Exclusive offer: 10/21/2022 – My favorite domestic winery: Ridge Vineyards

This offer is available from Friday, October 21st at 3:00 pm to Sunday, October 23rd at 3:00 pm, or as supplies last. First come, first served on all wines.

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The clouds/fog line below the Monte Bello ridge, Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo from Ridge Vineyards.

The top of the mountain, the top of the world: Ridge Vineyards

This is my favorite wine brand in America and easily top ten in the world. They own the most intriguing properties on the west coast. They have proven time and time again that a steady hand wins the race.

And today, we’re able to offer you some wines from Ridge Vineyards. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.

Before we get into some stories from the winery, here is the insider’s scoop on why we’ve been waiting so long. Ridge has always sold their wines to distributors worldwide on a twice-a-year system (the spring release and the fall release). Depending on the circumstances of the moment (economic, pandemic, etc.), which influence the ability of restaurants to buy the wines, a certain percentage will be opened up for retailers. Thus, it’s a moving target for a wine shop. A little here, a little there, rarely a range of wines simultaneously.

Coming off a bountiful vintage but slow restaurant sales, more is suddenly available for a local wine shop. But flip the equation to a low-yielding vintage and a hot economy, and all of a sudden, it’s allocated severely to a wine shop, and they may get only one case of a particular wine.

It can be frustrating, but there’s a method behind the system: careful control of the brand from the winery standpoint. Notice how you never see Ridge on a closeout shelf or offered through flash sale websites?

I respect this immensely. I’ve been in the wine business long enough to see brands tank themselves in a matter of 12 months by selling to the wrong people at the wrong price. The integrity, and thus the demand, evaporate.

Well, the stars have aligned this week. A small amount of four of their wines has been made available to us. This is a rare opportunity.

Why Ridge Vineyards is so special

I could talk about the historic property at Monte Bello, but I’ll let a video below tell that story.

I could talk about the old Lytton Springs vineyard, holy ground, in my opinion, but again I’ll let an excellent video below tell that story as well.

What makes Ridge Vineyards so unique? Over fifty vintages produced from single parcels of very special old vine vineyards, with winemaking that is European in style and “pre-industrial” in execution, with native yeasts, no additives, and transparency in every step.

Ridge is the original “natural wine,” decades before it became a thing.

So what is “pre-industrial” wine?

Another thing that makes Ridge Vineyards so special is the legacy of Paul Draper.

Draper was brought onto the Ridge Vineyards project in 1969 when the owners needed someone with more winemaking acumen and background to carry the brand forward. Draper, a philosophy major, was one of the first to study serious winemaking in Chile and had an encyclopedic background in the wines of Europe. One taste from one barrel on the Monte Bello property, and he knew the potential of Ridge Vineyards.

Draper is still around today, living in the house at the top of the Monte Bello ridge and Ridge’s Chairman of the Board. He’s passed the winemaking baton to John Olney, who has Minnesota connections and is the nephew of the legendary chef Richard Olney.

Another thing I love about Ridge is the consistency of the labels, which have remained unchanged for over 50 years.

Few brands in the world are like this, and no others in America. They are the best labels around, with clear information, total transparency (with an ingredient list), and information about that particular harvest.

Photo from The Underground Wine Letter

Selling Ridge twenty years ago

I was lucky enough to represent Ridge Vineyards in Minnesota on the wholesale level from 2001 to 2010.

And believe it or not, it was sometimes a tough sell.

The 2000s was the era of the critics. While Robert Parker and Wine Spectator have always enjoyed and appreciated Ridge, in the 2000s, the wines were not as loud or as high in alcohol as their peers. While a 17%+ ABV Martinelli Zinfandel (which was basically undrinkable, IMHO) got 99 points, the same vintage of Ridge Lytton Springs (14.5%) would get 89 points. What’s fascinating today is that many critics’ tastes have swung back to reality, realizing that you don’t need to get hit over the head with the alcohol bat to enjoy a glass of wine, and are giving higher scores than ever to Ridge.

But here’s the rub: Ridge has NEVER changed their winemaking style. A Lytton Springs today is made the same as it was 10, 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years ago.

It’s the critics who have changed.

Fast forward to The New California Wine

The book The New California Wine by Jon Bonné was published in 2013 and changed the landscape. As the former wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bonné wielded a ton of clout.

In the book, he outlined his appreciation for lower alcohols, older vineyards, and the new generation of winemakers that were looking to the past for guidance into the future. The old-school wines of Corison, Randy Dunn, and Philip Togni were held up in the highest esteem. The new kids like Bedrock, Horse and Plow, and Gamling & McDuck were highlighted.

Reverence for the old vineyards and what the first generations of winemakers in the 1800s brought to California dripped from the pages.

And what winery was mentioned more than all others? Ridge Vineyards.

Explaining the Ridge properties and vineyards

Ridge is all about single vineyard expressions of place, with one exception: a wine called Three Valleys which is blended from multiple properties and is a door-opener for placing Ridge on a wine list.

They have two wineries: one in Sonoma just outside of Healdsburg, on the Lytton Springs property. The other is on the Santa Cruz Mountains above Silicon Valley (south of San Francisco), where the historical Monte Bello property is located. I’ve been to both many times, and every experience is as unique as it comes. Be sure to put both on your bucket list to visit.

