Q & A with Eric Baugher from Mi Amigo El Vino

Blog Post

Eric Baugher answered questions for Aitor Trabado and his blog, Mi Amigo El Vino surrounding the making of Monte Bello. Aitor also featured a piece on Ridge and Baugher that you can find here. Continue reading below for some of the key questions from the interview:

1. You produce one of the most iconic wines in California, Ridge Monte Bello. What’s the secret of this wine?

“Having a perfect combination of limestone subsoil, elevation, and ocean proximity makes Monte Bello a truly unique vineyard. To produce such a distinctive wine you need not only good ground and a moderate cool-climate. There is the need for expert viticulture. Our viticulturists are highly knowledgeable about organic farming on a steep mountain site. Without their ability to carefully raise a high quality crop, I wouldn’t have the ingredients to make top quality wine. On the winemaking side, I keep my hands off the process, except for guiding the fermentation along. I make all decisions by taste; when to pick, how much pump-over for extraction to give, when to press, what press fraction to add, etc.

Eric Baugher pours Ridge wine.

“Once each of the seventy or so lots are fermented and sent to barrel for natural malolactic, at the fifth month the most important aspect of my responsibilities kicks in at the first assemblage and then again at the second. The assemblage is the most important secret to making Monte Bello. The rigorous blind tasting, where a selection is made for those parcels that carry a strong expression of “Monte Bello”. Then a careful tasting is done where the parcels are blended one at a time to build the Monte Bello. It’s a highly complex assemblage with many different blend possibilities. Once we think the blend is complete, it is blind-tasted against the last ten vintages to compare. Vintage characteristics will show, but a common thread of Monte Bello character will be present in all glasses.”

2. In Monte Bello Estate Vineyard you also produce one Merlot and two Chardonnays. How do these varietals work here?

“Depending on exposure and elevation, Merlot and Chardonnay grow just as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Merlot and Chardonnay, in particular, have the easiest time ripening. In fact, our Chardonnays have often been well into the 14-15% alcohol range. This has been mainly due to the clone that has efficient photosynthesis causing sugar to lead flavor. We’ve been planting new parcels of Chardonnay to old historic California clones at higher elevation points with cool ocean exposure. This has finally helped with our desire to pick earlier and at lower alcohol potentials. Merlot tends to hit full ripeness at 13.5%. The best parcels grow between 2,300 and 2,650 feet, and are often the ones blended into Monte Bello. Lower elevation parcels on richer soils, produce softer, more accessible Merlot, for the separate Estate bottling.”

3. How would you describe your approach to winemaking?

“My approach is to respect the varietal and vineyard, not produce a wine that is a reflection of me. I call it ‘egoless’ winemaking. In fact, I am not a fan of the use of the word ‘winemaker’ as it reduces the vineyard’s contribution to the quality of the wine. For a wine to show its unique vineyard character, it must be picked at ideal ripeness-not overripe. It shouldn’t be over-extracted, over-oaked, or manipulated with color or tannin adjucts. A natural wine, showing place, shouldn’t be allowed to spoil either or be kept overly preserved with sulfites. It must receive proper care in the cellar and have patience to slowly develop in barrel. I would say my winemaking approach is what I have learned from Paul: keep wines elegantly restrained, complex, age-able.”

Monte Bello wine bottle.

4. What’s so special about the Santa Cruz Mountains?

“By definition, the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is exactly that, a rugged mountainous grape growing area. There are hardly any flat vineyards to be found, everything is steeply sloped or terraced. Yields are low, the Pacific Ocean and the fog it brings can be moderating of temperatures, and make ripening somewhat more difficult. It’s an appellation made up mostly of small winegrowers. There are no large commercial/conglomerate wine operations anywhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“This challenging viticultural area and expensive land cost keep those large producers out. It allows the small boutique wineries a chance to focus on making respectable quality without the area’s reputation being hurt by the mega-wineries producing lesser quality. Also, the Santa Cruz Mountains is made up of several coastal mountain ranges of varying soil, microclimate, and elevation. At the coast you can grow Burgundy varieties. At the appellation’s mid-point the Rhone varieties grow well. Across the San Andreas Fault line, on the eastern Ridge where Monte Bello is located, Bordeaux varieties do well.”

5. Do you have a preferred wine?

“It is very difficult to pick one over another. I love all the wines I make. These vineyards are special to me, having worked with their fruit for the past twenty-three vintages. Of course, the wine that interests me the most to produce, offers me the greatest intellectual challenge, is Monte Bello. This steep vineyard is made up of forty-five parcels of Bordeaux varietals, which ripen slowly and are vulnerable to weather. It is a wonderfully complex site to work. It requires the greatest amount of effort to produce. Once each lot has carefully been made into wine, resting in barrel, a careful blind-tasting is done to make the selection. It will vary in the varietal composition by what sort of growing season the vines endured.”