All Our Yesterdays
In 1990 I visited California for the first time (I wrote a book with a chapter that covers it. No longer in print I'm afraid). It wasn't the first time I'd tried the wines from there, but it was the first time I'd tried wines with more breeding than a member of the Royal Family. These wines made such an impression that my radar had been alerted to the possibility that anything Californian could be exciting. It was a few years later that the name of 'Ridge' came into my orbit and eventually led me to Paul Draper.
At the time I lived in Guernsey. A small Channel Island off the coast of France but belonging to Great Britain. It was while visiting a wine merchant there that I first noticed bottles of wine with distinctive labels that were so unusual at the time. These labels have since become welcome friends that make me realise what great wines I'm about to taste.
'The Judgement of Paris' organised by Stephen Spurrier has been mentioned many, many times, and it was through my early interests in the wines of California that the name 'Ridge' started to crop up with interesting regularity. It didn't take big steps to lead me towards the name of Paul Draper.
Like Steven Spurrier, I just knew I had to interview Paul. To be honest, I hoped he would find time to respond to the questions I wanted to sent to him. I was lucky that he did, and the interview features such thorough replies that I even considered writing a biography of 'Ridge' and a man I consider to be the Paul McCartney of California wine. He's a man who takes wine to a level that is often beyond belief, with a consistency that is so amazing. Wouldn't you want to speak to him?
Winefullness Magazine: What varietal do you wish Ridge grew and why?
Paul Draper: At Monte Bello in the cool Santa Cruz Mountains appellation we grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. In addition since 1949 we have grown a small amount of Chardonnay given our limestone subsoils and cool climate. The Cabernet was replanted in 1949 and is one of the three oldest surviving Cabernet vineyards in California.
In Sonoma we own the historic Geyserville Vineyard which includes Zinfandel and mixed blacks planted in 1882. There is Petite Sirah and Carignan, the principal varietals included in older Zinfandel planting plus tiny quantities of twenty-one other varietals typically interplanted with Zinfandel in the 19th Century. We also own the Lytton Springs Vineyard including Zinfandel and mixed blacks going back to 1902. There are a few blocks of Syrah, Grenache and Mataro and a small block of Viognier which we co-ferment with Syrah. Sorry for the summary. We have all these varieties, but I would like to grow some Pinot Noir on our limestone soils in our cool climate, but we have no more open land.
Winefullness: When was that first memory of you knowing that winemaking was for you?
Paul: I was attending a sixth form public school on the east coast, and was in fifth form and sixteen years old. My roommate for fifth and sixth, whose parents were Swiss, invited me to stay with them in New York. On the occasional weekends we earned by getting good grades and at Thanksgiving holiday when it was not worth traveling all the way home for me, we travelled there. At every lunch and dinner they had either a good bottle of Rhone, Beaujolais or Burgundy. I was reading Hemmingway, Huxley and European novelists in translation where wine was a part of everyday life in those novels. Growing up, my family only served wine on special occasions. As a romantic, I loved the idea that wine added a sense of ritual to a meal and fuller enjoyment in each day.
I had grown up on a farm working with mother nature in raising crops, fruit and animals and having our two Guernsey cows. We lived entirely off the land during the last 5 years of the Depression and during WWII. This idea of taking something you had grown and allowing it, in the case of a simple fruit, to go through a natural process that transformed it into something complex, delicious and mildly mind-altering was altogether fascinating to me. I decided then that I wanted to make wine.
I went out to Stanford University in large part because they grew grapes and made wine in California. My plan was to attend the University of California at Davis after finishing at Stanford to get a degree in wine chemistry. However, at Stanford I discovered that I was very bad in science, particularly chemistry and biology, and that I would never make it through Davis. I thought you had to have a degree in enology to be a winemaker, so I put my dream on hold with no idea if I would ever be able to pursue it. In those days, the late fifties and sixties, the world’s finest wines were very inexpensive. I was drinking and beginning to lay down, even on my very limited income, ’46, ’48, ’49 Latour, and taste the ’45 and ’20 Latour, and the ’28’s and ‘29’s from Latour as well as several other first growths. These wines and many more lesser growth’s were my first mentors. Working and studying in Europe after Stanford I visited many producers and found, in that era, the people making those wines did not have degrees in enology. I also realized that those wines, and a few California wines from the late 1930’s had been made traditionally, basically the way the finest wines had been made in the 19th Century. I found that they were more complex, more interesting and developed further with aging than did the wines being made by the modern techniques coming into use. These techniques Davis brought to the California industry in the last years of the 1930’s and were launched in France after the war.
