As promised, I’m back and this time with a post that is not about Burgundy and not even about European wine! Call this my tariff piece? No, don’t get me started about that nonsense… anyway there is a lot of high quality wine produced in the US and while I still hope to have the opportunity to buy and drink European wine at reasonable prices in the future (if our government can pull their heads out of their asses for just a minute) I’ll spend a moment to spread the word about one of my favorite wines from California. Ridge is by no means an under the radar producer and I suspect many of you are quite familiar with them. That said, in my mind they represent a great value in world class cabernet sauvignon based wines and they have been a consistently excellent producer in the US for 50 or so years now. Not many places in the US have that much of a track record and can still be found for a reasonable price. So let’s explore this place and wine!
Ridge is of course one of the few truly world class cabernet producers in California that is not based in the Napa/Sonoma area. The vineyards and winery are located in the lovely Santa Cruz Mountains just a bit inland from Santa Cruz and San Jose. The original Monte Bello vineyard was planted in 1885 by Osea Perrone a physician from San Francisco. Unfortunately the property was eventually abandoned in the late 1930s. Some of the vines were then replanted in the 1940s and some regeneration was begun. In 1959 a quartet of researches from Stanford acquired the property and began to make small quantities of wines in the early 1960s. Encouraged by the early wines, the partners had the winery re-bonded in 1962. They slowly increased production throughout the ’60s. In 1969 Paul Draper came on board as wine maker and the rest is history. Draper remained involved in the winemaking until 2016, but Eric Baugher has been doing most of the wine making since the early-mid 2000s. The wines have been consistently excellent throughout! Ridge was a participant in the famous 1976 Paris Tasting which really put California wines on the national and international map. The wine submitted was the 1971 Monte Bello which placed 5th in the initial tasting. In a repeat tasting of the wines in 2006 as a 30th anniversary of the original, the 1971 Monte Bello placed first disproving the thought from the Bordelais that their wines age much better than their California counterparts.
Monte Bello is generally composed of grapes from 4 different historic vineyards. Perrone Ranch, Torre Ranch, Rousten Ranch, and Klein Ranch. These various vineyards were planted by different families and eventually all became important parts of the blend. You can find more in-depth info on each vineyard on the Ridge website (ridgewine.com). As I mentioned, the vineyards are in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Elevations range from 1300-2700 feet above sea level, but the vineyards are only 15 miles from the Pacific, so there is definitely maritime influence on the weather. This influence provides cooling fogs and significant diurnal swings in temperature resulting in great freshness even though the grapes are also very ripe. The soils are varied, but the interesting aspect to me is that much of the bedrock is decomposing limestone covered by clay and stony soils. While limestone may be generally more associated with pinot noir (think Cote d’Or) it can clearly be beneficial for cabernet given the results produced here! In contrast, there is not really much limestone in Napa and I think this contributes to the distinct personality of Monte Bello.
An interesting aside, my first experience with the Monte Bello area was actually on a mountain bike. I was still a student and while interested in wine I had no budget to afford anything beyond the occasional $10-20 bottle and thus Monte Bello was not on my radar. I was out in the area for the wedding of one of my great friends and a group of us cruised up the side of the mountain basically skirting vineyards! I always remember that ride when I pop the cork on a bottle of Monte Bello. Funny how things line up at different aspects of your life sometimes. Anyway, if you’re in the area for a visit and a enjoy a bit of trail riding, it is highly recommended.
The winemaking at Ridge is fairly old school (they use the term pre-industrial) and hasn’t changed a lot over the years. They focus on sustainable vineyard management with minimal chemicals and healthy soils, harvesting ripe, healthy fruit and then letting things happen mostly on their own. Natural yeast fermentations with no added enzymes or other nutrients are the norm here. No additives for color etc. are used. The grapes are generally destemmed and after fermentation are aged in mostly new American oak. There are sometimes a few barrels or French or other oaks used, however generally 95+% is American oak. This is another atypical aspect of Ridge as most cabernet producers use primarily French oak. The wines are generally aged for 16-18 months in barrel before blending and bottling.
