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Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello Retrospective Dinner

Paul DraperThe Ridge Vineyards Retrospective Dinner with Paul Draper took place at the elegant Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara on April 4, 2009.  The dinner was presented on behalf of the 2008 Central Coast Wine Classic by wine collectors John and Laurie Tilson of Montecito who contributed the wines from their collection.  This great event, an auction lot in last year’s Wine Classic, was hosted by Archie McLaren, Founder and Chairman of the Central Coast Wine Classic and Carissa Chappellet, Chappellet Winery Director.

The Wine Classic, now in its 25th year, is one of America’s most successful charity wine auctions, thanks to the efforts of the renowned, multi-talented Archie McLaren.  The Wine Classic, a prestigious and comprehensive wine and food extravaganza that takes place at Avila Beach every year in July, offers for auction an eclectic array of fine wine, art works and wine- and food-oriented lifestyle packages that range from the Central Coast to Europe.

This historic evening featured 16 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignons, a Barrel Sample of Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon and a Monte Bello Chardonnay, all of which were tasted at a dinner for 42 persons.  The Tilsons also provided rare Champagne and a Sparkling Rose to accompany the dinner.

All of these wines have been impeccably stored from the time that John Tilson acquired them from Ridge upon their release.


The history of Ridge Vineyards begins in 1885, when Osea Perrone, a doctor who became a prominent member of San Francisco’s Italian community, bought 180 acres near the top of Monte Bello Ridge.  He terraced the slopes and planted vineyards; using native limestone, he constructed the Monte Bello Winery, producing the first vintage under that name in 1892.  This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility.

Ridge.DSC_0009At 2,600 feet of altitude, Monte Bello is surrounded by the “upper vineyard.”  In the 1940s, William Short, a theologian, bought the abandoned winery and vineyard just below the Perrone property; he replanted several parcels to Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1940s.  From these vines – now the “middle vineyard” – new owners Dave Bennion and his three partners, all Stanford Research Institute engineers, made a quarter-barrel of “Estate” Cabernet in 1959.  That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era.  Its quality and distinctive character, and the wines produced from these same vines in 1960 and 1961 (the grapes were sold to other wineries), convinced the partners to re-bond the winery in time for the 1962 vintage, Ridge’s first commercial vintage.

The first Zinfandel was made in 1964, from a small 19th Century vineyard farther down the ridge.  This was followed in 1966 by the first Geyserville Zinfandel.  The founding families reclaimed the Monte Bello terraces, increasing vineyard size from 15 to 45 acres.  Working on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity.

By 1968, production had increased to just fewer than 3,000 cases per year, and in 1969, Paul Draper joined the partnership.  A Stanford graduate in philosophy, recently returned from setting up a winery in Chile’s coast range, Paul was a practical winemaker, not an enologist.  His knowledge of fine wines and traditional methods complemented the straightforward “hands off” approach pioneered at Ridge.  Under his guidance, the old Perrone winery (acquired the previous year) was restored; the finest vineyard lands leased or purchased, the consistent quality and international reputation of the wines established.

In 1970, English wine writer, Harry Waugh, a former director of Chateau Latour, visited Ridge and, on tasting the 1959 Monte Bello, called Ridge “the Chateau Latour of California.”

The Monte Bello (originally Monte Bello Cabernet; until 1975, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon) is the wine that introduced Ridge to the world; and the world to Ridge.  Today it is a blend of Bordeaux varietals in which Cabernet Sauvignon still predominates.  Exhaustive tasting of test blends during assemblage determines how much, if any, Merlot, Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc will be included in the finished wine.  Almost every vintage (an unbroken chain from 1962 on) has something substantive to recommend it.  Each decade has its high points, but year after year Monte Bello proves to be a consistently outstanding wine, with great structure,  complexity and balance.  And it develops for a very long time.

Ridge Monte Bello’s original prominence worldwide came when the 1971 vintage was entered in the famous Judgment of Paris Tasting of 1976, a blind tasting, where it came in 5th out of 10 wines, behind Stag’s Leap, Mouton Rothschild, Montrose and Haut-Brion.  In the Paris Tasting 30th Anniversary Reenactment that took place in the Napa Valley and in London on May 24, 2006, again in blind tasting format, judges on both continents awarded top honors to the 1971 Ridge Monte Bello.


The Monte Bello wines presented at this tasting were from most of the best vintages of the 1980s and some of the 1990s as well as several from the 2000s.  Four Seasons Biltmore Executive Chef Martin Frost created a fabulous dinner to complement the outstanding Ridge Monte Bello wines.  A reception preceded the dinner offering delightfully tasty and creative hors d’oeuvres paired the 1995 Tsarine Champagne and a Barrel Sample of the 2008 Monte Bello.

The dinner commenced with House-Smoked Copper River Salmon and Carpaccio of Jicama and Golden Beets, a delicious backdrop for the 1999 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay.

The second course, Wild Mushroom Lasagna and Braised Fennel & Sunchoke Coulis, was beautifully matched with Monte Bello Cabernets from the vintages of 2004, 2003, 2001 and 2000.

Four Monte Bello wines from 1999, 1998, 1997 and 1996 were perfect complements for a Crisp Sous Vide Pork Belly and Farmers Market Baby Beets & Beetroot Coulis.

A fourth course presented Roast Squab with Foie Gras Stuffing and Apple, St. Andre Brulee Crostini & Huckleberry Essence, accompanied by Monte Bello wines from 1993, 1992, 1990 and 1989.

Four vintages of Monte Bello, 1987, 1986, 1985 and 1984 were an exceptional match for Roast Venison Loin, Sun Drenched Cherry Crust, Chanterelle & Fingerling Potato Galette, Stuffed Zucchini Blossom & Fava Beans.

A wonderful finale, Raspberry Semifreddo & Poached Pear Canola with Assorted Chocolates, was complemented by Alain Renardat Vin du Bugey “Cerdon” Sparkling Rose.


1999 Monte Bello Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains. (14.5% alcohol)

Ridge produced its first Monte Bello Chardonnay in 1962, from 14-year-old vines on the estate vineyard.  In 1985, when other vineyards on the ridge were included, the designation was changed to Santa Cruz Mountains.  In 1999, only estate-grown grapes were used to produce a Monte Bello.  The four parcels were harvested in late October and the wine was bottled in February 2001.

Light golden in color, the wine has a deep perfume, honied, with hints of citrus and spice.  Honied flavors are laced with citrus and spice.  It is rich, full, lush and round on the palate, with a long finish.  Delicious wine now, it’s at a peak.

Highly Recommended. 2stars

lower winery21984 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains. (93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 12.9% alcohol)

1984 was an excellent vintage.  The old vines achieved equilibrium between yield and vigor and the natural acidity held.  Each block was harvested separately and in January assemblage began using the finest lots to make Monte Bello. The wine was bottled in June 1986.

Deep color, with an amber tone and rim, the wine reveals a deep perfume of cedar and berries, with a touch of spice.  It has lots of flavor, rich and complex, with a good backbone and a long finish — a terrific wine.

Outstanding. 3stars

1985 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains. (93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 13.1% alcohol)

1985 was perfect, a typical vintage.  Harvesting began during the last week in September, finishing slightly earlier than usual in the second week of October.  In 1985, 45% of the production was not included in the Monte Bello.  The softer wines will be released as Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet.  The wine was bottled in May 1987.

The wine is dark in color, with an amber tone and rim, and has a deep perfume of cedar and berries.  Rich, rounded, complex and lush, the finish is long and lingering –a lovely wine.

Outstanding. 3stars

1986 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains. (95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 11.9% alcohol)

In 1986, the growing season was cooler and yields were good.  The wine was bottled in July 1988.

A dark colored wine, with an amber tone and rim, it has a lovely perfume of earth and cedar.  It is elegant, showing nice fruit , with flavors of earth, cedar and berries — very tasty.

