Pre-Industrial Winemaking at Ridge
There is a lot of talk in the wine world these days about “natural” winemaking, a term which seems to mean different things to different people. Is it organic and/or biodynamic grape growing? The refusal to use additives and processing? Minimal intervention in the winemaking process? It is such a confusing and, to some, a negative term, that we prefer something more accurate to describe what we do at Ridge, and that is pre-industrial.
Jancis Robinson, one of the UK’s foremost wine critics, has said that over 90% of the wine produced in the world today is “industrial.” Taking off from that statement, our winemaking at Ridge for the last fifty years can best be described as “pre-industrial.” In 1933, after thirteen years of Prohibition, there was only a handful of winemakers trained in pre-Prohibition traditional techniques who were young enough to come back to their old jobs. Those winemakers, at historic Fountain Grove, Larkmead, Nervo, La Cuesta, Simi, and Inglenook – to name a few, produced a number of truly great cabernets and zinfandels. In the 1970s, I was privileged to taste a broad range of those wines when they were thirty-five years old and older. The majority were still showing beautifully, and I found several of them to be as complex as the great Bordeaux vintages of the late 1940s. These were pre-industrial wines.
With the end of Prohibition, the University of California at Davis stepped in to fill the need for winemaker expertise in this country, and began, year by year, to reinvent winemaking as an industrial process. In 2010, in Issue 30 of The World of Fine Wines, one of today’s top wine publications, Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin describes how all too many California cabernets are made today: “The move to harvesting grapes with brutally high sugar levels has led to some ingenious ways of adjusting alcohol levels…When you have a must that is simply too high in Brix, you add some water to bring the sugar level down to a level that will ferment, then you bleed off some juice as fermentation begins to mitigate the effects of dilution. Some winemakers add acid to musts of high Brix before adjusting concentration…”
The style of red wine this approach produces – generally referred to as the “international” style – can involve use of reverse osmosis; the addition of Ultra Purple, a 2000 to 1 concentrate; and chemically sterilizing the wine with Velcorin (Di-methyl dicarbonate). Many of these are in use around the world. Some in Bordeaux use micro- oxigenation, reverse osmosis or room-temperature evaporation, among other techniques. California should not be singled out. Industrial wines can be heavy, rather than fresh. When tasting 2007 cabernets recently, Eric Asimov of the New York Times noted: “…we were disappointed to find so many uniform, monochromatic wines with little finesse…Instead of complexity, the rule seems to be all fruit, all the time, with power deemed preferable to elegance.”
At Ridge, we felt from the beginning that these modern, increasingly industrial, wines lacked the complexity, the sense of place, and the ability to age and develop that the pre-industrial wines demonstrated. So we looked back to the 19th Century – to techniques used in the finest California wineries such as La Cuesta, and in the Bordeaux chateaux of that era. In a synthesis of past and present, we have taken the pre-industrial techniques and applied them in conjunction with the best, least intrusive modern equipment. We’ve been told that we have the most sophisticated analytical laboratory of any winery our size. Given our minimal use of SO2, we depend on lab analyses to alert us to any problem long before it could be perceived by tasting.
We’ve employed these winemaking techniques at Ridge for fifty years, with the goal of making the best, most site-specific wines possible. The starting point is having great vineyards. We were blessed by having the 125-year-old Monte Bello vineyard, abandoned after Prohibition, and its now-sixty-year-old cabernet vines, replanted in the late 1940s. Searching for the best, most expressive sites, we made our first zinfandel in 1964 from eighty-year-old vines. In 1966 we made our first Geyserville- from vines that are now one hundred and thirty years old – and have made it every year since. 1972 marked our first Lytton Springs, from vines planted in 1902. Over the following years, we found that those two, out of more than fifty old-vine zinfandel vineyards we have worked with, were producing the highest quality wines – most complex and consistent in their individual character. In 1990, we took over the Geyserville vineyard on a long-term lease with right of first refusal. In 1991 and 1995, we acquired the eastern, and then the western, portion of the vineyard lands first planted by “Captain” Litton in the 1870s. They, with Monte Bello, make up our three estate vineyards. Farming them sustainably, we attempt to carry the soil, the microclimate – everything affecting the site – into the wine, and to gain a true sense of place. Today, the three provide 75% of the fruit we use, and they will soon be organically certified. That means we use cover crops, integrated pest management techniques, mechanical weed removal, and composted grape pomace in place of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.
Because taste is the overriding factor behind our harvesting decisions, we pick when the grapes are ripe, but not overripe. All our grapes (estate or purchased) are hand-picked, which allows for sorting in the vineyard.
Our winemaking philosophy includes fermenting entirely with native yeasts from the vineyard, rather than cultured yeast strains; extracting color, flavor, and tannins from the grapes without use of commercial enzymes; determining – by tasting for tannin extraction during fermentation how long to continue pump-overs; allowing malolactic fermentation to occur naturally, without inoculation; achieving wine clarity through settling and racking; making major winemaking decisions, including blending, based on tasting rather than a pre-determined recipe.
Through years of experience, we have found that minimal additions of sulfur are essential to avoiding the ever-present risk of wine oxidation or spoilage, which destroys the individual vineyard character of the wine. We add a small amount of SO2 when the grapes are crushed, after malolactic fermentation, and very small amounts at quarterly rackings, rigorously maintaining the minimum effective level for each wine.
Occasionally, if we have a wine lot (or an entire, assembled wine) with excessive tannin, we may fine it gently, using fresh egg whites. The egg whites precipitate to the bottom of the tank or barrel, improving balance by removing a portion of the tannin, and by further integrating the wine. When the whites have formed a firm layer, we slowly rack the clean wine off this sediment. Pad filtration then removes any remaining trace of egg white. We avoid membrane sterile filtration, a process which – to a minor but noticeable degree – affects flavor and complexity.
Tasting the zinfandels throughout their time in the cellar allows us to select those lots that best express each vineyard’s character, and combine them as the vineyard-designated wine. Lots with less intense individuality are held out.
Monte Bello and Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
For the Bordeaux varietals, which are all grown on the Monte Bello vineyard, the approach is somewhat different. After years of experience, we have found that the parcels can be divided roughly in half based on the style of wine each has produced in past years. One group is more approachable, and develops its full complexity earlier; from these, we select the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (formerly the Santa Cruz Mountains). The other, though balanced and enjoyable as a young wine, begins to develop its full depth, complexity, and superb quality with a minimum of ten years’ aging. The Monte Bello is selected by blind tasting from these parcels. The first assemblage for both takes place in early February, following vintage. A second, that considers press wine and lots that were not yet stable in February, takes place in May. Thus, from one vineyard, we make two wines – distinct in style, but sharing the vineyard’s individuality.
In summary, Ridge bases grape-growing in each vineyard on long experience with the site, while simultaneously making use of the most recent advances in vineyard management. Pre-industrial winemaking begins with respect for the natural process that transforms fresh grapes into wine, and the 19th-Century model of minimum intervention. When you have great vineyards that produce high quality grapes of distinctive individual character, this is not only an environmentally and socially responsible approach, it’s also the best way to consistently make fine wine.
Paul Draper 3/2011
Monte Bello Ridge