The idea of making two wines from a single vineyard has been in practice at most of Bordeaux’s top growth châteaux for nearly a century. Originally not always financially viable for the châteaux or embraced by consumers, the idea really began to take hold in the 1980s as a way to ensure quality of the first wines. Ridge started producing its “second-wine” in 1978, labeling it as Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon. This new wine helped Ridge navigate challenging weather conditions during the drought of the late 1970s and during the intensely wet years of the 1980s. Declassified lots going into the Santa Cruz Mountains allowed the Monte Bello to remain more intense with better structure for great aging potential.
As new vineyard development started yielding fruit, their shallow roots produced beautiful, fruit-forward wines, but lacked distinctive Monte Bello character. Until their roots grew deeper, the wines were being declassified. By the late 1990s we began to farm every vineyard parcel and make the wines as though they were destined to be included in the Monte Bello assemblage. During our blind tastings several lots were still being declassified, but they had been extracted for the purpose of long-aging potential of Monte Bello. For a period of about three years, the Santa Cruz Mountains was a more firmly structured wine.
In 2002, following a thorough review of all the vineyard parcels and their frequency of being selected into Monte Bello, we began a shift in winemaking. From the start, grapes destined for the Santa Cruz Mountains would be handled more gently in the winery, limiting extraction of tannins and pressed early to make elegant wines. We would then carefully assemble the wine using the same discipline as Monte Bello. This allowed us to make two “first” wines with difference in complexity, aging potential, and accessibility. The Santa Cruz Mountains was also blended with more merlot which further rounded out the wine, providing elegance, but requiring us to remove cabernet sauvignon from the name of the wine.
Over the ensuing years additional blocks of cabernet sauvignon were planted. We also grafted one parcel of merlot over to cabernet sauvignon. This increased the tonnage of cabernet sauvignon being harvested. In 2008, we brought back a varietal designation and a more clearly stated “Estate” label to connect the wine to its origin at Monte Bello. We have continued to improve this wine’s style over the years as we have more thoroughly separated the vineyard parcels that go to either Estate or Monte Bello. We also renovated the crush station at Monte Bello in 2009 to include a more gentle reception of grapes, destemming, and sorting of fruit. This resulted in better tannin management in the fermenters.
This is a true mountain vineyard, there are no flat parcels anywhere to be found. Forty-five parcels stretch from 1,230′ to 2,650′ with undulating slopes, terraces, and changing subsoil depths. All these variations require selective harvesting, separate fermentation, and careful extraction to establish the two wines’ style from the beginning. Once produced, all the lots go to barrel for natural malolactic. Monte Bello and Estate are then carefully assembled by blind tasting of their respective wine lots. Within the assemblages, declassifications are made so that both Monte Bello and Estate are made from only the very best lots of the vintage.
On rare occasion, depending on the weather of the growing season, some areas on the margin can move from Estate to Monte Bello and vice versa. Once assembled, both are sent to American oak barrels for extensive aging. Longer time in barrel is preferred over the use of tannin fining ingredients such as fresh egg whites or gelatin. Once bottled, the Estate will have six-to-eight months of additional age prior to release. Though appealing at release, it generally can support continued bottle age over a 10 to 15 year period of time. Like Monte Bello, it evolves and reveals so much more complexity with time, hitting a plateau of secondary flavor sooner than Monte Bello.
Eric Baugher, COO & Winemaker