Highly Recommended. 2stars

1987 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains. (92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 11.7% alcohol)

In 1987, unseasonably warm weather in early spring pushed the flowering ahead of past years, and just as the berries began to set, cold, windy weather arrived to interfere with the process.  As result there was 70% less crop than normal, about one-half per acre.  The wine was bottled in June 1989.

The dark, amber-toned color and perfume of berries, plums and cedar are both lovely.  Plummy flavors, with berry fruit and nuances of spice are rich, round and supple — a really tasty wine.

Highly Recommended. 2stars

1989 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot, 13.4% alcohol)

A cool growing season in 1989, followed by a fortuitous Indian summer fully ripened all but the highest, most exposed vines on Monte Bello Ridge.  The wine was bottled in February 1991.

Deep color, with an amber edge, the wine offers a lovely berry perfume, hinting of cedar.  Rich, supple cedary and berry flavors are delightful — a delicious wine.

Outstanding. 3stars

1990 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 13.5% alcohol)

In 1990, the growing season began late so that set (fruit formation) was not complete until late June.  As warm summer days ripened the fruit, cool nights helped maintain firm acidity.  Harvest began in early October and ended in late October.  The wine was bottled in March 1992.

The wine shows a deep color and a subdued nose, hinting of cedar and blackberry. Rich and firmly structured, it is very flavorful, with nuances of berries, cedar and vanilla.  It opens with air but still needs time.

Highly Recommended. 2stars

1992 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 13.4% alcohol)

After late spring rains in 1992, mild weather allowed the vines to set a full crop.  A third of the clusters were dropped for concentration.  A perfect summer and warm October provided mature fruit and firm acidity.  The wine was bottled in April 1994.

Deep in color, it has a lovely perfume of cedar, plum and berries.  The plummy, cedary, berry fruit is lush, supple and balanced, ending in a long berry finish.  Aging beautifully, this is a delicious wine.

Outstanding. 3stars

1993 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, 12.9% alcohol.)

Benign spring rains in 1993 delayed the start of the growing season.  A quarter of the crop was dropped at set, giving the remaining grapes their best chance to mature by harvest.  Cool nights contributed exceptionally firm acidity and very welcome warm days in mid-October fully ripened the flavors in the fruit.   The wine was bottled in May 1995.

Deep colored, with a faint amber edge, the wine displays a lovely perfume of cedar, cassis and berry.  The berry fruit is lush, supple and balanced.   A delicious wine, it will keep.

Outstanding. 3stars

1996 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 13.2% alcohol)

An extremely short crop in 1996 was largely attributable to a disruptive storm in mid-May and the two weeks of blustery weather that followed.  Yields at the upper and middle elevations were down by 40% and at the lower elevation by 60%.  Despite record-high daytime temperatures, cool nights maintained firm acidity and well-defined fruit.  The wine was bottled in May 1998.

A deep-colored wine, it has a deep perfume of berries and cassis, with a touch of cedar.  In the mouth, it offers lots of fruit that is rich and flavorful with intense berry flavor.  Balanced and structured, ending in a long finish, this is a stunning wine, with a long life ahead.  A classic wine, it will continue to develop and gain complexity for many years.

Extraordinary.  4stars

1997 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 12.9% alcohol)

The 1997 vintage was among the most unusual of Ridge’s 37-year history, beginning with torrential winter rains, followed by a long, mild spring.  Flowering and fruit set began much earlier than usual (the earliest vintage since 1962), producing the largest crop ever from the low-yield vineyards.  The wine was bottled in May 1999.

The wine is deep in color and has a subdued nose of berry fruit.  Rich, supple, flavorful, it still has some tannin and is powerful yet elegant.  Opening with air, the wine needs time.

Outstanding. 3stars

1998 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc, 12.4% alcohol)

In 1998, a very late spring interfered with the grapes’ flowering and set, reducing crop from the outset, and moving the whole growing season back by a month.  After a light rain in August, October turned warm. Sunny weather through mid-November ripened all the grapes, although later than ever before.  The wine was bottled in April 2000.

