Monthly Archives: June 2009

Ridge Montebello

Montebello is perched in the Santa Cruz Mountains overlooking Silicon Valley.  Many of the world’s most esteemed commentators and winemakers are of the opinion that this vineyard produces America’s greatest wine.  Its reputation has grown steadily for fifty years under the stewardship of Ridge and its remarkable staff.

MontebelloMontebello’s story began thirty million years ago when the magma that resulted from the collision of the North American plate and the Pacific plate pushed a mound of marine sediment half a mile into the air.  It is still rises a bit every year.  These are limestone soils, which are very rare in California and highly prized for water retention and the calcium content that imparts flavor.

The high elevation combined with the proximity to the ocean results in a higher rainfall than any other growing region in the state.  Montebello is one of California’s few vineyards that is effectively able to be dry farmed.  Some irrigation is used to help young vines establish themselves.  Rainfall totals often range between 70 and 100 inches per year, which is three to four times as much rain as the Napa Valley.

The mountain was first developed in 1886 by an Italian family from San Francisco.  Prohibition destroyed the market for the wine and it was barely maintained; effectively abandoned by the 1940s.  The vineyard is still smaller than it was in 1920.

Four scientists from nearby Stanford purchased the property and founded Ridge in 1959.  Paul Draper, who is the chief winemaker and the face of the organization, joined the company in 1969.  The original winery was rehabbed and the first estate Montebello was the 1971 vintage, a highly prized wine because it competed in the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris Tasting.

Old Vine RidgeThe vineyard is planted in three tiers ranging from 1300 to 2660 feet in elevation.  Inversion pushes warm air from the valley to the top of the mountain; in March this aids budbreak, when the vine wakes from winter dormancy.  The hill is planted with Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  Chardonnay is present as well.  Chaparral bushes growing on the mountain add a black tea flavor to the wines.

The winemaking team strives to intervene as little as possible in the conversion from grape to wine.  The grapes are removed from their stems, then native, ambient yeasts convert sugar into alcohol.  The vineyard dictates the alcohol content, which is always less than fourteen percent and well below average for California.  The grapes hang on the vine into October, so they have plenty of time to take in nutrients and develop complexity.  Napa Valley producers have extended their harvest dates to October as well, but the warmer climate results in overripe fruit and higher alcohol levels.

Much of the fermentation occurs in a large tank and as the process finishes the wine is moved into oak barrels.  While the alcoholic fermentation winds down, the malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity and adds richness, is getting under way.  They have found that the residue  from this second fermentation tempers the influence of the oak barrels, all of which are new.

Ridge BarrelsRidge only uses American oak.  The forests and coopers are mainly in Missouri and Kentucky.  American oak has a terrible reputation, and rightly so.  It typically imparts a dill pickle and sawdust taste on the wine.  None of these flavors are found in Montebello.  The difference is in the cooperage. After a tree is cut down, the planks must be seasoned for two years before they can be made into barrels.  California coopers typically have the oak shipped from the Midwest to be dried in California.  Ridge asserts that the correct climate for seasoning is in the forest where the tree was grown.  The barrels are made locally and shipped complete, instead of being assembled in California.  This increases cost, but the difference in quality speaks for itself.

The commitment to quality American oak combined with the site’s elevation, rainfall and soil solidifies Montebello’s place as the great American wine.  It is the only top tier wine from a site that does not require irrigation and is completely a product of our country.


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Gypsy Canyon Angelica

While researching Santa Barbara I came across a very small winery that only produces three hundred and fifty cases per year called Gypsy Canyon.  The draw was one of the two wines made here – a dessert wine called Angelica.


I’ll begin with some geography.  Two mountain ranges form the north and south borders of the Santa Ynez Valley.  They funnel the cool ocean air and fog into the region.  The cooler, western portion of the valley has been granted its own region called Santa Rita Hills.  Canyons run between those mountains and are generally a bit warmer, especially as one moves away from the coast.  Gypsy Canyon is on the northern side of the valley and is closer to the ocean than most, but the morning fogs do not always make their way up the canyon to the vineyard.  


