I had the privilege of joining George, Kim and Allan of Gang of Pour on a tour of the winery with Paul Draper. Gang of Pour have been writing about their wine adventures online since 1997. I've been following them since 1999, due to their particular interest in Ridge, my favorite winery. Paul Draper is one of the most significant figures in California winemaking history and is a wealth of information, a pleasure to talk to. He's responsible for a lot of innovation, taking a strong footing in the best time proven traditional practices and carefully integrating modern improvements. He joined Ridge in 1969 and his wines have stood the test of time - impressively. For an idea what he's about, I highly recommend this oral history: http://digitalassets.lib.berkeley.edu/roho/ucb/text/draper_paul__w.pdf
We met near the crushpad of the upper winery and talked about all sorts of things. The Monte Bello ridge (which extends north to Portola Valley) is unique in composition in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It derives from a seamount pushed up from South America by the Pacific Plate. It is comprised largely of Calera limestone. Paul tells of Marcel Guigal visiting and recognizing the soil - the same soil as his area of the Cote Brune.
The section above the winery is widely spaced rows of 40 year old Merlot vines. The partners planted it on bad advise, as there's about a six foot gap between roots. Production is only one ton per acre, but the quality is so high it always makes the Monte Bello blend. They've been actively acquiring and replanting historic vineyard sites along the ridge, so for now labor is being better used elsewhere than fixing this block.
Ridge does incredible amounts of research. I've read about all they've done with oak, for example. Paul was telling us about SO2. Normally, it is added at certain points (ie. crush, racking, bottling). Different levels of free SO2 inhibit or kill the various microbial beasts. It readily bonds to various molecules, and dissipates with oxygen exposure, so the level of free SO2 fluctuates greatly. The best way to control the beasties is cleanliness, of course. Some of the beasties seem to add to complexity if allowed to persist at small levels. Presumably, maintaining an even level of SO2 is the best control at optimizing beastly activity. Ridge tested various levels for what results in the best wine and settled at 30 ppm, so now they now actively maintain their wines at that level.
One other point of interest to me is that their destemmer is so gentle they get 50% whole berry in their fermentations.
After the chat, we went inside into the barrel room housing the '08 Monte Bello for a taste...
'08 Monte Bello Nose - gorgeous Ceylon cinnamon spiced plum supported by black currant, lovely French oak-like spices, compact, smoky, delicate, lovely, subtle complex dried herbs. Intense explosion of gorgeous black currant, with lovely smokiness and dried herbs, plum, good acid, just a little earthiness and zest. Very youthful. 95 pts
Next, we proceeded to a neighboring room to taste through a blind flight. Paul told us of their tasting and feedback methodology. These were four vintages of Monte Bello leftover from a staff tasting a day or two before. Note they hadn't been protected from oxidation (and presumably had been given sufficient air exposure prior to the staff tasting). We knew the vintages, and the '09 was obvious.
'06 Monte Bello Nose - deep concentrated purple fruit, chocolatey, nutmeg, white pepper. Dusty, smooth, smoky cherry, plum, round, touches of lime, elderberry and black currant. 94 pts
'05 Monte Bello Nose - a bit oxidative, raisinated fruit, plum, marachino liqueur. Oxidative, deep, plum, licorice, black currant. N/R The others seemed to like this a lot, but the oxidative qualities were too dominating for me to rate this accurately (though I've always been impressed the several other times I've tasted it).
'09 Monte Bello Nose - lovely, savory, dried fresh fruit medley, dried herbs, driving, touch of black currant. Deeply savory, dried herbs integrated with youthful fruit, lovely gentle astringency. Just wonderful! 96+ pts The interplay of the savory dried herbs and fruit reminded me a bit of some Pinot Noirs I've had from Arcadian and Harrington. Impressive, but not something I've gotten in a Cab before.
'07 Monte Bello Nose - primary plum, just a little bit oxidative, spicy - cayenne and cinnamon. Smooth simpler fruit supported by a nice smokiness. Plum, elderberry, black currant, dusty tannin, touch of lime zest, smoky peach. 95+ pts
After that, we toured around to the fermentation room where Paul showed us a fermentation tank he designed. He said the process of emptying and cleaning which used to take about 3 hours, now only takes 15 minutes. They're in common usage up in Napa.
We snaked around through more rooms, then down a narrow staircase into the caverns, around and down again. Talking some more, then a barrel sample:
'09 Geyserville Nose - deep primary smoky purple fruit, lime, good zest and herbal quality. Rich, passionfruit, plum, vanilla, peach, smoky and savory, lime. 93+ pts
Back upstairs, we found ourselves in an employee lounge area. Wine racks with a miscellany of interesting wines. One table had a bunch of recently sampled empties with several unopened bottles in front. Among them I spied an '09 Downhill Torrontes and couldn't help but comment how much I like that wine. Turns out (winemaker/owner) Frank Ashton and his wife had toured a few days before. Paul had nice things to say about them and said "I like what he's doing" about Frank's wines.
After that, we drove back down to the tasting room, where Christopher had some wines waiting for us. We also opened a couple I brought. Paul joined us right when we were finished with the whites. '08 Chardonnay Jimsomare Vyd. Nose - focused minerality, zippy lemon, pith, smoky, earthy, persimmon. Mango/persimmon/smoke/tangello, round and full, hint of peach. 91 pts
'06 Chardonnay Monte Bello Nose - restrained and elegant, warm earthy mineral, hint of smoke. Intense well framed citrus and tropical notes, touch of mushroom. 92 pts '07 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Nose - warm, savory, intense black currant, cedar, smoke, red currant, wild berries, nutmeg and dark spices. Earthy dusty black currant, grippy, tight, ashy smoke, wild berries, waxy pith, peppery. (93 pts)
'02 Monte Bello Nose - smooth, dried herb, rich, deep dark fruit, smoke, mineral. Deep, youthful, dark mineral, smoky purple fruit, tight, black currant, hint of peppercorn. Drink '20-'40. 94 pts
'92 Monte Bello Nose - nice mature cedary plum and black currant. Dark and deep. Smoky, carmelized plum, good minerality, black currant, dusty sweet oak. Drink now-'30. 95 pts '79 Zinfandel Paso Robles Nose - warm, mature, deep, tawny, sweet dried black plum. Pert tawny plum, cinnamon, dried plum. Has a nice zippiness. Really enjoyable. 92 pts Revisited with dinner, it held together well for about 3 hours.
'68 Ruby Cabernet (SCM) From one acre on the Monte Bello ridge. Nose - deep dusty redwood, deep red fruit, smoke, cinnamon, red plum, rhubarb. Tart, smoky, smooth, red currant, dusty, hint of acetate. Had a sort of heavy dull something holding it down a bit, and also seemed to have the oomph to last open for awhile. Rated it 91 pts. Revisited late in the evening and it had lightened and brightened up - notably more enjoyable about 7 hours after opening. 92+ pts
Christopher posted his notes on the last two wines on the Ridge blog. Look for notes, pics and video from the Gang of Pour.