Five or six years later I was in Chile with two friends running a non-profit working on nutrition. We soon began looking for a way to get off our minimal salaries from our non-profit so the money could go to our programs. We only considered things that would help Chile and we looked at export of fruit and seafood to the US and Europe and then realized that Chile was only exporting 2% of its wine production. As wine lovers we knew what we would do.
We met with the producers that were exporting and discussed changes in winemaking, for example, among other things, eliminating the use of rauli wood with its less appealing flavours and less heavy fining, as well as packaging – a better designed bottle with a smooth cork entry and longer, better corks.
The Chileans were very polite and expressed great interest, but after six months it was clear they were not about to make any changes. With that we decided that we would have to do it ourselves. I realized that at last I could follow my dream and make fine wine traditionally. I didn’t need a degree in enology.
As a start we set up a small import company in the US and selected several wines that met our standards from Cousino Macul and Canepa and shipped them to the states. We then leased a beautiful, old bodega in the southern coast range that had recently closed and began to make cabernet sauvignon from four small, very old vineyards in our remote area.
My winemaking mentors were first those great wines I had the chance to taste and second a book published in 1882 in California by Emmett Rixford. He had planted his La Cuesta vineyard to cuttings from Margaux. From the early 1890’s to 1920 and Prohibition, he produced one of the finest and the most expensive Cabernets in California. His book laid out the day-to-day practice used by the best producers in California and Bordeaux. His mentor had been a professor, Raimond Boireau, in Bordeaux whose two volumes from the 1870’s Rixford studied as did I. Both Rixford and Boireau laid out what I came to call 19th Century fine wine techniques and more recently have called ‘pre-industrial’ techniques. I read Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon and Peynaud on traditional as well as modern approaches. I used the 19th Century techniques in Chile and brought them with me to Ridge where they are still the basis of how we make wine today.
Winefullness: What is your favourite vintage of Ridge?
Paul Draper: As with most winemakers, I consider them all my children which doesn’t make it easy to choose. In the early years I used to think our great 1970 vintage, my second at Ridge, was the model to emulate and build on. As I have watched the 1971 develop and win the 30 year repeat of the 'Paris Tasting' by 18 points and last year see that it was still in superb condition at 40 years, while virtually every other wine in the line-up were fading or gone, it became an equal to the 1970.
They demonstrate the two styles we make depending on the makeup of the grapes each year. The ’70 fuller and more structured and the ’71 more elegant but equally complex. After that would come the ’78, ’85 ’91, ’95.
Winefullness Magazine: In a growing market, do you see Ridge ever changing its philosophy on winemaking to suit new territories in the way that Californian wine seems to have gone from following what the customer liked to trying to educate the customer to like better?
Paul: I joined Ridge because besides liking the Ridge partners very much, they had me taste their first commercial vintage; the 1962 and the excellent 1964. They had never made wine before. They used the simplest techniques: ripe grapes, naturally occurring yeasts and malolactic bacteria, submerged cap fermentation, (so they could be absent Monday through Friday at their work) minimal SO2 after malolactic, and no fining or filtration. With my long and continuing experience with great vintages of Bordeaux and my more-recent experience of traditionally made wines by Inglenook and Rixford’s La Cuesta from the 1930’s, these two wines were of the quality of the best I had tasted. It was clear to me that they had simply not gotten in the way and what I was seeing was the character and quality of the Monte Bello terroir. I knew if I joined them I would have the chance to make exceptional wines.
Obviously they had made the ’62 and ’64 with no thought of what they or someone else might think the market wanted. From the beginning I made the wines that the site dictated and that I wanted to make, again with no thought of the market. Fortunately, our customers agreed with what we were doing and I have continued that approach for my fifty years. We have been unaffected by the over ripe style from Napa despite its popularity.
Ridge has more demand than we will ever be able to fill as our production will only increase minimally in future years. Our commitment and that of our ownership, leadership and vineyard and production teams are committed to this philosophy. We are setting up safe guards to try to guarantee that that commitment continue for many years. We will be a 60 year old operation in another year and we intend to be a 100 year company dedicated to the same philosophy forty years from now.
Education is the most important element after making fine wine, taking care of your own people and of your customers. California in general is making better wine than it ever has in the past. My one objection would concern the style of Napa Cabernet and most other California Cabernets.
Since 1997 with the approbation of critics like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator, they have pursued a higher alcohol overripe style. Often the grapes are picked over 15° brix and even 16° brix and then the alcohol cut back to around 14.9%. In my opinion this style is dominated by a single characteristic, that of overripe dark fruit. At that ripeness the wine loses the complexity of fully ripe fruit as well as its ability to continue developing in quality with age.
Winefullness Magazine: What do you think is the single greatest aid/device that has helped you improve as a winemaker?
