1964 - 2014 Fifty Years of Zinfandel

The Ridge founding families purchased the old Torre winery on Monte Bello Ridge in 1959. (It's where our tasting room is today.) Except for two small 19th-century zinfandel parcels near the base of the ridge, all Monte Bello's vineyards had been abandoned during Prohibition (1920-1933). In 1949, Torre's then-owner replanted eight acres to cabernet. Now sixty-six years old, it is one of the oldest cabernet vineyards in California.

One of the partners, Dave Bennion, made an astounding half-barrel of this wine in 1959, and its quality convinced the families to re-bond the winery. In 1962, they officially produced four hundred cases of Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet.

The partners all had full-time jobs. As they began more replanting, they realized they could not expand the vineyard and improve the winery on the income from such limited production. They looked for cabernet grapes to buy, but the few existing cabernet vineyards either had no grapes to sell, or did not meet their standards.

Driving up to Ridge for their weekends of vineyard work, the families often stopped at Picchetti winery to purchase gallon jugs of zinfandel—the last made before the vines were abandoned in the late fifties. The wines showed the full body and intense fruit of those 19th-century vines. Seeing a chance to increase production, Dave Bennion approached the Picchettis, arranging to restore the abandoned vines and buy the grapes. And we made our first zinfandel, labeled simply "Ridge California Zinfandel 1964." Released a year-and-a-half later, it was a success. By then, the partners were negotiating with Leo and Evelyn Trentadue, owners of fifty acres above the Torre property, which included an old abandoned winery, but no surviving vines. The Trentadues had recently sold their Santa Clara valley orchards, and moved to Sonoma to grow grapes. The partners had convinced them to sell the abandoned building—the eighty-year-old Monte Bello Winery—and, in the process, in 1966, arranged to buy some of their old-vine zinfandel grapes—our first Geyserville.

In 1967, Ridge made a Jimsomare zinfandel from Monte Bello's other 19th-century parcel, and also its first zinfandel from Benito Dusi's ranch in Paso Robles. 1969 brought several Lodi zinfandels, and one from Fulton, in Sonoma. I joined Ridge that same year, and my first zinfandel epiphany was the 1969 Picchetti. The Monte Bello had lured me to Ridge, but I now found myself with two loves, as I discovered the depth of fruit and complexity of fine zinfandel.

In 1970, we made the first of four vintages from surviving 19th-century vines on the Morelli ranch near Occidental. In 1971, we bought zinfandel from the Pronsolino vineyard on Vinegar Ridge, above Anderson Valley, known today as Dupratt Dupati. My good friend from university and winemaking partner in Chile, Fritz Maytag, provided the old-vine fruit for our first petite sirah, the 1971 York Creek, from Spring Mountain, above Napa Valley. Three years later, we made our first York Creek zinfandel.

On a cold, rainy day in the winter of 1971/72, I joined Dick Sherwin for a tramp through the mud at his Valley Vista Vineyard, on Lytton Springs Road. Those old, head-trained vines with their thick, twisted trunks persuaded me to buy his fruit that year. When we released the wine two years later, I named it "Lytton Springs." (Ridge was able to buy the vineyard in 1990.) In 1972, we also bought old-vine zinfandel from George Zeni's vineyard above Anderson Valley. In 1973 came the first of several Langtry Road wines from John Gantner's School House Vineyard above St. Helena. In 1974, we explored the Sierra foothills, and made zinfandel from the Fiddletown, Esola, Story, and Baldinelli vineyards.

Since then, we have made zinfandel from thirty more old-vine vineyards, among them Park-Muscatine and Beatty on Howell Mountain; Evangelho on the Sacramento River Delta; Nervo, Mazzoni, and Buchignani in Sonoma, as well as Pagani, Ponzo, and East Bench.

Last fall, I was invited to a dinner at New York's Café Boulud. All the wines were from Ridge, and all were forty to fifty years old. The 1973 Geyserville and 1974 Lytton Springs were included. One of the collectors who organized the evening said of the forty-year-old Geyserville "My favorite wine of the night...wonderful perfume of lavender and berries...a long, layered finish showing how well great zinfandel can age." Further..."The massive structure of the Lytton Springs was mostly tamed...dark fruit in the glass...seamless, with a lovely, long finish...a perfect complement and contrast to the Geyserville."

What gratifying accolades with which to launch our Fifty Years of Zinfandel! Paul Draper Monte Bello Ridge

Paul Draper
Monte Bello Ridge