Drinking Balance: Considering Terroir, Old Vines, and Natural Winemaking: A Conversation with...

Drinking Balance: Considering Terroir, Old Vines, and Natural Winemaking: A Conversation with Paul Draper

Visiting Monte Bello Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, with Paul Draper

In considering his mentors in winemaking, Paul Draper of Ridge Wines is clear. His work is done in California, and his influences find their roots in this same state. The important point though is asking when his mentors did their work. As Draper explains, in the 1930s winemakers could be found still producing California Zinfandel in what he calls a traditional method. “They made wine that was still traditional, a straightforward process.” He pauses, “well, natural.” The relevance of this idea for Draper carries into the balance of the final wine, and the quality with which it ages.

Ridge is known for great success and influence in at least two styles of wine–Bordeaux blends, on the one hand, and Zinfandel, on the other.

Starting as Ridge Vineyards’ head winemaker in 1969, Draper was given the charge of increasing the quality of the company’s wines, and its overall business model. The hope was to bring the winery into a long term vision. The original owners had commitment to the idea of creating world class wine but needed someone with know-how to help fulfill the dream. By 1976, the Monte Bello blend had bested first growth Bordeaux on an International stage, the grand Paris tasting. It is these wines that originally secured Ridge, and its winemaker, Draper, its now legendary status. Bordeaux blends are widely considered the pinnacle of caché in wine circles, with even those that may claim to prefer other styles still feeling the weight of reputation emanating from Bordeaux.

I ask Draper to tell me the story of how he started with the company. He was invited by the original three family partnership to taste wines from their Monte Bello property. They poured for him their 1962 and 1964 blends. The site had originally been planted in the 1880s with a first bottled vintage in 1892. By the 1940s a large portion of these vines had been replanted, having seen great neglect during Prohibition. 1962 was the first vintage for the new family partnership relying on these more than 20 years old vines. The family winemakers, however, had no real experience with making the beverage. “They’d made beer once,” Draper explains. “But never wine.”

After a moment, Draper adds another detail–they also poured him a wine spontaneously (and non-commercially) done in 1959, ten years prior to Draper’s meeting with the families. The 1959 vintage had been made almost in error. The family picked grapes from their low yield vines, put them into a bin, and then went on vacation for two weeks, leaving the grapes completely unattended during their absence. When they returned, the fruit had fermented dry, so, they pressed and bottled the resulting wine. By the 1962 commercial vintage, the families had integrated in a purposeful submerged cap technique, and developed a slightly more refined result to the wine.

Draper explains, it was these early efforts, and especially the 1959 vintage that convinced him to join the Ridge family. “These winemakers had no knowledge, no experience. They were utilizing fully natural winemaking. That is, the wine really did make itself” (the truth of that certainly couldn’t be denied at least in 1959). Yet, what Draper tasted in the resulting wines was complexity, and a sense of completeness. “These guys just were not getting in the way.” Draper tells me. “I thought, it must be the site giving the quality.” Draper realized it would be an honor he could not deny to work with such a location. “Plus, I liked the families.”

That experience with the first vintages of the Monte Bello, plus the work he’d already done around old vines in Chile, set him on a mission. To expand the production of Ridge Wines they would seek old vine vineyards. In 1971 they located what is now known as the Lytton Springs site, making their first Zinfandel blend from Dry Creek Valley with that fruit in 1972. The vineyard had been planted in the 1870s and 1880s and at least half of the plants had actually survived Prohibition. In 1990, Ridge bought the old vine half of the Lytton Springs property; in 1995, they purchased the rest. I ask Draper about the about-20 years between when they first started using the Dry Creek Valley fruit and when they finally took ownership of the vineyard. In that case, there was a little back and forth with the previous vineyard owner. But Draper clarifies that Ridge tends to take their time before buying new property.

