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A Ridge too far

Draper, Baugher, Geyserville, and the lies winemakers tell

by Thor Iverson

[map]Paul Draper and winemaker Eric Baugher were in town for the Boston Wine Expo, and delivered a pair of seminars. The first – an overview of Ridge’s products – wasn’t that interesting to me, but the second – a mini-vertical of their most famous wine in honor of its 40th anniversary – was.

Draper was in loquacious form, and remarkably vital for – it’s almost incomprehensible to write – a man just a few weeks shy of 71. Baugher barely spoke, except at Draper’s urging, and did so in a quiet, understated fashion. Draper appears to have deep respect for Baugher; the converse comes across as something a little closer to worship, yet it’s clear that they have a fine working relationship. Baugher has brought something new to the Ridge program: an enthusiasm for co-fermentation (a major change at a winery where many of the “zinfandels” are actually field blends), which Draper seems to fully endorse as another quality-enhancing step.

As befits a man of his experience and status, Draper has strong opinions on winemaking and the commercial world that wine inhabits. I could go on for many paragraphs on the Ridge/Geyserville/Draper philosophy and methodology as explained by the winemaking duo, but honestly that ground is so well-worn that it seems almost pointless. Instead, I’ll present a brief overview of some of Draper’s more interesting pronouncements.

Geyserville is, according to Draper, “the most elegant of our zinfandels” (an opinion supported by every tasting I’ve ever done; I sometimes prefer the more forceful Lytton, but think that Geyserville is a more complete, sophisticated wine), and while Baugher feels that one can identify Geyserville by its “minty, eucalyptus” character, Draper relies on its unique structure. While I don’t share their deep and broad experience, I can’t endorse either statement (certainly mint and eucalyptus are not Geyserville signatures for me), but I can suggest that while I can usually identify the Ridge aromatic signature (largely, but not exclusively, their barrels) I find a certain textural gentility that can set Geyserville apart from any other wine in its idiom. Draper does not himself endorse the popular notion that Geyserville becomes indistinguishable from old cabernet with age; he thinks that this is merely the normal asymptotic nature of old red wines, and that Geyserville is simply yet another member of the ageable red wine crowd.

As for the ageability of zin and zin-based blends, Draper tells an amusing Parker-related anecdote (slightly paraphrased herein, for clarity): “One year, Robert Parker quoted a young Baltimore writer, who said that ‘zinfandel doesn’t age.’ Parker merely added ‘I agree.’ So a while later, he asked if he could take me to dinner, and I suggested – of course, he doesn’t ever listen to you…he doesn’t want to hear anybody – that I bring the wine, to which he agreed.” A lunch with some legendary ‘73s from Ridge followed. Unprompted, Parker announced “well, I guess there are some exceptions,” though Draper had never mentioned the original opinion. Nonetheless, Draper doesn’t diverge all that much from Parker on this point, claiming that “he’s right in general” (and on this point, I fully agree; the majority of zins are more appealing in their fruity youth than they are in their desiccating maturity. Only the best terroirs and winemakers (and, sometimes, those who wisely utilize supporting grapes) can produce ageable zins that deliver true tertiary complexity.

Draper consistently misuses the word “varietal.” Given the quality of the wines he shepherds, I think we can forgive him.

The interaction of wine and food engenders strong opinions from Draper, who insists “wine –zinfandel or cabernet – has to complement food, not dominate it.” He attributes the dominating qualities of many California wines to wood, alcohol and ripeness, and bemoans their effects on any potential for terroir (“two things will destroy site character: over-oaking, and over-ripening”), while insisting that zinfandel is probably the best indicator of terroir in California (partially due to the ubiquity of plantings, and also partially due to its generally advanced vine age, for which the early Italian immigrants must be praised). Baugher says that years like 1999, 2003 and 2005 – cooler years with longer growing seasons – produce the finest Geyservilles.

As for the inevitable discussion about alcohol in zinfandel, Draper’s opinions have firmed in recent years. “Cabernet, which must be planted in a cooler region than is necessary for zinfandel, is ideal at 13% alcohol, perhaps occasionally 14%. Zinfandel must be in the 14-14.9% range. Anytime you see 12 or 13%, the wine has been dealcoholized.”

“Or really old vines,” adds Baugher.