Ridge began as a Cabernet house, with a bit of Merlot, Cab Franc, and Chardonnay as well. But those grapes need more time in the barrel, and to make the business viable, Paul Draper went hunting in the early 1970s for old vine Zinfandel vineyards because Zinfandel would be faster-to-market and would keep the cash flow coming.

His search led to discovering some of the most incredible vineyards of California: the gnarly, head-trained, old plantings of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Mourvèdre, and many other grapes often planted by the first generation of Italians to arrive in the late 1800s. These vineyards were established, organic, and self-regulating, allowing for a true expression of terroir. Draper jumped on the change to sign long-term contracts.

The history of Ridge

Ridge Vineyards, more so than ANY other winery in the country, has built a media infrastructure that is second to none, including live stream interviews with the winemakers for the spring and fall releases and high-production videos on the single vineyards and history of the brand. This is something more wineries need to emulate!

Here is one of my favorites. THIS IS A MUST-WATCH!!!


Over the course of a calendar year, roughly 12 Ridge wines will circulate through the Twin Cities market. As mentioned earlier, there is a spring release and a fall release, each of which is sold with a preference toward restaurants, knowing these wines will then be available to more consumers for a longer window of time. But a little bit comes to retailers; we have four of the best here.

The Monte Bello property (where the Chard and Cab are from)

Map from Ridge Vineyards

Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2020

There are two Chardonnays that Ridge makes: the Monte Bello Chardonnay and the Estate Chardonnay. Both are from the same property, the historic vineyards atop the Santa Cruz Mountains. You can think of the Monte Bello as the Grand Cru (which always reminds me of a Corton-Charlemagne) and the Estate as a Premier Cru (which always reminds me of one of my favorite Premier Cru White Burgundy vineyards, Le Perriers in Meursault).

Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Like the Chardonnay, the difference between the Monte Bello bottling and this one is a bit of a “Grand Cru / Premier Cru” relationship. The Ridge Monte Bello is the top wine made in America, without any doubt or any question. It’s hard to find, and it’s very expensive (the current release approaches $300 a bottle). But THIS wine is from the same vineyards, same hills, and same winemaker.

The Lytton Springs property

Ridge Lytton Springs vineyard. Photo from Ridge Vineyards.

The Lytton Springs property is one of the greatest old vineyards of California, located just west of highway 101 near Healdsburg. It’s a field blend planting, and Ridge has cataloged every vine. Here’s what is so intriguing: old vines in that vineyard are of unknown varieties. Even cuttings sent to UC Davis for DNA analysis come back with nothing. How cool is that?

The Lytton Springs, along with the Geyserville from Alexander Valley, are the two wines Ridge is best known for. Both of these Zinfandel-based wines have proven to age gracefully and increase in complexity with time. The oldest Lytton Springs I’ve had was 1975 (enjoyed in 2014) which smelled like first-growth Bordeaux. Seriously!

Ridge Lytton Springs 2020

Ridge Lytton Estate Petite Sirah 2019

There is a section of the Lytton Estate that is Petite Sirah focused, and on the suitable vintages, the winery will separate the Petite Sirah and bottle it independently. This is one of my favorite wines for wintertime drinking, especially with anything braised off the grill. It’s also one of the few wines to really showcase the heights that Petite Sirah is capable of.

And here’s a video from just two weeks ago showcasing the 2022 Petite Sirah harvest at Lytton Springs.

Jason’s Buying Advice

The simple answer is “buy them all.” But let’s get a bit more granular than that.

In terms of historic properties, Lytton Springs is the way to go. Zinfandel-based, age-worthy (though tasting GREAT right out of the gate), old vines, and all the style and panache that this property has historically brought to a bottle of wine.

In terms of bold, focused, great-for-winter-wine, the Lytton Estate Petite Sirah is just incredible. I honestly can’t imagine a better wine with a pot roast or braised lamb shanks. When we get those first days of single-digit temperatures, fire up the oven and pop this bottle.

In terms of being a showstopper, the Estate Chardonnay wins the prize. Anyone who has started to dismiss Chardonnay or muttered, “they are all the same” needs to try this to rediscover what we all know deep in our wine hearts: Chardonnay is one of the most extraordinary grapes in the world. The added benefit to this wine is the hands-off winemaking, allowing you to experience the terroir of the Monte Bello property. (And a little secret for you: I enjoy this wine MORE than its big brother, the Monte Bello Chardonnay. It has a bit more focus and verve, which is what I like in a Chard.)

In terms of tasting a legendary wine, the Estate Cabernet is the way to go. There is nowhere like the upper reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and as John Olney mentioned in the video, in this youthful state, this wine is hard to differentiate from the much more expensive Monte Bello. It’s also one of the best gifts that you can give a wine lover.

I’ll leave you with this. A 1983 broadcast of Julia Child speaking with Paul Draper. It’s a time capsule, but so cool to know that the wines you can buy today have a direct linage to the wines in this video. (And if you watch carefully, at 59 seconds in, you’ll spot what I call a ‘Sasquatch wine’ … a wine nobody knew if it really existed … the rarely documented Ridge White Zinfandel! 🙂

Happy shopping, and thank you again for supporting what we do.

Jason Kallsen
Sommelier and founder/owner of Twin Cities Wine Education

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