Ridge Vineyards produces a legendary wine not far from Silicon Valley
This is the English version of my wine column at Forbes Japan. The Japanese version is found here.
The Santa Cruz Mountains can be found close to Silicon Valley. Although not as widely-known as Napa or Sonoma, it is recognized for producing high-quality California wines and is located in the mountains running north to south along the Pacific Coast to the west of the San Francisco Bay area. Ridge Vineyards is a leading winery in this region. Although it shares an address in Cupertino with Apple's headquarters, it takes a 30-minute drive into the mountains to finally reach the winery. The views are stunning and, in good weather, you can see all of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay. On weekends, the winery’s picnic tables are crowded with locals enjoying its wines. The most popular of these wines is called “Monte Bello”, a Bordeaux-blend red based on Cabernet Sauvignon, made with grapes harvested from its own vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Ridge has been deeply connected to Japan since 1986 when it came under the umbrella of Otsuka Holdings, which has many other subsidiaries including Otsuka Pharmaceuticals.
Making its mark in the history of wine
The high quality of Ridge's wine can be evidenced by the episode described here. In 1976, Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, held a blind tasting event in Paris to evaluate top wines from both France and California, including Bordeaux's first-growth chateaux and the prestigious Domaines of Burgundy. The judges were all prominent members of France’s wine industry. The result was shocking, as Californian wines were chosen as the best among both red and white wines. This event later became known as the ‘Paris Tasting’ or the ‘Judgment of Paris’ and is still talked about as a key factor in introducing the high potential of the previously unknown California wines to the world. Ridge's Monte Bello 1971 was chosen as one of the wines to represent California at this tasting event. It came fifth in the original tasting. A further tasting was held to evaluate the same wines ten years later, in 1986, and another was held twenty years after that, in 2006. In 1986, Monte Bello 1971 achieved second place and in 2006 it was selected as the top wine. These results, especially that of the 2006 tasting, demonstrated the high quality and aging potential of Monte Bello; it took top place ahead of Bordeaux's first-growth chateaux, which is known for improving with age.
Because of a cooling influence from the Pacific Ocean, there is a large difference in daytime and nighttime temperatures at the Monte Bello vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The strong sunshine during the day enhances the maturity of the grapes, while the relatively cool weather ensures that the sugar level does not rise too high and the acidity is also maintained.
Unusually for California, the soil here has limestone. Such limestone-rich soil is often found in fine wine-growing areas such as the Burgundy region. Many old vines are planted in the Santa Cruz vineyards. Ridge gives particular attention to viticulture; it has adopted environmentally sustainable farming and most of their vineyards hold organic certification.
Paul Draper is a charismatic winemaker who had supported Ridge’s growth for many years. After graduating from Stanford University with a major in philosophy, Draper spent time in Italy, France and Chile before returning to California. Inspired by a meeting with its founder, he became involved in wine-making at Ridge in 1969. With Draper becoming involved, viticulture and winemaking were revamped and the quality of Ridge's wine and its reputation grew because of the meticulous wine-making process. This was at about the same time that the California wines were becoming increasingly well-known throughout the world as a result of the ‘Paris Judgment’. Along with improvements in viticulture and winemaking techniques, there was also a notable increase in funds and talent within the wine industry. Amid this general progression of California wines, Ridge established itself as a leading winery. Draper also made a name for himself as a prominent winemaker, winning numerous international awards. Draper announced his retirement from Ridge in 2016, at the age of 80. Although still involved as Chairman, the winemaking of Monte Bello has been entrusted to his successor, Eric Baugher. Baugher’s background is in chemistry and microbiology.
[Right] Eric Baugher [Left] Shinji Kurokawa
An ‘American-style’ Bordeaux blend
Ridge produces its wine through natural and traditional methods including the use of wild yeast during fermentation. Just because it’s 'natural,' however, it doesn’t mean that good wine can be produced by simply leaving it alone. It is important to make appropriate decisions at key stages during viticulture and winemaking in order to produce quality wines that express the characteristics of the grapes grown in the wild environment of the Santa Cruz Mountains. These decisions are based on years of experience, but Ridge is also aware of the importance of chemical data analysis.
Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, has a thick skin and a high level of tannins in nature. When growing in harsh environments like those on the mountain slopes, the grapes become smaller with thicker skins and tend to produce grapes with an even higher level of tannins. Maceration is an important process in producing red wine to extract pigment, tannins and flavor from grape skin. In order to avoid excessive extraction of tannins from the Cabernet grapes during this process, grapes go through a strict sorting process before being transported to the tanks without being crushed at Ridge.
Another important characteristic of Ridge wine is the use of ‘American barrels’. Only new oak barrels are used in the maturation of Monte Bello and more than 90 percent of the wine is aged in American barrels. The rest is aged in French oak barrels and they are properly blended every year to make the final product.
Even in California, Bordeaux-blend wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon like Monte Bello are generally aged in French oak barrels, like those in Bordeaux. If American barrels aren't handled carefully, their strong character can overpower the flavor of the grape itself and the resulting wine can have an overwhelming oak flavor.
Ridge, though, takes great care when using American barrels. The sweetness coming from the ripe fruit along with concentrated flavors of Monte Bello, is well integrated with the aromas of coconut and dill peculiar to American oak barrels. Previously, I was impressed to hear staff working at Ridge say that, "Ridge makes the best wines from American-grown grapes and with American materials such as American barrels. We are proud of it”.
Ridge has earnt a great reputation internationally and its wines are also loved by local people. I am personally a longtime fan and a member of the winery. I participate in various events held there where I often meet Silicon Valley engineers, bankers, Stanford graduates and local wine lovers. Ridge is truly a part of the local community and it is little-known that the company is owned by a Japanese corporation. Otsuka Holdings, as the owner, values the decision-making by local staff and entrusts them with this. During key periods, such as harvesting and blending, Shinji Kurokawa, who has a background in enology, visits from Japan and is involved in making important decisions. Ridge wines are also popular in Japan. Especially in the case of Monte Bello, a proportion of the wine imported to Japan is released after it has been aged in warehouses under controlled temperature and humidity. The purpose of this is to allow the wine to show its potential that will come out after being matured.
As well as the winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ridge also has one in Sonoma and produces many wonderful wines besides Monte Bello, including Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Both wineries are open to the public and offer a wide lineup of wines for tasting. If you have the time during a holiday or business trip to the Silicon Valley, I would suggest visiting them along with some of the other wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains.