80 years – It seems the 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. I was convinced it was the perfect time.
Many of you know my background, but I decided to say something about a “calling” to a craft. The fates, whatever, first let me know at age sixteen what my calling was to be. When staying weekends with a European family I understood how a glass of good wine at lunch and dinner could add a quality of ritual and community to any meal. I fell in love with the idea of wine.
That sense of calling came up again at Stanford and again living and working in Northern Italy, but it was not yet my time. That came in an old, non-irrigated vineyard and an ancient bodega on the coast range of Chile. I could, at last, pursue my calling as I have now for fifty years – three in Chile; forty-seven at Ridge.
YoYo Ma’s craft is the cello. Baryshnikov’s is dance. Both those crafts are far more demanding than fine wine making but what they share is their love and unbounded enthusiasm, what we might call passion for their craft. They have a deep commitment to achieving the highest quality without compromise. They never stop perfecting their craft.
In 1968 I returned to California after making three vintages of cabernet from non-irrigated, old hill vineyards, with my university friend, Fritz Maytag. Chile’s crisis of no business confidence had made the decision for us. The previous year, Dave Bennion, a Stanford Research Institute scientist heard Fritz and me speak to a Stanford wine group about our 19th-century approach in making wine in Chile. He and his partners, Hew Crane and Charlie Rosen who had reopened Monte Bello as Ridge Vineyards in 1962 were interested in our traditional approach. It 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. They offered me the job of winemaker.
I had grown 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.
The best European wines were still being made traditionally in the early sixties and I found that on returning to the states, they were unbelievably inexpensive. They became my teachers in what potentially made a fine wine. The best Californian wines made in the years immediately following Prohibition had been made traditionally and were more complex, long-lived and interesting than those made by the ‘modern’ technical winemaking California had moved to by the ‘40’s. We were early advocates of producing wine from a single fine vineyard rather than blending grapes from multiple vineyards with the winemaker rather than the site determining the character of the wine.
My hope is that our focus on the preindustrial techniques that had made the finest wines of Europe for 150 years and for 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. 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 2nd place wine. We were the first of the small, fine wine producers to sell a significant part of their 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.
We might have been satisfied with producing the Monte Bello that could match the best of Bordeaux, and given our more favorable weather, make consistently fine wines year after year. However, the quality of traditionally made old vine zinfandel convinced me to focus on the handling of the grapes and the wine reserved for cabernet, but now with zinfandel.
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 making fine wine so the match of the site, the 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’ Men 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 member of the Académie Internationale du Vin for many years as well.
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