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A Vineyard in the Clouds

By: Jeff Cox

Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello (beautiful mountain) vineyard covers 100 acres high in the Santa Cruz Mountain appellation about 60 miles south of San Francisco. Very high, indeed. “The elevation runs from 1,400 up to 2,700 feet above sea level,” says Ridge owner Paul Draper. “It’s the highest vineyard in the Santa Cruz mountains. It was the highest in California until 20 years ago. It’s higher than any vineyard in Europe.”

Draper’s been making Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon since the late 1960s. People don’t generally remember this, but the 1971—Draper’s third vintage – Monte Bello Cab came in fifth at the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, when experienced French wine judges blind-tasted a series of French and California wines, and the Chateau Montelana Chardonnay from the Napa Valley took first place—to the dismay, shock, and astonishment of the French judges.

In 2006, 30 years later, the exact same line-up of wines was tasted in a re-enactment of the 1976 tasting, and this time, the 1971 Monte Bello came in first. It had aged more gracefully and showed its staying power against some of the best wines California and France could muster.

The finesse of Monte Bello’s claret style derives principally from the elevation. “The pH of the wine is unbelievably low,” Draper says. “It comes in around 3.0. That’s because we’re so high up, and just 15 to 18 miles from the ocean. The nights here are very, very cool during the growing season—that maintains the acidity and gives the wine its brightness. It also extends the growing season so the grapes reach full maturity while acids and alcohol remain in balance. Also,” Draper says, “Monte Bello shows intense minerality—more minerality than any other California wine.”

The Monte Bello Cab is not straight Cabernet, but a Bordeaux blend that’s primarily Cab. The vineyard itself is roughly 70 percent Cab Sauvignon, 20 percent Merlot, seven percent Petit Verdot, and three percent Cab Franc. There’s also a tiny block of 19th Century Zinfandel “that barely ripens,” Draper says, and a little Chardonnay. Total acreage is 103, with the oldest vines planted in 1949, before Draper’s time, and the youngest 1998. Most was planted between 1968 and 1988.

Besides its varietal blend, another reason for the exquisite, Bordeaux-like quality of the wine is the soil. Draper explains, “The soil here is unusual for California. The whole ridge is fractured limestone overlaid with sedimentary green stone. You can break it up with your hands, so the vine roots can penetrate it easily—just like at Guigal in the Rhone Valley. The green stone topsoil is down in the swales, while the limestone shows up at the top of the slopes.”

Most of the slopes of this vineyard face south, east, and west, with very little northern exposure. This gives maximum sun exposure, needed at this cool site to ripen the grapes.

“Monte Bello ridge was laid down as ocean bottom south of the equator 100 million years ago,” Draper says. “About 67 million years ago, the submarine ridge stopped being forced under the South American plate and began sliding north. As the Pacific tectonic plate dove under the North American plate, the ridge was sheared off and left here. Geologists call this place ‘exotic terrain.’ By the time you get up to the Oregon border, the Pacific plate is again diving under the North American plate.”

About 15 years ago, Draper had a stairway cut into the limestone by the winery. “The stonemason picked up all these exotic pieces of rock. Some looked like quartz, some like stalagtites. It’s limestone in all its forms, made by pressure, heat, and the dipping of limey water,” he says.

He’s thinking ahead. “Right now, we only irrigate vines for the first four or five years. After that the roots go deep enough to maintain contact with moisture. But I’m thinking of putting drip irrigation on older vines because of climate change. If droughts occur, I want to be ready.”

Exquisite wine, but pricey. The current release is the 2007 at $160 per 750 ml bottle.

Ridge Vineyards

Monte Bello , Santa Cruz Mountains

17100 Monte Bello Road
Cupertino, California 95014

Phone: 408-867-3233

Saturdays and Sundays
Tasting Room, 11 a.m. -4 p.m.
No Reservations Required

Historic Vineyard Tasting
Seating by Reservation

Reservations Required

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    Jeff Cox

    Jeff Cox
    Jeff Cox (B.A. Journalism, Lehigh University) has written three books and hundreds of magazine articles about wine for Decanter, The Wine News (where he was Contributing Editor), Men's Health, Diversion, Fine Wine Folio, and many other publications. Read More About Jeff