Bottle image via Ridge Vineyards
Monte Bello’s New Old Wine
The tectonic and climatic idiosyncrasies of Ridge Vineyards
I recently had the very good fortune to spend several hours with Paul Draper during a visit to Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello property. While Ridge is well known today, and their Monte Bello is arguably one of California’s greatest Cabernet-based wines, the property is far from more acclaimed wine regions, and was one of a very small number of wineries to make a name for themselves down in the Santa Cruz Mountains through the 1970s and ‘80s. Today of course it’s a different story, with quite a proliferation of wineries, though most tend to focus on Pinot Noir as opposed to the Bordeaux varieties.
As Draper himself says, this region is on the edge of suitable growing conditions for Bordeaux varieties. With vineyards up to about 2700 feet of elevation lying some 15 miles from ocean, the weather here is actually quite similar to what one might find in Bordeaux, but with warmer days and cooler nights. These growing conditions allow for fruit that produces wines with more fruit than Bordeaux and brighter acidity than most of the rest of California—one of the distinctions that set Ridge’s Bordeaux-style blends apart from many California wines and lets them compete with the world’s finest.
Tectonic Shifts and Holy Grail Terrain
Of course, climate is only one of the factors at play here, geology being the other main influence, and one where Ridge Vineyards truly has a unique edge. Limestone-based soils are the Holy Grail for vintners. People expend an inordinate amount of effort tracking down lands with underlying soil, and here at Monte Bello one just needs to scratch the surface—barely. Vines grown in limestone tend to have a tension on the palate that richer soils just lack; combine that with the weather here on Monte Bello and you have a recipe for brilliant success.
The ridge that these vineyards are planted on is a very rare form of limestone. Unlike most limestone, which is formed by the accretion of sea debris, the limestone of Monte Bello was formed on a plateau in tropical waters where CO2 percolated up through the seafloor and reacted with tropical waters, creating what is known as Calera limestone. Surprisingly, that formation occurred in the region of current day Indonesia, and this tectonic plate, which has become known as the Farallon Plate, slowly moved eastward until it was almost completely subsumed under the North Atlantic Plate off the coast of Mexico.
Bottle image via Ridge Vineyards
Eventually this plate, now known as the Pacific Plate, and the remnants of the Farallon Plate, just 18 miles long and one to three miles wide, shuttered northward, earthquake after earthquake, coming to rest at its current location south of San Francisco and west of Cupertino. This slender outcropping of rock is separated from the Coastal mountains by the San Andreas Fault, which also serves to delineate the change in soil types from limestone topped with a thin layer of iron-rich topsoils to the prevalent iron-rich soils that tend to surround the Monte Bello ridge.
Assembling the Ridge Lineup
Paul draper became the winemaker at Ridge Vineyards back in 1969. With no formal training, he quickly became recognized as a moving force in the California wine industry, not only for his wine-making prowess but also for his tireless work promoting the concepts of terroir, vineyard expression and the beauty of classic California field blends based on old vine Zinfandel. Through the ATP (Advance Tasting Program) wine lovers have been treated to a long succession of small lots, innovative experiments, and unusual varietal wines that have, for the most part, remained a secret to the buying public at large.
Be that as it may, and there is no doubt that blends such as the iconic Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines are not only gorgeous wines and great values, but also significantly responsible for the fame Ridge has achieved. The star in the Ridge lineup is Cabernet, Monte Bello to be precise, and today, Monte Bello is one of the very few $100-plus bottles that can be called a compelling value. But this is first growth quality juice my friends, and if there is a more compelling value at $100 out there, I have yet to find it.