My favorite winery in America: Ridge Vineyards, Spring 2024 offering

This offer is available from Friday, 5 April 2024 to Sunday, 7 April 2024, or as supplies last. First come, first served on all wines. All wines are sold through Solo Vino Wine Shop in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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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 gems from Ridge Vineyards.

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

Before we get into some stories from the winery, here is the insider’s scoop on how these wines are distributed.

Ridge sells 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 wide 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.

Why Ridge Vineyards is so so so special

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 young and talented winemakers over the years, becoming a zen-master winemaking mentor for them.

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 88 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 on the block 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!!!



THE THREE WINES IN TODAY’S OFFER

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 three of the best here.

2022 Ridge Grenache Blanc (the best in the world)

This wine is stunning, simple as that. And I think it’s the top Grenache Blanc made in the world. I’m not kidding (sorry, France).

It’s 85% Grenache Blanc and 15% Picpoul, from three vineyards in Paso Robles. This is key, because another favorite winery, Tablas Creek, is the winery that introduced these varieties to that region thirty years ago. Where did the vine cuttings come from that made these vineyards? Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape!

93 Points Wine Enthusiast: “This bottling from three vineyards employs 14% Picpoul to add acidic heft to the formula, which checks off so many white-wine boxes. Aromas of sliced peach, coconut and macadamia nut are cut by crushed stone and chalk on the nose. The palate is rounded in salted peach and melon flavors, but remains vibrant in acidity and firm in texture long into the finish.”

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!

2021 Ridge Lytton Springs

This is the best young Lytton Springs that I have ever experienced, and I’ve had them upon release every vintage since 1996.

The historical nature of this property alone justifies having some Lytton Springs in your collection. But this 2021 is off the charts good. I’ll let the Vinous review below give the details. In the meantime, here are some videos!

Vinous: 95+ Points “The 2021 Lytton Springs is fabulous. Bright and vibrant to its core, the 2021 impresses with its poise. Readers will find a Lytton Springs that is very much in reserve, as opposed to the rest of the 2021s in this report, all of which are more approachable. Salivating acids and veins of tannin lend shape and persistence, but the 2021 needs time. Red cherry fruit, blood orange, rose petal and sage are some of the notes that linger on the close.” -Antonio Galloni (October 2023)

2021 Ridge Three Valleys

The Three Valleys bottling (referring to Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Sonoma Valley) represents the “welcome to Ridge Vineyards” wine. It’s their most affordable selection, with pricing that allows some restaurants to offer it by the glass. (Head to Café Latte on Grand Avenue for the best price.) The 2021 vintage marks the 20th anniversary of this label.

It’s a blend of multiple old vineyard sites, and multiple varieties. Every year it adjusts slightly to best showcase a “Ridge style” while still being approachable and affordable after 12 months in the barrel.

I’ll be honest: I think the Three Valleys took about ten years to find its style and footing. The wines were for sure good between the 2001 and 2010 vintage, but the quality really started to take off around 2015 and 2016. Now, the crew at Ridge has this dialed in.

What this wine is NOT: a big, brawny, high-alcohol, massive juice bomb.

What this wine IS: a beautiful, elegant, detailed-filled wine that is perfectly balanced.

Wine & Spirits: 93 Points “Drawing on fruit from ten Sonoma County vineyards, in 2021 Three Valleys presents a cornucopia of fruit in a classical blend that feels like an exuberant family relation to Geyserville. It’s ripe, and rich in structure under all that fruit energy—black mineral tannins in the service of the fruit combining in dark chocolate and mushroom notes. All of it needs time to integrate, but, even now, the tannins keep opening like a door to the land.” -J.G. (March 2024)

Wine Spectator: 92 Points “A broad-shouldered red, with a potent structure but expressive blackberry, savory dill and white pepper flavors that speed toward medium-grained tannins. Zinfandel, Peite Sirah, Syrah, and Alicante Bouschet. Drink now through 2033.” -T.F. (February 2024)

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 bang for the buck, the Three Valleys can’t be beat.

And to get ready for summertime wine enjoyment, the Grenache Blanc is a showstopper.

We’ve priced out the wines both per bottle and as a 3pk and 6pk.

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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