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.
Montebello’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.
The 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 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.