A deep-colored wine, it offers a lovely perfume of cassis, berries and nuances of cedar.  Very nice berry flavors have a touch of cedar.  A supple, elegant wine, it will keep.

Highly Recommended. 2stars

1999 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot, 13.0% alcohol)

In 1999, spring was cold and rainy, delaying flowering and set.  Clement weather followed in summer allowing a perfect set.  After severe thinning, yields were still two and a half tons per acre, equaling 1997’s record.  Harvesting of the separate parcels as they ripened, took place from the end of October through mid-November. The wine was bottled in March 2001.

Deep in color, the wine has a lovely deep perfume, laced with earth, cedar and berries.  The berry and cedar flavors are rich and supple.  Fruit opens with air.  This wine needs time.

Outstanding. 3stars

2000 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 13.4% alcohol)

In 2000, the growing season began on schedule.  Cold, wet winds off the Pacific in early June caught the vines in bloom, reducing the number and size of the berries, while improving the odds for ripeness and intensity at harvest.  Despite several very warm days in August and again in September, the season was cool.  The wine was bottled in May 2002.

Deep in color, the wine displays a lovely perfume of berries and cedar, etched with spice.  It shows a great purity of fruit, with lovely berry flavors, hinting of cedar and spice and is balanced, ending in a long finish.  Delicious wine, superb, it is already drinking well, but will keep 10-20 years — no hurry.

Outstanding. 3stars

2001 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 14.2% alcohol)

Monte Bello’s 40th vintage, the 2001, began with a cold winter and abundant rain.  Spring was early and summer temperatures generally moderate, with brief periods of intense heat.  The early start and lack of rain stressed the unirrigated vines by late August.  Each parcel was picked as it ripened and harvest was over in the second week of October.  The wine was bottled in April 2003.

A deep-colored wine, it has a great perfume of berries, plums and cedar, with a touch of spice.  On the palate, it has great flavor and intensity of fruit, showing berry, plum and cedar flavors, with some tannin.  The wine needs time.

Highly Recommended. 2stars

2003 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, 13.2% alcohol)

In 2003, budbreak came early, but cold, wet weather in April and May delayed bloom.  Summer conditions varied more than usual among the lower, middle, and highest vineyards.  The first were often bathed in morning fog; the second, above the fog, more sheltered, and the last most exposed to the ocean’s capricious influence.  The vines ripened over the first three weeks of October, with the middle blocks dominating the selection, making up more than three-quarters of the wine.  The wine was bottled in August 2005.

This wine has a deep color and a great perfume, very intense, of blackberry and cedar.  Lots of blackberry fruit, with nuances of cedar, are on the palate. It is full, intense and well-balanced, ending in a long finish.  Quite forward, this is a stunning wine that will still keep 10-20 years.

Extraordinary. 4stars

2004 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc, 13.2% alcohol)

In 2004, winter rains were scarce and total rainfall down 25%.  Budbreak came early, but bloom was late, delayed by cold April weather.  Having set a small crop for the third consecutive year, the vines required little thinning.  Harvest began on schedule, with most parcels picked in the first two weeks of October.  Four days later, heavy rains drenched the remaining grapes, a quarter of the crop.  Fortunately, sun and wind dried the clusters fully before the next storm, and harvest finished with no damage to the fruit.  The wine was bottled in April 2006.

The color is deep and the perfume of berries, vanilla and cedar is lovely. Well-structured, it has rich fruit, with flavors of berries, vanilla and cedar, ending in a long finish.  This is a wine for the future.

Outstanding. 3stars

2008 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Cruz Mountains.

(Barrel Sample, current blend 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot)  In 2008, three storms delivered torrential rains, fierce winds, and significant erosion.  A warm February brought early budbreak in Merlot and Chardonnay, but March’s cold weather delayed Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.  After a severe frost in early April, bloom came during a period of intense heat and wind in mid-May, further reducing yields, but the vines managed well through the rest of the growing season despite the lack of spring rain.  Summer was warm but the cooling influence of the Pacific moderated temperatures.  The changing color of the grape berries finished by the third week of August. 