This leads Draper into another mini-lecture on alcohol, and ripeness in general. “Very, very occasionally there’s an excuse for ultra-ripe cabernet with high alcohol, like in Australia, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Anytime you go over [14%], you’ve made a conscious choice to please Bob Parker or Jim Laube.” As for the frequently-heard opinion that California must make high-alcohol wines to achieve phenolic ripeness: “maybe one year in four or five does [the lag between the two] actually happen.” In other words, it’s an excuse for a stylistic choice.

Draper sees a dichotomy between what he calls “slow wine” and “fast wine” – a “need for really good wine at a reasonable price” served by industrial winemaking (though he decries the fact that many extremely expensive wines are made via industrial means) that are “put together, but not real,” and a parallel need for the sort of artisanal wine that defines greatness, which is what he hopes Ridge can accomplish. Meanwhile, he has damning words for reverse osmosis and spinning cone technology: “the terroir is gone…though I suppose some [critics] will give the result high marks.” He explains that they used it once, for an overripe and overly alcoholic York Creek, and “it unquestionably made the wine better,” but there was “no sense of ‘York Creek’ left in the wine.” He was bemused to see the negative reaction to the revelation of the technique on his label notes, because the techniques are so widely utilized in California…it’s just that almost everyone else is afraid to tell the truth. (He sent Parker both versions of the York Creek hoping for a response, but never received one.)

He thinks that, in general, winemaking in the U.S. used to be basically the same as in Europe, but that this is no longer true. However, he thinks Ridge makes wine “more like Bordeaux in the 19th century than Bordeaux today.” He also can’t understand people who use natural yeast, but then inoculate for their malo.

In the end, he remains passionate about what he calls a “miracle…that [grapes] turned into this” (indicating the wine in front of him) “and because of it, became sacred. It’s amazing to me, the transformation from simple fruit to something so remarkable.” And as for his role? “I consider myself a guide, not a creator…an éleveur, bringing up a child.”

Ridge 1992 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – A soft, fully mature Geyserville, showing milked coffee, spice, roasted/candied pecan, and crushed roses on the nose. The palate is no less mature, though it moves things in a slightly different direction: rich blackberry/chocolate jam, raw milk, black and red peppercorns, and a soft, powdery, graphite-textured tannin. This is a beautiful wine, completely ready to go, and shows all the best and most elegant qualities of well-aged Geyserville. (2/07)

Ridge 1993 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Aromatically insufficient (my neighbor wonders if it might not be corked, but there’s no indication if so, and a comparative glass from a different bottle smells the same), with canned blueberry and licorice liqueur. Some air helps, bringing forth some redolent dust. The palate feels, though does not (retronasally) smell musty and stale. Frankly, this is disappointing…and it’s strange, as Paul Draper is highly enthusiastic about the current performance of this wine. The second glass is a bit better, with supple, elegant, Crozes-Hermitage mimicry somewhat masking the essential Geyserville character. Again, it bears repeating: Draper and many others are very positive about this vintage. I’m agnostic at best, and greatly prefer the 1992. (2/07)

Ridge 1994 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Plum liqueur and mixed berries in a gorgeous, well-knit and fully complete package. The palate brings forth more mature, older fruit characteristics of baked berries and wheelbarrows full of rich organic earth, but there’s still plenty of fruit on display. A soft, wavy wine with yet more development in its future. (2/07)

Ridge 2002 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Blackberry, blueberry, black cherry and licorice-infused plum in a thick, edging-towards-syrupy (but redeemed by fine acidity) style. There’s also thick, Valrhona Guanaja and dry stones aplenty. There is a flaw – an alcoholic tingle that, for some palates, will be a deal-breaker – but it’s really not out of place in this wine, which shows loads of potential. If it can survive that heat, it’ll be majestic in a few decades. If not…well, it’ll be Geyserville-flavored Scotch. (2/07)

Ridge 2003 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Very aromatic, albeit full of primary American oak esters, blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry; a Big Fruit wine with papery tannin and a weirdly petulant disposition at the finish. I suspect this wine is struggling to close, and interested parties should probably let it do so. (2/07)

Ridge 2004 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – Not yet released, and picked extremely early (mid-August, several weeks before the usual start date), before almost anyone else in the entire region. Very, very concentrated licorice/anise, blueberry and chocolate with an ultra-dense, peanut butter texture that darts in and out of the syrup category, plus some obvious alcohol. There are also crashing waves of vanilla-infused oak butter, which is to be expected in a young Geyserville these days. It’s way too young to judge in any sensible way, though my sense is that this will never be a “great” Geyserville, but merely a good one. (2/07)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.