On to the wines themselves. Monte Bello is a Bordeaux style blend and the blend varies a bit year to year. The backbone is always cabernet sauvignon which generally makes up about 70-80% of the wine. The rest is a blend of merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. The wine is generally around 13-13.5% alcohol which I find quite refreshing in the face of many American cabernet based wines that are closer to 15%. Monte Bello is an old school wine and because of the cool climate, limestone soils, acidity, and the tannins the wines take years in the cellar to really reach their potential. I think this is why some people don’t fully appreciate Monte Bello as much of it is consumed far too young. The wines really start to hit their stride around the 20-25 year mark and continue to develop complexity and age gracefully well beyond that. That said they are often beginning to show well around age 15 or so and if you have multiple bottles of a vintage it may be fun to taste one or two before this to appreciate the evolution.
The wines are certainly not as ripe as their Napa counterparts, but they do show the classic cassis and black currant fruits of cabernet sauvignon. Often there is some ripe plum and blueberry as well. I often get notes of savory herbs (thyme, sage, etc) with some bell pepper, cedar, notes of oak, violet, tobacco, and stony mineral notes. With age, the nose shows more earth and cedar, sweet spice notes, and the oak fades away. The wines almost always show a lovely freshness and vibrancy with a core of minerality that must be from the limestone. The tannins which can be robust in youth, fade to a suave caress with time. In short, they are consistently excellent. Not just in my opinion, but in the opinion of many professional critics as well. Here are a few notes from Monte Bello wines I’ve consumed in the past:
1981 Monte Bello: an absolutely captivating bouquet of damp earth, leather, tobacco, and herbs with a great core of cassis and red currant fruit. The nose was complex and changing and developed for 90 minutes. The palate was rich with fruit yet very elegant with a perfect amount of tannin that was well integrated. The finish was great initially, but did begin to shorten after about 75 minutes. Consumed 2014
1999 Monte Bello: this was fabulous. The nose is stellar with dark fruits (cassis and plum), leather, tobacco, hints of vanilla, herbs, and cedar. The palate has excellent depth and concentration with still quite noticeable tannins, but a fresh juicy acidity. Overall delicious and close to peak, but likely to be stellar for the next 10-15 years. Consumed 2017
2003 Monte Bello: still quite young at this point; the color was still very dark purple. The nose was initially a bit dominated by oak with vanilla and dill, but with air you get dark fruits, tobacco, cedar, herbs, a bit of menthol, leather and earth. The complexity continues to increase throughout the evening. There is very good concentration and balance. The tannins seem mostly resolved, but this should easily improve for another 10-15 years. Consumed 2019
2007 Monte Bello: a vibrant nose with cassis and black currant jam, hints of espresso and vanilla from the oak, herbs and cedar, violets, and a hint of bell pepper. The palate is clearly too young, but shows excellent ripe fruit with great purity and depth. There is the hallmark freshness and minerality and it finishes long and lovely. Tasted at the winery in 2013.
Now, one last thing to note and maybe my favorite thing about Ridge Monte Bello; it is still moderately affordable! It is a collectible level wine that ages beautifully for decades, competes with the best cabernet based wines in the world and compared to many Napa wines which have been around for 5-10 years it is downright cheap! There is a caveat to this, to really get it at a good price, you have to join the Monte Bello collectors club. The catch here is, you basically buy futures of the wine and in return for buying it 3 years prior to release, you pay about 60% of the release price. In fact when I first joined the club I was getting it for under $100!!! Of course with time/inflation, now its closer to $140, but compare that to the wines it can compete with: Latour, Lafite, Mouton, Harlan, Diamond Creek, Bond, Schrader, Sassicaia etc. None of those are anywhere close to that price. So while it is still expensive, I think it is really quite a steal for what it is. If that price is still prohibitive, a good way to try a similar wine is to look for the Ridge Estate cabernet. This is generally 95-100% Monte Bello fruit, just not quite at the same quality level. This can be had for around $50 or less if you look around.
In summary, a historical American wine estate with a stellar, consistent product that competes with the best cabernet wines in the world and is still somewhat affordable! I’ll leave it at this, Monte Bello is the only US cabernet that I buy every year and have for almost 15 years. Hope you can find some to try!
J. Newman, CSW