Monte Bello Cabernet, from the original vineyards on Monte Bello ridge, is recognised as one of the great Bordeaux-style wines of California, frequently beating its French competitors in blind tastings.

THERE IS AN intellectual strain running through Ridge winery in California. Originally founded by a doctor, then revived, first by a theologian and more recently by a group of research scientists, its legendary winemaker majored in philosophy before turning to more mundane matters such as wine. In its most recent incarnation, Ridge started out as a hobby for four engineers from nearby Stanford Research Institute. They spent their weekends at the century-old winery, tending vines and making wine. As their favourite wines were red Bordeaux and white Burgundy, they planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. High up in the hills overlooking Silicon Valley, it was cooler than the other regions, but above the damp cold fog that sweeps in most days.

The original winery had been built in 1890 by a prominent San Francisco doctor of Italian descent. Like most wineries in California, it was abandoned during prohibition. In the 1940s, theologian William Short bought the winery and planted some Cabernet Sauvignon, which is still in use today. The new owners slowly renovated the winery, but retained many of the original features.

The first wine was made in 1959, the first commercial vintage in 1962. This was long before California became known as a quality wine-producing area; the competition made cheap jug wine generally labelled Chablis or Burgundy.

Ridge was the first to use a vineyard name on its label, and one of the first to state the grape variety. In the late 1960s and 1970s, it began searching out and making wine from old Zinfandel vineyards. Over the years, it has produced wines from more than 100 plots. This has now been narrowed down to about 15 carefully selected sites running from San Luis Obispo in the south to the Alexander Valley in the north.

The company owns just three of these vineyards, Monte Bello (the original vineyard), Lytton Springs and Geyserville, buying grapes from the remainder. In 1969, the company was joined by Stanford philosophy graduate Paul Draper, who made the wines for the next 40 years, crafting a range of idiosyncratic wines that went against everything else that was then fashionable in California. Draper preferred less alcoholic wines that reflected the soil on which they were grown. He also championed the semi-native Zinfandel. Today, Monte Bello Cabernet, from the original vineyards on Monte Bello ridge, is recognised as one of the great Bordeaux-style wines of California, frequently beating its French competitors in blind tastings, the most famous being in the “Judgment of Paris”. The Ridge Zinfandels (they make no less than 12), have a similar reputation among aficionados of that grape. Geyserville and Lytton Springs are the best-known.

Ridge Monte Bello 2010 & 2011

Ridge Available at JN

Ridge wines are unique for many reasons; the refusal to blend wines from different vineyards (this means 26 different wines each year); the use of American oak, where other upmarket producers prefer more expensive French barrels; the old-style winemaking, using natural yeasts and no filtration; the addition of a small proportion of other grape varieties in each wine. This makes for distinctive wines with real personality, often enjoyed by wine-drinkers who shun other New World wines.

Can wines at €40 and €100 be considered bargains? Compared to the fabulously expensive superstar wines from the Napa Valley and other parts of California, Ridge wines have always been fairly priced. In my experience, they also deliver every year. Of the limited range available in Ireland, it is only the Chardonnay that I find less than inspiring, although those who enjoy powerful oaky white wines might disagree. But the red wines are always impressive – opulent but never excessive, with complex earthy, spicy, dark fruits and real mineral depth.

Eric Baugher, the current winemaker, said on a recent visit to Dublin: “Ridge is all about letting the terroir and the grapes do the work on their own.”