Recently I had the privilege of interviewing Paul Draper, winemaker for Ridge Vineyards since 1969, over lunch. Without a doubt he is my favorite winemaker in America—not just for the wines he produces, but also for his views, his techniques, his beliefs and his inexhaustible curiosity and interest in wine. At age 71, he is as spry of mind and youthful of spirit as I could ever imagine anyone being.
As for the wines, they speak for themselves. Last year there was a recreation of the 1976 Paris tasting, the legendary competitive tasting of top California and French wines in which a wine from CA won (the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet). This victory stunned the wine world and gave California the global legitimacy that jump-started our wine industry. Anyway, all the same wines were re-entered and judged by panels of the world’s most famous and talented wine tasters. The Ridge Monte Bello 1971 blew away all other competition by a large margin. In a side tasting with the same experts, leading California Cabs from recent vintages were pitted against each other, and, again, Ridge won—this time with its 2000 vintage Monte Bello. The conclusion to be drawn from this is: Ridge Monte Bello is California’s top Cabernet-based wine and has been for almost 40 years, although it gets little fanfare these days. I guess that’s the price of being too good for too long.
But to meet Paul Draper is to realize why Ridge has had nearly 40 years of extended success. He quoted De Gaulle who said, “Any enterprise that does not have a transcendent purpose is never going to achieve gratification.” Draper went on to say, “I think that’s true. If all you’re doing is making, manufacturing this wine and you don’t have a vision that transcends that simple bottom line, the wine, the endeavor is never really going to be great or it’s never going to be as great as it could be.”
Draper has a transcendent purpose. It is called Truth. He makes wine—wonderful Zins, majestic Cabernets, and ethereal Chardonnays—that, as directly as possible, expresses the nature of the land and year it comes from; that employs honest and direct winemaking to migrate the collective soul of a vineyard into a wine; and that harnesses the power of life on earth without stealing from or compromising the health of the environment.
During lunch, we each testified as to our love of naturally made, lower alcohol, new-oak unadorned, dry-farmed wine from well-chosen and developed sites. “If only most of the wine in California could be like that,” Draper exclaimed. And I couldn’t agree with him more.