There’s no doubt that one of my father’s favorite wineries is Ridge Vineyards. Since I can remember, I’ve seen the all-too-familiar rows of block lettering on the countless bottles of Ridge he has served at dinners past. For his 60th birthday last year, my family gifted him 6 bottles of 1995 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon in the original wooden crate (purchased through a collectors sale on Invino), and I’ve never seen him more excited. And I’ve certainly heard him proclaim more than once that he “has had over 500 bottles of Ridge in the last 30 years and never had one bottle that was corked.” To my father, this is one of the highest forms of complimenting in the wine world, and he was sure to mention it (at least twice) to the staff at Ridge during our epic visit last month.
My father waiting for the Ridge gates to open (we were a little early to our appointment).
My father is not typically one to enjoy tours during visits to wine country, but when I mentioned that Ridge offered an Estate Tour and Tasting (including their legendary Monte Bello) at their Lytton Springs Estate in Healdsburg, he agreed that it would be worth it. And, was it ever!
Side view of the Lytton Springs Visitor Center
We visited on a Friday in February when the winery wasn’t too crowded, and luckily we were able to have a private tour and tasting with David (which usually accommodates up to 10 people). He took us on a guided golf-cart tour of the estate, driving through gnarly rows of old-vine Zinfandel, and circling around various ponds and hilltops. David not only explained the history of the Ridge winery and its vineyards, but also gave us an overall history on the geography of Northern California, and what makes Lytton Springs so special for growing Zinfandel. But before I get into that, let me tell you how it all began…
In 1885 San Francisco Doctor, Osea Perrone bought 180 acres on Monte Bello Ridge in the Santa Cruz Mountains – now one of the most highly regarded wine growing regions in Northern California. After planting some vineyards and contracting the winery at Monte Bello, the vineyards were abandoned during the prohibition era. It wasn’t until 1949 when William Short replanted the Cabernet Sauvignon on Monte Bello, as well as first time plots of Chardonnay. Ten years later, three scientists from Stanford University’s Research Institute purchased the property from Short and made a small amount of wine from the ten year old Cabernet vines. In 1962 they formed a partnership that became Ridge Vineyards and began to produce wines for commercial sale. In 1969, Paul Draper joined Ridge as their winemaker, and it was his 1971 Monte Bello that won fifth place among French and California wines at the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting. Thirty years later, there was a “Judgement of Paris 30th Anniversary Wine Tasting” in London and California, and the Ridge 1971 and 2000 Monte Bello won first place in both the original vintage wine and new vintage wine categories.
A poster in the tasting room, describing the results of the Judgement of Paris
While Ridge is primarily known for their Monte Bello property, Lytton Springs is much easier to get to and also has quite a bit of history. The winery was purchased in 1991, along with the old vineyards surrounding it, and expanded to the western portion of Lytton Springs in 1995 when they purchased more land. In 2004 Ridge completed construction of the new winery and tasting room at Lytton Springs with a focus on sustainability and the production of Zinfandel. The 100+ year old Zinfandel vines that cover the hills of Lytton Springs thrive because the foggy mornings are balanced by warm, sunny afternoons and breezy late evenings. The soils are made up of gravelly clay, providing moisture retention and ensuring that the grapes ripen at a slower pace. In essence, it’s a wine growing area with perfect balance, which is made even more balanced by the foundation of their sustainability practices.
Old Zinfandel vines of Lytton Springs
After our exciting and information-packed tour with David, he took us up to a private tasting area in their winemaking facility. We tasted side-by-side pours of 2009 Mazzoni, 2011 Geyserville and 2011 Lytton Springs Zinfandel, as well as the 2010 Perrone Merlot and 2010 Monte Bello Cabernet. Included in the tasting was a plate of cheese, spiced almonds and bread, as well as a water glass, dump cup, note cards on the wines, and a blank chart and pen for us to make our own notes. I’ve been to other tastings like this – where expensive, upscale wines are poured side by side in an intimate setting – but this one was different. There was no ostentatiousness or stuffiness, but rather an air of intrigue and enthusiasm; this can mostly be credited to David’s laid-back personality and unpretentious knowledge of Ridge Vineyards.
As for the wines… well, they were spectacular. David told us that all the wines had incredible aging potential, but they tasted pretty great in the moment (he opened them about three hours before we tasted). Of the Zinfandels, my favorites were the Geyserville and Lytton Springs. The Geyserville was very elegant with rich fruit flavors, while the Lytton Springs was a little more complex with notes of licorice and olives. The Perrone Merlot was very good, and it was interesting to compare it to the Zinfandels and the Monte Bello. The Merlot had bright cherry fruit with a good balance of acid and oak, and was very pleasing to the palate. My father’s notes simply read, “AWESOME!!!”. He noticed right away when he smelled the Monte Bello that it was blended with the Perrone Merlot, which was confirmed by David. The Monte Bello was of course the highlight of the tasting, and we went a little nuts over it. It’s hard to say what makes this wine so special, but I think Antonio Galloni puts it best when he says,“dramatic and towering in style.”
After we finished off the last sips of our glorious Monte Bello, David led us back downstairs to the main tasting room where he poured us some samples of other current releases, including the Carignane and Syrah. The assistant winemaker popped his head out to pour a blind taste of something he was currently bottling. I’m ashamed to say that I was a little clueless, but my father immediately guessed that it was the Petite Sirah; and in fact, it was the 2012 Lytton Estate Petite Sirah. I guess I have a lot to live up to when it comes to blind tasting!
If you’re planning a trip to Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley, I highly encourage you to schedule a tour and tasting at Ridge Vineyards. Even if you decide to skip the tour, be sure to stop in for a tasting – though, I think David’s tour really enhances the overall experience and is totally worth the money considering the cost of the wines that you’re tasting. Our experience lasted a total of 2 hours and 15 minutes, which runs a little over the usual 90 minutes, but time flies when you’re tasting great wines with even greater people.