Discovering Lytton Springs, Dry Creek Valley, and Zinfandel

Draper illustrates what he thinks of as a 50-year plan. The decisions they make today at Ridge are all aimed towards turning these first 50 years of the company’s success into the next 50. One of the primary effects of this view is that Ridge, the company, grows only as it has the money to grow, planting new vines only as it can afford to let those vines develop into greater age, and buying new sites only once the particular vineyard has proven itself with consistency over time. With that in mind, Ridge has worked with more than 50 Zinfandel vineyards throughout California, with all but ten of those being old vine planted, and at least 20 being within Sonoma County. The larger portion of vineyard sites for Ridge, then, is devoted to Zinfandel plantings, rather than Bordeaux varieties.

While Bordeaux blends carry with them a weight of reputation, Zinfandel, on the other hand, was long described as the everyman wine, costing very little compared to the heftier cost of Bordeaux blends. Draper succeeded, however, in showing that even California Zinfandel could be worthy of wider acclaim. In 1983, he appeared on the then-popular show Dinner with Julia offering her a 1980 Ridge Amador Zinfandel, which he described as “a Beaujolais style Zinfandel”, as well as a 1977 Paso Robles Zinfandel (and the 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon–keep an eye out for the Ridge White Zinfandel, which he calls their “essence of Zinfandel”). What is impressive about this, then, is that Ridge has wielded incredible influence at both ends of the California wine spectrum–showing California wine can garner respect at the highest level with Bordeaux blends, and that an everyman grape like Zinfandel can be deserving of a better reputation as well.

Draper tells me that they like to experiment by sourcing around from different sites. “In a typical year, we’ll produce Zinfandel from 12 or 14 sites in very small quantities. We’ll look at the consistency of character and how fine it will age.” Scouting a new site for Ridge, then, depends first on picking a location that shows promising characteristics up front. But the next level of commitment comes not only in working with that site for multiple vintages to see how the wine does each year, but also waiting long enough to see how well the resulting wine does in the bottle. When I ask Draper how many vintages that would tend to mean for him, I guess, maybe five or 6 to show a range of seasonal variation? He tells me, “With Lytton, we purchased it 18 years after making the first vintage with proven quality. We just let go of a good [but not reliable enough] vineyard we sourced fruit from. We made wine from that location 20 years before we dropped it.” That said, the goal for Ridge is to farm 75% of its own grapes, with other locations being experimented with in only small quantites. He tells me why Ridge focuses on having control over their own vineyards, and on only expanding as they can afford. “The heart of the matter is not being driven by what the market will sell, but instead on what the soil and climate will support. That is hard to ask of people.”

In considering the number of vineyard sites Draper has had the privilege of working with, he returns to the idea of “wine making itself.” The reality of winemaking, Draper explains, is that “the wine won’t make itself without you standing there. But, with the right vineyard site it is like it makes itself.” We turn, then, to the topic of terroir, and I ask Draper to describe his understanding of the notion.

Reflecting on Terroir, Balance, and Natural Wine

“Terroir in California,” he begins. “It shows in wines that distinctly offer the same character of place when tasting the wines side by side through different vintages, though the vintage element too will be distinctly different.” Draper says the focus for Ridge is on offering terroir through their vineyard specific wines, because what he wants for Ridge Wines is the kind of complexity and quality that accompanies that sense of place. In order to accomplish this goal, the winemaking team at Ridge (Draper still acts as head winemaker, but now also has a team of winemakers that work with him–located at the three wineries) uses what Draper calls “minimal intervention with very obsessive watching over.” He elucidates, “any tweaking occurs at blending, choosing what barrels, that is, vineyard parcels, we want to include. We avoid mechanical or chemical intervention. The goal is to make the best that vineyard can make.” As a result, Ridge wines also go through both natural alcoholic and malolactic fermenation.

Ridge does, however, utilize “the minimal required amount of sulfur” having tested what is demanded by each site, and by the specifics of a particular vintage. Draper tells me he does know, of course, that some people making “natural wines” go without sulfur as well. But, for Draper, to fulfill his commitment to terroir, the wines require a small portion of the additive. “It takes some SO2 for the vineyard to show its individual character.” I ask him to talk me through this view. He offers me two side-by-side explanations.

