Located 2,600 feet above San Jose in the Santa Cruz Mountains on a property that was first developed for winemaking more than 130 years ago, Ridge Vineyards is in the running for most iconic winery in the Western Hemisphere. The post-Prohibition legend starts in the 1940s and surges in 1976, when Ridge is one of the California wineries that shocks the world by beating French wines in the Judgement of Paris. Today, it is a benchmark for both California zinfandel from around the state — the winery sources from 14 vineyards, most notably Geyserville and Lytton Springs — and for its flagship Bordeaux blend Monte Bello, which comes from those mountaintop vines. (The Monte Bello chardonnay is pretty epic as well.)
I visited the property in July 2017, when winemaker Eric Baugher, who joined the team in 1994, took me on a tour through the cellar and the surrounding vines. “None of the winemakers at Ridge have ever had academic experience,” said Baugher, who learned from the recently retired Paul Draper, head winemaker from 1971 to 2016. The current owners, a Japanese pharmaceuticals group that took over in 1986, are essentially silent. “For them, the ownership of Ridge has been like a piece of art,” said Baugher. There’s a hallowed vibe to the place, and that connection to the past shines through when tasting its older wines, which only grow more cerebral and elegant with age, perhaps due to the careful but dominant use of American rather than French oak.
There are two rare chances for Santa Barbarans to try Ridge: On Thursday, November 1, at Belmond El Encanto, the 2006 Monte Bello will be served alongside the chard, two zins, and two more estate wines, paired with pumpkin velouté, quail, venison, and a serious cheese course. It’s $120 and limited to 30 people; call 770-3530 for reservations.
In January, the S.B. Public Market’s Wine + Beer will host another Gusto! tasting featuring Ridge. Details and tickets will soon be at wineplusbeer.com.