Paul Draper: My greatest improvement as a winemaker has been to learn in my first ten years to vary the timing and the approaches of traditional winemaking during fermentation to the differences in the makeup of the fruit mother nature gives us each year. First, of course, has been to start even earlier in the vineyard to pick each block at its ideal point of ripeness. This has meant that our vineyard director, two head winemakers, members of the vineyard team and the interns are carefully sampling each block multiple times before the winemakers decide exactly when to harvest each one. With each sample the juice is squeezed out, analysed for sugar, pH and level of malic acid. Then comes the most important part. The winemakers and vineyard managers blind taste the juice samples, ten to twenty at a time. They aren’t deciding based on the sugar or acid numbers but on the flavours in each juice sample. This has meant that over the years we have made more consistently the finest wine possible in each vintage despite the varying makeup of the fruit. Given that the decision on when to pick depends on tasting and that the varying of timing and approach during fermentation to control tannins and colour extraction depends on tasting, clearly the most important device is a good wine glass.
Winefullness: Can you name another winemaker outside of Ridge whom you admire or who has influenced you and why?
Paul: I have already stated my admiration for Emmett Rixford back in the late 19th Century. We have never used a winemaking consultant at Ridge or found a winemaker who was looking back to tradition instead of to additives and processing. I admire what Cathy Corison and Diana Seysses as well as Erin Jordon at Falla are doing. There are also a number of other young winemakers who I think are really doing interesting things.
Winefullness: Is your winemaking style terroir or blend driven?
Paul Draper: The distinctive character first of Monte Bello, then Geyserville and Lytton Springs and any outside vineyard we continue to work with over the years is based on terroir. They are all single vineyard wines not blends of vineyards. The fact that all the elements needed to transform grapes into wine are present on the grapes and that a different soil, and climate can provide a range of quality from mediocre to great are what make wine making something of a miracle.
Winefullness: What is your favourite time in the vineyard (be it day or season)?
Paul: (At last a really short answer) Spring and early morning.
Winefullness: What do you think makes American oak better than French oak for Ridge?
Paul: In 1967 in reopening a small, historic bodega in the coast range of Chile, I found that barrels were not being used to age fine wine. This forced me to find small supplies of air dried European oak grown in Chile and being used for other purposes. I had to convince my local artisan cooper to make my barrels. To do that I had to research the design, dimensions and techniques used to make the best wine barrels in France. So early on I got into the history and details of barrel making. When I joined Ridge three years later, I found the same to be true in California. Barrels were not being used to age fine wine, but rather as in Chile, larger ovals, casks and upright tanks. In the early 1970’s Andre Tchelistcheff and Dick Graff of Chalone working together brought in French oak barrels from the Bordeaux cooper, Demptos. The superb 1962 and 1964 Monte Bello’s that had convinced me to join Ridge had been aged in old, totally neutral, bourbon barrels. The slow oxidation of barrel aging had contributed to their quality, but no oak was present in the nose or taste. Those California winemakers trying to make better wines, often in imitation of the wines of Bordeaux, logically began to seek out barrels that had been made by French coopers who had perfected wine barrel making over at least the last 200 years. American coopers had been making barrels for the bourbon industry for at least 150 years, but the staves were steam bent and the inside charred for bourbon aging. I’m a chauvinist, so the idea that a fine California wine had to be dependent on oak from Europe as part of its quality was not acceptable.
My first mentor, Emmett Rixford, who I’ve discussed, quotes his Bordeaux mentor, Raimond Boireau, on an oak experiment done in the 1870’s. As a port city, Bordeaux had access to oak growing regions other than just France and in the 19th century the top Chateaux’s preferred and used oak grown in the Baltic regions to that grown in France. The rating included these favourite regions as well as others. The results were 1st Riga, 2nd Lubeck, 3rd Stettin, 4th American eastern white oak, 5 Bosnian Oak, and 6th and last place, Centre of France. This result had stimulated my interest in American oak from the beginning.
In 1968, a French friend, who, with his family, owned a small chateau in the Medoc for which, as an enologist, he was the technical director, showed me his thesis on oak aging written for his degree at the University of Bordeaux. He had included the most detailed experiment on oak that the University had ever done. It was a ten year study based on the great vintage of 1900. Two barrels each of six different regional oaks were placed in each of the First Growth Bordeaux Chateaux - Margaux, Haut Brion, Lafite and Latour. The wines were analysed and blind tasted each year for ten years, first when in barrel, then in bottle. The combined results were identical to those from the 1870’s. Riga 1st, Lubeck 2nd, Stettin 3rd, American white oak 4th, Bosnian 5th and Centre of France 6th.