First, he offers, “when we talk about terroir, we’re saying the wines are showing the individual character of a site. But,” he goes on, “sometimes the word terroir becomes an excuse, without it being necessarily clear if what is showing might actually be the fault of the winemaker.” This brings him to his second point. “When we don’t use the minimum effective level of SO2, the wine goes off differently every year. It can be fine. Or, it can be off. But we’ve found, what you get is simply not a consistent sense of character from the place it came.” That is, the overall quality and presentation the wine gives you might be pleasurable, but what it isn’t offering is that reliable experience of terroir coming from the vineyard site itself.”

We come around to the idea of balance. It’s a word that has gotten a lot of traction recently in discussions around wine. Zinfandel, one of the primary grapes Ridge works with, for instance, is known for readily growing to produce higher alcohol levels. Some have argued that it is possible to have a quality wine of higher alcohol as long as it works with the wines’ other elements, while others strike the view that only lower alcohol (coming in more like below 13%) should be considered in balance.

Draper offers his view. “When any element is too extreme a wine does not age as well. The elements we can easily name–acid, tannin, fruit.” He later adds the idea of too much oak as another aspect for consideration. “Plus, each of these need to work with what the grape brings to it as far as more complex flavors. For example, when you see a wine that is initially too tannic… yes, it will soften with age. But it will never be as finely balanced if it isn’t in balance initially.” He continues, considering his view in relation to ripeness. “If a wine is really over ripe, or if the alcohol is not carried well enough by the body, then it is out of balance.” He acknowledges such a wine will change over time but clarifies that it is certain types of integration-over-time his view of balance is in relation to. “But how is that wine in ten years? Or, in three years? If you don’t prefer that wine in ten years, then it wasn’t in true balance initially.”

This consideration of aging potential ties back into Draper’s interest in minimal intervention wines, and his reasons for winemakers of the 1930s being his original inspiration. At that time, winemakers were still relying on techniques from before Prohibition, that is, little mechanical or chemical technique, very much using only what was available locally. “One of the effects of Prohibition,” Draper tells me, “is an eventual break from this tradition. [UC] Davis came in post-Prohibition as a kind of reinvention of winemaking by modern chemistry, relying on cordon versus head pruned, clones versus selections.” He clarifies that it isn’t that some portion of such knowledge couldn’t be useful. But he does go on to say that in his view, “newer technique [ie. mechanical and chemically intervened] wines don’t age as well as traditional.” He further clarifies that whether or not a wine ages well can be considered part of the character of a place (depending too though on how interventionist the wine was made).

In one final conversation around terroir, Draper expands on his original comments about the notion. “Terroir,” he tells me, “is also a matter of what grapes grow best in what climate and in what soil. Does the vineyard show consistently? Or, do we have to help it out? Do you have old vines, or new vines? The Geyserville site was originally planted with some Carignan, but at Lytton that other portion is Petite Sirah. We’ve kept that.” Draper’s description, then, implies at least two things. For one, the quality of each site varies. Some produce better, and certainly different wine than others. But, in addition, terroir does not just come down to the rocks and climate of a place. It is also an expression of a vineyard’s particular grape types, and history, and those are both a matter of the people that have worked the site.

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For more photos from the visit to Monte Bello: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/10/04/visiting-with-paul-draper-at-ridge-monte-bello-vineyards/

To see video of Draper on Dinner with Julia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffy2xvVksqw&feature=player_embedded

For an interesting consideration of balance in relation to Zinfandel, read Talia Baiocchi on the Wine Spectator blog: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/47616?icid=em_com

For more on Dry Creek Valley: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2012/11/28/touring-dry-creek-valley-sonoma-california/

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Thank you to Paul Draper for taking so much time to meet with me. I am deeply grateful, and blessed.

Thank you to Sue, Sam, and Amy.

Thank you to Michelle McCue.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

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