Cupertino, CA – 80 years – It seems a most celebratory age to step back. We have two of the finest winemakers and one of the most exceptional vineyard directors, who have each been with me for more than twenty years. Though I have done all major tasting with Eric Baugher, John Olney and David Gates, the wines of the last ten years are theirs, not mine, so you already know the quality and style of the vintages to come.
I grew up on an eighty-acre farm west of Chicago. After attending the Choate School and receiving a degree in philosophy from Stanford University, I lived for two and a half years in northern Italy, putting in the military service still required by the draft. Fortunately after attending Monterey Language School I was assigned to work as a civilian in liaison in the Veneto. I went on to attend the University of Paris and traveled extensively in France. With my good friend, Fritz Maytag, I re-opened a historic bodega on the southern coast range of Chile. We made three vintages of old vine, non-irrigated cabernet from several single vineyards before returning to California in early 1969.
Dave Bennion, Charlie Rosen, and Hew Crane, the three scientists from Stanford Research Institute (SRI) who had reopened the old Monte Bello Winery as Ridge Vineyards in 1962 had heard me speak about Chile and our traditional methods. What I described fit with what they were doing and their idea that wine was something “real” and a perfect corrective to the “virtual” world that they were pioneering in their work at SRI. In offering me the job of winemaker they had me taste the ’62 and ’64 Monte Bellos made from cabernet replanted in the 1940’s at Monte Bello. They had never made wine before and had simply picked the grapes on a Saturday, crushed them to a small fermentor adding no yeast and went back to their jobs. They had placed a grid to submerge the grapes and came back the next weekend to find them fermenting nicely. A week later the wine was dry and they pressed the grapes, adding back the press wine and a minimum of SO2.
The wine went through a full, natural secondary fermentation and what I tasted with them six years later were the finest, most complex California wines I had ever had, including the best known wines of the 40’s and 50’s. They had simply not gotten in the way. It was clear they had an exceptional site and I knew if I joined them I would have the chance to make some very fine wine.
My hope is that our focus on the preindustrial techniques that had made the finest wines of Europe from the early 19th century to the early 1960’s and in California from the 1890’s until 1920 and again in the late 30’s has been a contribution to the California wine industry. It certainly has led to great success for Ridge. We were the first of the small, fine California producers to sell a significant part of production on the East Coast of the United States as well as export wine to Europe in the early ‘70’s. We exported the 1971 Monte Bello to both the UK and France and today export to over 40 countries.
In the early 70’s the quality of the wines being made from the Monte Bello vineyard caught the attention of Stephen Spurrier who included the 1971 Monte Bello in the now famous Paris tasting of 1976. In the thirty year repeat organized in London and California by Spurrier with the original wines, the 1971 Monte Bello came in first by 18 points over the second place wine. We might have been satisfied with producing a Monte Bello that could often match the best of Bordeaux, and given our more favorable climate, make more consistently fine wines. However, discovering the quality of traditionally made old vine zinfandel convinced me to focus as well on the handling of the zinfandel grapes and wine with the care that had been reserved until then for cabernet.
From the mid ‘60’s on we had sought out old vine zinfandel that had the potential to produce wines of complexity and distinct character. We went on to pioneer zinfandel as fine wine. Our aspirations were helped along when Jancis Robinson in her 1989 book “Vintage Timecharts” chose the Geyserville vineyard as well as the Monte Bello vineyard for her selection of the seventy finest vineyards of the world. We were working with a grape that nowhere in the world was used to make fine wine so the match of site, varietal and the quality of the winemaking were essential.
For being around so long and staying true to our traditional approach I’ve received several awards including joining Robert Mondavi and André Tchelistcheff as the only Americans honored as the Decanter Man of the Year. In addition the Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award, and the “Winemakers’ Winemaker Award” from the Institute of Masters of Wine —an award voted on by the winemakers who are also Masters of Wine. I have been a long-time member of the Académie Internationale du Vin as well.
I feel I am passing on our vineyards and estate to members of my own family. I have had a great life pursuing my craft, my calling, for fifty years—three in Chile and forty-seven at Ridge. Although I am retiring, I will continue in my role as Chairman of the Board. In this capacity I can fully support this long planned transition.
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