estate Pinot Noir
14.3% Alcohol
2,400 Cases Produced
$43 Release Price

About 40% opaque in the glass, and medium bodied visually. Typical for a California Pinot Noir. Straightforward with generous ripe strawberry on the nose. Surprisingly dense on the palate. A lot of weight for a Pinot Noir. Good depth of flavor. Hard to discern whether it offers a long finish -or- the heat is most evident on the finish.

89/100 WWP: Very Good
2014 MacMurray Russian River Valley on Wine.com (affiliate link)
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Bottom Line


I'd buy both of these wines again. I think they're tremendously enjoyable, and at just over $20 a very good buy in a category where it's hard to find a reliably outstanding bottle for $20, let alone one rated 92 by Spectator.

Ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or drop me an email especially if you've got questions on maximizing the Wine.com AmEx Offer.

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