Ridge Vineyards almost before they had any

Elaine goes to the mountain.

In California wine circles we sometimes entertain ourselves with questions like, what would you argue is the most American wine? Or, which wine do you think most successfully placed California wine on the world stage? Or, what do you think is the most respected winery in the United States? Inevitably, one winery – Ridge – is an answer, if not the answer, to each of these questions.

Ridge Monte Bello is considered by many to be among the best wines in the world, and certainly among the most, if not the most famous, from California. Through its Monte Bello Cabernet-based bottling, Ridge helped show that California wine could compete with the most respected wines in the world (check out our Judgment of Paris tag). At the same time, no other winery in California has done so much to elevate Zinfandel from its early reputation as jug wine to fine wine respectability.

Ridge Vineyards began working with old-vine, field blend sites planted primarily to Zinfandel (otherwise known here in California as a Mixed Blacks vineyard) in the mid-1960s. The producer’s treatment of Zinfandel was unique at the time. Instead of treating the wine as an after thought, they made Zinfandel essentially the same way they did their top wine, the Cabernet Sauvignon that would come to be known as Monte Bello. Since then, no other winery has worked with as many Mixed Blacks vineyards in the state. As an additional stamp of respectability, Ridge also bottled them specifically as single-vineyard wines. The winery has worked with such sites the entire length and breadth of California, including many vineyards that no longer exist, and some in parts of southern California where few remember that such vineyards ever existed.

Most of these wines are limited to bottlings made available only to members of the winery’s Advance Tasting Program (effectively their wine club). The Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines, both Mixed Blacks vineyards from Sonoma County, however, are released to a broader market. Thanks to their history and status, both of these can also arguably be included alongside Monte Bello for consideration as examples of the most iconic American wine.

In the last few months I have been able to do a series of in-depth tastings and all-day interviews with the Ridge team. The first of these was in October when 50 MWs from 16 countries descended upon California for a 10-day tour of the state’s wine country. I was lucky enough to be the only non-MW to join the entire trip and its tastings. After several days on the road we arrived at Monte Bello for a special visit with the entire Ridge team. Though he retired in 2016 at the age of 80, Paul Draper helped lead the visit. (Draper remains chairman of Ridge’s board.) He guided us through….

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