A landmark California Cabernet tasting and what it proves. See also Monte Bello v Napa for more detail and tasting notes. Above, the Monte Bello vineyard at sunset. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
The finest California Cabernet is the work of a man with no formal winemaking training who built on foundations laid at the end of the 1950s by four Stanford scientists responsible for pioneering research in robotics and artificial intelligence.
Dave Bennion, Hew Crane, Charlie Rosen and Howard Zeidler were in search of a place where they could have weekend fun in the real world, preferably surrounded by nature. They had started out brewing beer together and when in 1959 Bennion bumped into the owner of a ramshackle shed of a winery on a ridge high above what was not yet called Silicon Valley just when he’d decided to sell, the four of them clubbed together to buy it.
By 1962 the weekenders, charmed rather than deterred by the fact that their acquisition could be reached only via nearly five miles of vertiginous hairpin bends, had managed to make a wine worth releasing commercially and were producing nearly 3,000 cases of wine a year by 1967 when Bennion left academia to oversee Ridge Vineyards full time. Two years later the partners decided they needed a full-time winemaker.
Enter Paul Draper, fresh from some experimental winemaking in Chile where he’d done a stint in the Peace Corps. In the early 1960s he’d spent quite a time in France and Italy and had been impressed by the traditional, pre-industrial winemaking methods that ruled then, judging the wines much more interesting and authentic than the wines that were starting to rule in California, made by technicians who were being taught to make wine according to a safe recipe. Crucially he had been exposed to the finest classic European wines, Bordeaux first growths no less, and these rather than anything grown in Napa Valley well to the north have been his guiding lights throughout his long tenure as CEO and winemaker of Ridge. Château Latour has long been seen as his model.
He has always praised members of the original consortium however. ‘Google maps owe everything to Hew’s algorithms’ is one phrase I noted at one Ridge tasting he hosted in New York. And in 1982 when I was selflessly researching a book about the finest wines in the world, Draper had assured me, ‘Dave’s 1962 and 1964 were really great Cabernets’.
For what Bennion and friends bought was not just a winery, usefully built into the mountainside on three levels decades before the term ‘gravity-fed’ had become fashionable winemaking parlance. It came with an abandoned vineyard known as Monte Bello, a planting of ancient Cabernet vines above the winery on an isolated slope with views of the Pacific on one side and that now-famous valley on the other. They gradually coaxed it back to life and it has come to produce Ridge’s most famous wine.
Monte Bello 1971, Draper’s second solo vintage, was the second-favourite California wine in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris France v California taste-off in 1976 and then came top by quite a margin at the transatlantic 30th anniversary re-enactment in 2006, by which time it had reached its apogee. The point about Ridge wines, unlike so many from California, is that they are made for a long life – arguably longer than many a current smart red bordeaux. (Draper complains to this day that he wishes Spurrier had chosen the even longer-lived 1970 Monte Bello.)
This year, six years after Draper stepped down at the age of 80 (though he still lives on the property, within sight of the Monte Bello vines), Ridge are celebrating their 60th anniversary and, to my infinite delight, chose to do so with their most ambitious vertical tasting yet of Monte Bello – in London. I had previously had the pleasure of tasting 15 vintages of Monte Bello back to a pre-Draper 1968 at the winery to celebrate its half-century, along with various importers and scribes. And the team showed six vintages in New York recently in recognition of their 60th year of production.
But the 25 October tasting at BAFTA in London was the culmination of their celebrations and the most comprehensive Monte Bello tasting ever. It included no fewer than 20 vintages, from a youthful 2019 back to a fully mature 1964. (A total of four bottles had to be opened before the team from UK importers Berkmann found one robust enough to share.) Head winemaker John Olney, a 26-year Ridge veteran, and chief viticulturist David Gates, who has been nurturing Ridge’s vines since 1989, flew over specially for the event.
So why were we Brits so honoured? It’s true that the subtle, savoury, stately style of Monte Bello is remarkably similar to classic red bordeaux (even though Draper, after painstaking research in historic documents and practical experiments, insists on ageing the wine in American, not French, oak). So it perhaps resonates more readily with British or European palates than those more used to Napa fruit bombs. So dissimilar are Ridge wines from the potent, concentrated style that was fashionable in the 1990s and early 2000s that the California critic of the leading American wine magazine Wine Spectator regularly scored Monte Bello vintages 1992 to 2014 in the ignominious 80s out of 100.
Monte Bello is also the California wine with the longest history in the UK, which is still Ridge’s leading export market. The first vintage to be shipped over the Atlantic to us, in 1973, was the 1971, to John Avery of Averys of Bristol. And since then Draper has been the most faithful California wine exporter to Europe by quite a margin. Until very recently he would come over to London every November and carefully ensured that the distinctive wines of which he is so proud, which include arguably the finest Zinfandels in the world too, were placed on the right shelves and lists. This contrasts with the on-off export strategies of most California wine producers. The generic organisations Wines of California and Napa Valley Vintners are currently doing their best to increase the presence of California wines in the UK but ‘twas by no means always thus.
The other exceptional 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 – which certainly isn’t cheap, but Napa Cabs with aspirations to fame can cost twice or even four times as much.
The London tasting proved that Draper fixed on a style for Monte Bello and, despite the fashions for exceptional ripeness and extraction that blew through so many other wineries, never strayed from it. Only one vintage in our tasting, 2001, notched up an alcohol level over 14% and the 1977 and 1964, the two oldest wines in our tasting, were just 11.7% and 11.5% respectively. In fact Monte Bello tastes remarkably like the finest red bordeaux of the previous century. There are remarkably few Cabernets and bordeaux blends outside California whose long-lived style has hardly changed over the last few decades. Domaine de Chevalier, Ch Léoville Barton, Figeac in St-Émilion under Thierry Manoncourt come most immediately to my mind, together with San Leonardo and Sassicaia in Italy.
The key to Monte Bello’s finesse is of course partly down to the exceptional site, but also to Draper’s technique of undertaking barrel tastings of infinite complexity. I remember that those of us invited to the 50th anniversary celebration at the winery were welcomed with a blind tasting of two cask samples of Monte Bello 2008 and asked to decide whether the one with an additional 0.9% of first-press wine was superior to the sample without.
Draper and Olney are currently handing the Monte Bello winemaking baton on to Trester Goetting, who joined Ridge at the beginning of this year having spent much of his 25-year winemaking career working with mountain vineyards. I hope that in 2032 Goetting will be flying over the Atlantic to the UK for an equally impressive 70th anniversary tasting.
Exceptional Monte Bello Cabernets
The vintages in the tasting have been supplemented 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, 1970, 1971
Drink sooner rather than later
1994, 1988, 1985, 1977, 1964
Also 2003, 1992, 1978, 1968, 1965
Tasting notes in our database, especially but not exclusively in the recent tasting article Monte Bello v Napa. See also all of our articles tagged Ridge. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.