The Best of California: Silicon Valley Cabernet

California’s finest cabernet is the work of a man with no formal training in winemaking, who took over as head of a wine company founded in the late 1950s by four Stanford scientists responsible for pioneering research in robotics and intelligence artificial.

Dave Bennion, Hew Crane, Charlie Rosen and Howard Zeidler were hard at work in the virtual sphere, but looking for a place where they could have fun on weekends in the real world (preferably in the great outdoors). They started brewing beer, but when Bennion came across the owner of a run-down winery on a ridge high above what we now call Silicon Valley, the four clubbed together to buy it.

Weekends were charmed rather than discouraged by the fact that their acquisition could only be reached by five miles of dizzying hairpin bends. In 1962, they had succeeded in making a wine worthy of commercial release. In 1967, when Bennion left academia to oversee Ridge Vineyards full-time, they were producing nearly 3,000 cases of wine a year. Two years later, with running the winery becoming too much for Bennion to handle alone, the partners decided they needed to hire a full-time winemaker.

Enter Paul Draper, fresh out of experimental winemaking in Chile, where he served a stint in the Peace Corps. He had also spent time in France and Italy in the early 1960s where he was impressed by the traditional, pre-industrial winemaking methods that then reigned supreme. He considered these wines much more interesting and authentic than those that dominated California, increasingly made by technicians trained according to a sure recipe. Basically, Draper had been exposed to the best classic European wines, Bordeaux premier crus no less, and these rather than anything growing in Napa Valley were his beacons throughout his long tenure as CEO. and Winemaker of Ridge. Château Latour has long been its model.

Yet Draper always praised the members of the original consortium. “Google Maps owes it all to Hew’s algorithms” is a phrase I once jotted down at a Ridge tasting he hosted in New York. And in 1982, while researching a book on the best wines in the world, Draper assured me, “Dave’s 1962 and 1964 were really great Cabernets.

What Bennion and his friends had purchased wasn’t just a winery (conveniently built into the mountainside on three levels decades before the term “gravity-fed” came into vogue in wine parlance). He also came with an abandoned vineyard known as Monte Bello, a plantation of old Cabernet vines on a secluded slope above the winery with views of the Pacific on one side and that now famous valley of the ‘other. They brought it back to life and it went on to produce Ridge’s most famous wine.

Monte Bello 1971, Draper’s second solo vintage, was the second favorite Californian wine in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris, the famous France vs. California taste that took place in 1976. Three decades later, during a re-enactment of the event, Monte Bello 1971 had reached its apogee: it was well ahead. Ridge wines, unlike so many from California, are slow to mature and built for a long shelf life – arguably longer than many of today’s smart red Bordeaux wines. Draper himself quit six years ago, at the age of 80. (Though he still lives on the property, within sight of the Monte Bello vineyards.) He complains to this day that he wished Spurrier had chosen the even more durable 1970 Monte Bello.

This year, Ridge celebrates its 60th anniversary. To my delight, they chose to do it in London, with their most ambitious Monte Bello vertical tasting ever. I had already had the pleasure of tasting 15 vintages of Monte Bello – up to a pre-Draper 1968 – when the winery celebrated its half-century. And the team recently showed six vintages in New York as part of its latest series of celebrations.

But the October 25 tasting in London was something truly spectacular. It included no less than 20 vintages, from a young 2019 to a fully mature 1964. (A total of four 1964 bottles had to be opened before the Berkmann team of British importers found one sturdy enough to share.) John Olney, the current Ridge’s chief winemaker, who is at the vineyard for 26 years, and David Gates, its head winemaker, who has been cultivating Ridge’s vines since 1989, flew in for the event.

So why were we Brits so honoured? It is true that the subtle, savory and majestic style of Monte Bello is remarkably similar to the classic red Bordeaux (even though Draper, after careful research in historical documents and practical experiences, insists on aging the wine in American oak and not French). So perhaps it resonates more readily with British or European palates than those accustomed to Napa fruit bombs. Ridge wines of the powerful, concentrated style that was fashionable in the 1990s and early 2000s are so dissimilar that the California reviewer of Wine Spectator, America’s leading wine magazine, consistently rated 1992 Monte Bello vintages to 2014 in the 80s out of 100.

Monte Bello is also the Californian wine with the longest history in the UK, which remains Ridge’s number one export market. The first vintage was shipped to Britain in 1973. It was the 1971, which was delivered to John Avery of Averys of Bristol. Since then, Draper has been by far the most loyal exporter of California wine to Europe. Until recently, he came to London every November to make sure the distinctive wines he is so proud of (which include arguably the world’s best Zinfandels) were placed on the right shelves and lists. This contrasts with the intermittent export strategies of most California wine producers. Generic organizations Wines of California and Napa Valley Vintners are currently doing their best to increase the presence of Californian wines in the UK, but this is not always the case.

The other outstanding aspect of Ridge Monte Bello is its price. Despite its history, undisputed class and longevity, it costs far less than many ambitious California Cabernets. Prices hover around £200 a bottle – certainly not cheap, but Napa Cabs that aspire to fame can cost twice or four times as much.

The London tasting proved that Draper had set his own style for Monte Bello, and despite the exceptional ripening and extraction patterns that have plagued so many other wineries, he never strayed from it. Only one vintage, 2001, reached an alcohol level above 14 percent during our tasting. The 1977 and 1964, the two oldest wines in our tasting, were only 11.7% and 11.5% respectively. In fact, Monte Bello tastes remarkable like the best red Bordeaux of the previous century. There are very few Cabernets and Bordeaux blends outside of California whose long-lasting style has changed little over the past few decades. Domaine de Chevalier, Château Léoville Barton and Figeac in St-Émilion under Thierry Manoncourt come most immediately to mind, as well as San Leonardo and Sassicaia in Italy.

The key to the finesse of Monte Bello is, of course, partly due to the exceptional site, but also to Draper’s technique for undertaking tastings in barrels of infinite complexity. I remember those of us invited to the winery to celebrate its 50th anniversary were greeted with a blind tasting of two cask samples of Monte Bello 2008 and asked to decide if the one with 0.9% extra of first press wine was superior to the sample without.

Draper and Olney are currently handing over Monte Bello winemaking to Trester Goetting, who joined Ridge earlier this year after spending much of his 25-year career working with mountain vineyards. Hopefully in 2032 Goetting will fly across the Atlantic to the UK for an equally impressive 70th anniversary tasting.

Exceptional Monte Bello Cabernets

The vintages of the tasting were completed by others tasted previously.

Monte Bello vintages to drink now

2011, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2001, 1999, 1997, 1996, 1995.

Also 2012, 2004, 2002, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1984, 1981, 1975, 1971, 1970

Drink as soon as possible

1994, 1988, 1985, 1977, 1964.

Also 2003, 1992, 1986, 1978, 1965

Tasting notes on the Violet Pages of More resellers of

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