My job gets me down sometimes. Not in the usual way, though. This is more after-hours than during them. I've spent the past 10 years trying to do my bit for vino-diversity (the wine-drinker’s equivalent of biodiversity). And all the signs are that I'm not only swimming against the tide, but it’s washing me and my kind out to sea.
Whenever I meet acquaintances under the age of 40, they seem to drink nothing but Australian wine. I drop round for a social glass with them, and they uncork bottle after bottle of Jacob’s Creek, Rawson’s Retreat, Nottage Hill and Oxford Landing as if they were cans of lager. Indeed, these wines are becoming the equivalent of cans of lager: standardised, consistent, reliable, risk-free, challenge-free, universally acceptable. They enjoy them; they consider they offer the best value and reliability at that price. Everybody sells them, so buying them is easy and convenient.
The Californian producer Gallo sold almost no wine at all here 20 years ago. “Last year the Gallo brand grew at over 22 percent and we moved more than two million cases as a wholesaler, establishing it as the leading UK brand,” says Pat Prendergast. He was talking to the UK wine trade journal Harper’s, which described him as the man “charged with orchestrating an interactive sense of marketing strategy” for the Californian leviathan. This miracle is due in large part to Gallo’s saturation advertising in Britain over the past decade. And the ads have, though their folksy, “Julio's Story" and "Gina's Story" image is many miles removed from the reality of industrial grape growing and wine-making which fills almost all of their bottles.
Then, just when I'm thinking it's time to drink myself to death with any remaining bottles of small-grower Marcillac or Entraygues I can get hold of, someone like Paul Draper comes strolling into town. Draper has made wines for Ridge Vineyards, sited high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for 30 years. It’s actually hard to think of any Californian winemaker who has enjoyed a more consistent reputation for excellence than Ridge. Does he talk about “expanding the consumer franchise” for Ridge? Does he talk about "complementary brand development"? Does he stress the importance of “core solid pyramid brand building”?
Somehow I get the feeling he'd flush any “core brand values” changes down the lavatory if he found them. “What interests me.” he says, “is the character of a piece of ground. Draper himself managed to avoid the training in “industrial winemaking” which he claims Davis University gives to its oenology graduates; he studied philosophy instead, and learned his winemaking pragmatically.
New techniques? “If you couldn’t have done it in 1850, I don’t do it.” Low yields, ripe fruit, wild yeasts - and, above all, solicitous study of each of the relatively widely scattered vineyards from which Draper takes in fruit. Unlike those large companies, which Draper says use the notion of terroir, of site-expression or "placeness" merely as a marketing tool, for Ridge it is the guiding principle of everything the company does. The result is that when you taste a series of Paul Draper's wines, you taste huge differences, splendid variety and, vintage to vintage, unpredictable changes too. These wines express a place and a season with the precision which only wine, among agricultural products, can achieve. This is why wine is special; this is why people devote lifetimes and fortunes to its study. Ridge has been influential among the thoughtful minority of California wine growers, and Draper’s restrained, avowedly primitive winemaking, and his determination to reveal the potential of morsels of earth with his wines, are no longer uncommon there. As a result, California’s greatest bottles unquestionably rival the best of France and Italy.
Yet I’m still depressed. Ridge’s wines are expensive. In the future, wines made with this philosophy - the philosophy which once guided almost all winemaking - will disappear into that deluxe ghetto. Wines under L7 will become increasingly industrial, increasingly branded, increasingly reliable and increasingly monotonous. Unless, that is, consumers decide that they really don’t want wine to go the way of lager and cola, refuse to buy big brands, and support the dwindling supply of inexpensive wines still made by small growers around the world.
Will it happen? Will it heck.
Ridge's most celebrated and most expensive wine is the Cabernet-dominated Monte Bello, grown at great height (between 1,400 and 2,600 ft up) in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco Bay. The height means cool temperatures, and Monte Bello is, in general, relatively brisk, thrusting and vivid by California standards, with piercing intensity of black currant fruit (though it also has deep, fine-grained tannins too). It's a long-term wine, acquiring cedar, resin and incense-like notes as it ages. The 1995 Monte Bello (which includes 18 percent Merlot and 10 percent Petit Verdot) is on sale at present and is almost rapier-like in its intensity and vigour
The 1997 Geyserville has drifts of pure blackberry backed by a supple milk-chocolate richness. Easy flavours, yet there's complexity in this wine, too. There's even more old-vine Zinfandel in the Lytton Springs vineyard sited in the Dry Creek zone of Sonoma; the 1997 Lytton Springs is one of the most intense and deftly structured wines made from this variety I've tasted. It's got warm, almost coffee-like scents and a flood tide of bright bramble, backed with evident tannins and sustained acidity.
York Creek is in Napa, and it's from there that Ridge's fat-boy varietal Petite Sirah is sourced. The 1996 York Creek Petite Sirah shows its American oak in its scent, overlying ripe, dark fruit; it's a richly tannic mouthful, with the plums meshed gratifyingly into the tannins.
Finally, the Bridgehead vineyard in Contra Costa County is where, from centenarian vines, Ridge produces its Mataro (mourvedre). The 1997 Bridgehead Mataro is slightly lighter in colour than the York Creek, with vivid summer-pudding scents encased in a typically leathery Mourvedre frame. In the mouth, it's light-textured yet intense (a hallmark of Ridge's generally low-yield wines) with more of that summer-pudding brightness settling down towards a smooth, chocolaty conclusion.