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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