Two years later, having joined Ridge, I visited several of the best American coopers to see what they would be willing to do to make barrels for fine wine. I found a cooper, no longer in operation, in Arkansas working with tight grain white oak from the Ozarks. He had remnant quantities of seven and five year old, air dried staves on his yard left over from previous large orders for bourbon barrels. He agreed to give a medium toast to the barrels instead of charring them as he normally did for the whiskey industry. He shipped those 200 litre barrels directly to me at Monte Bello at a total cost of $35.00.
At the same time I ordered a few 225 litre Bordeaux barrels from Demptos, including transport from France, customs duties and trucking from the dock to Monte Bello for a total cost of $50.00 for a slightly larger barrel. As the wine’s aged we found we had a preference for the American oak that contributed rounder, less tough oak tannins to the Monte Bello that already had sufficient tannins. The nose of the French oak was very apparent and appealing when the wine was young, but with bottle age, the two oaks contributed more equally and we preferred the effect on the body and finish of the American oak.
From 1970 on we have had a French oak control each year. It began as roughly 10% and now is around 3% in the final wine. We taste these oak trials over time as they age and have continued to prefer our selection of coopers and regions for American oak over what we have selected as the best from French coopers.
In 2015 we had six barrel experiments from four coopers and two regions for American oak and two French coopers and two French regions for French oak. We think we may have done more research over the years on oak than any other producer. In blind tastings of Monte Bello and, for example, Chateau Latour, we have virtually never had top tasters, say Masters of Wine, identify the Monte Bello because they noticed American oak in the wine.
Winefullness Magazine: Have you tried English sparkling wine as it seems to be growing in popularity?
Paul Draper: I first tasted a very successful attempt years ago with Hugh Johnson and now am tasting a number of very good and even truly excellent examples of sparkling wine with much of the appeal of Champagne.
Winefullness: What winemaking tool are you never without?
Paul: As with my answer to #5 it would be a good wine glass.
Winefullness: Who spots potentially new vineyards?
Paul: Until stepping back to a degree two years ago, I had sought out potential new, small outside vineyards. Today, David Gates our vineyard director of the last twenty-eight years, is responsible for virtually all new outside vineyards. These are all very small, old vine vineyards. We try them for one year and see if we want to continue. Some will be with us for years.
Winefullness: What is a part of the job that you dislike the most?
Paul Draper: I have lived on the edge of our highest vineyard at Monte Bello for almost fifty years. I have made the wines, and directed the company as CEO and now continue that latter role as chairman, sharing it with the expertise and ideas of my team of more than twenty years. It has been a joy. It has never been work despite or because of my near total devotion to it. As an equal partner, then as CEO and now as Chairman, I have had the chance to choose what I want to do.
Winefullness Magazine: When I was last in Sonoma I was told that the best wine is made with the best beer. What's your favourite tipple?
Paul Draper: That’s a variation on the old expression in the wine country in California that “It takes a lot of beer to make wine.” When your winemaking crew are young “Anglos” they tended in the past to drink beer during crush. I don’t know if they still consume as much as they used to. At Ridge in the early ‘70’s we moved away from weed during crush for simple reasons of safety. As I spoke Spanish from my years in Chile, I brought the best of our vineyard workers into the winery as my crew as they are far more careful and dedicated than ambitious young “Anglos”. While the rest of the industry thought Latinos were only good for picking grapes and working in the vineyards, I had no such prejudices. So we were for years probably the only winery with a Latino winemaking crew. Several winemakers thought I had brought my mestizo Chilean campesinos up to Ridge because they were so ignorant of the quality of the work of Mexican mestizos.
There are only two “Anglos” in the winery and two in the vineyard. All the rest, seniority well over twenty years, are Spanish speaking as a first language and all American citizens. They drink good Mexican beer but only at parties and only occasionally at home. I guess that like any responsible operation with machinery and high catwalks and ladders, we don’t really want alcohol involved during working hours. My favourite tipple is Anchor Steam beer until recently made by my oldest friend Fritz Matag.
Winefullness: Is it possible to retire from winemaking? Don't you have a sneaky vine or three in your backyard that you have to visit each day?
Paul Draper: No. Not for me. As I write this, I’ve just finished a blind tasting with Eric Baugher of the 2016 Monte Bello and the 2016 Estate Cabernet to see if the estate is even better if we add a further amount of excellent press wine.
I continue as Chairman and put in about thirty percent of full time. For almost fifty years this has been my life’s work and it has never been work. My team, winemakers – Eric Baugher, here and John Olney at Lytton as well as David Gates as Director of Vineyard Operations have all been with me for well over twenty years. They are even more rigorous than I have been. Mark Vernon who I made CEO when I stepped back is approaching twenty years. David Amadia, marketing and now President has been with us for twelve. After my wife Maureen, daughter Caitlin and 5 year old grandson Caden and 1 year old granddaughter Brynn, as somewhat of a loner, my team is my extended family. No, I can’t really retire.