Gypsy CanyonDeborah Hall originally intended to plant a few acres of Pinot Noir to sell the local winemakers, but while the vines were being planted, some nearby brush was cleared to reveal an old vineyard of scraggly vines.  They were identified as a grape called Mission, which was originally brought to California by Spanish missionaries.  After researching the history of her property, she concluded that the vines were probably planted in 1887; that makes it the oldest vineyard in Santa Barbara County.


In the modern wine making era Mission has fallen out of favor because the table wine it produces has little character.  Deborah thought it a crime to let these old vines go unused, so she looked to the history of the missionaries for inspiration.  The mission in Santa Barbara has collected the annals from all the missions in California.  There she read correspondence among missionaries about the various wines they produced.  


Mission is a red-skinned grape, so it can be used to produce red and white wine.  For sacramental purposes, a table wine was produced.  The missionaries also made a wine for themselves and their guests called Angelica.  Deborah decided to make her own wines and resurrect this long lost style.  She follows the historic model as closely as she can.


The grapes for Angelica were left to hang on the vine as long as nature would allow, making them as ripe and as sweet as possible.  For Deborah, the Mission is harvested in the middle of December.  Both red and white versions of Angelica were made, but the white was more highly prized.  For the white, the grapes were pressed and the skins were quickly removed.  Halfway through the fermentation the wine was fortified with grape spirit, which raised the alcohol content, killed the yeast and protected the wine from oxygen.  This left some degree of sweetness in the partially-fermented wine.  


After fortification, it was transferred into barrels.  Typically a wine barrel is filled to the top to prevent oxygen from getting to the wine, but the Angelica barrels were only half-full.  This allowed oxygen to turn the wine an amber color and change the fruit characteristics.  When they were ready for a new batch of bottles, they blended wines from a few years to increase the complexity in what was akin to a solera system in Spain.


Deborah’s homage is an amber color with ruby highlights.  It tastes like butterscotch, toffee, sour cherries and orange-flavored liqueur.  In keeping with the historic theme, she sought out a glassmaker to individually craft each bottle.  The labels are handmade and the neck is dipped in beeswax.  She also signs every bottle.  


Her Pinot Noir is in similar packaging.  It was a very elegant style, perhaps the lightest I have had on the journey.  I would have never guessed that she had been working with wine, let alone a grape as difficult as Pinot Noir, for less than ten years.


Too few wines in California are able to claim a sense of the state’s viticultural history, and even less live up to the quality of the reputation.  Deborah’s Angelica succeeds on both fronts.



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Arcadian Winery

ArcadianDue to my choice of route and my penchant for the grapes, Pinot Noir  and Chardonnay have been my primary focus thus far on my journey.  Arcadian is producing wines that outshine many of the producers in Burgundy, France, where the grapes originated.  

Joe Davis is a strong believer that great wine is made in the vineyard.  He secures long-term contracts with the landowners and spends much of the growing season among the vines.  In Santa Barbara County, he works with fruit from the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills.  He also sources from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.  

Many of the producers in the Santa Rita Hills promote the unique natural conditions that shape the longest growing season in the world, with budbreak in February and harvest often lasting into November.  In the case of the 2005 Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir, Joe began his harvest on September 4th.  Also in contrast to the prevailing wisdom that praises the 2007 vintage as the best the region has seen, Joe considers 2005 to be the best vintage of the decade.  

Joe seeks fruit that is balanced with an emphasis on acidity which lends his wines their structure and potential for aging.  He finds many of the wines produced in California to be like mushy, overripe apples; they are soft, but they fall apart.  I had always thought of higher alcohol wines as possessing a fuller body, but Joe’s wines check in around 13.5% alcohol and have more structure and density than the high alcohol examples.  

His Chardonnays are equally impressive.  They had a nutty, creamy texture with fruits like lime, golden apple and pears.  Joe compares barrels to salt, just the right amount adds a great deal to a wine, but too much assaults the palate.  The barrels spiced 2005 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands with a cinnamon flavor.

Joe also makes Syrah from the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Santa Ynez Valley.  He finds a natural progression to Syrah from Pinot Noir, with many of the same production processes.  The grapes are treated a bit differently during the fermentation with a longer maceration time and less foot treading.  

Over the course of my time in the restaurant and retail sides of the business I never had a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay from California that approached the quality of Arcadian.  Joe Davis’ wines are the gold standard.

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