Very dark color.  Deep stunning perfume of mulberry, blackberry, floral notes, cedar and vanilla.  Rich, great balance, supple, great purity of fruit.  Dense.  Blackberry, cedar and vanilla flavors.  Delicious.  Long finish.  Great promise of richness, complexity and elegance.  A great Monte Bello in the making.  Don’t miss this one.  Exceptional Potential.


This is the fifth major tasting of Ridge wine we’ve conducted over the years, beginning in 1991 when 25 Monte Bellos from 1962 to 1989 were tasted (Rarities, Volume I, #2).  Listed in order of preference, 11 were outstanding: 1968, 1962, 1964, 1970, 1972 magnum, 1988, 1989, 1971 magnum, 1974, 1978 and 1977; 14 were very good: 1984, 1985, 1987, 1973, 1976 magnum, 1981, 1983, 1980, 1982, 1986, 1967, 1979, 1971 and 1975.  In later tastings the 1984 and 1985 proved to be even better and are now outstanding.

In 1995, eight vintages of Monte Bello from 1971 to 1992 were tasted (The Underground Wine Journal, Volume XVI, #5 & 6).  Listed in order of preference, seven were outstanding: 1990, 1972, 1977, 1981, 1984, 1985 and 1992; the 1971 was very good.

In Fall 1998, four vintages of Monte Bello, 1994 to 1997, were tasted (The Underground Wine Journal, Volume XVII, #5).  Listed in order of preference, all four were outstanding: 1996, 1994, 1995 and 1997.  In this tasting, I asked Paul if the 1996 might be the greatest Monte Bello ever.  At that time Paul thought the 1997 might be even better.  The three barrel samples of the 1997 vintage that we tasted then were surely outstanding.  But then one can’t forget the outstanding wines from other recent vintages.  The 1994 and 1991 were, without a doubt, also in the running, not to mention the 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1995 – all great wines!  No one in the world has made such a stunning lineup of back-to-back great wines as Ridge has done with the 1990 to 1997 Monte Bello Cabernets – simply fantastic!

In Spring 1999, 30 vintages of Monte Bello from 1962 to 1996 were tasted (The Underground Wine Journal, Volume XVIII, #2).  Listed in order of preference, 24 were outstanding: 1996, 1970, 1990, 1991, 1968, 1971, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1964, 1967, 1968 Hollywood Cuvee, 1969, 1972, 1974 (experiment with a blend of 51% Merlot, 1981 and 1989; five were very good: 1988, 1976, 1979, 1962 and 1983.  In this tasting, I thought the 1996 showed an incredible intensity of fruit, a sensational, killer wine!  One of the best young Cabernets ever!


The wines presented at the dinner speak for themselves.   They are all balanced, complex wines demonstrating great longevity.  I never drink Monte Bello until it is 10+ years of age.  In fact, the wines of the late 1990s and 2000s, I had not tasted from bottle until this dinner.  And, indeed, most of these wines will benefit from more age.  The wines in the 1980s are drinking beautifully at 20-25 years of age, showing no sign of decline.  The wines of the 1990s are delicious now but most will benefit from another 5 to 10 years of bottle age.  The 2000 is drinking well now and it will continue to gain complexity with time.  The younger wines need 10 more years to develop.  Although the current tasting gave the edge to the 1996, in defense of the 1997, it is still closed and needs more time.  Once again the longevity and consistency of Ridge Monte Bello is simply amazing.

There is no question as to the outstanding quality and consistency of the wines from the superb Ridge Monte Bello property made by Paul Draper for nearly 40 years.  Ridge Monte Bello Cabernets are truly remarkable.  For their entire history, there has never been a poor wine.   Virtually every wine is highly recommended to outstanding and several wines have even been rated extraordinary.  The best Monte Bello Cabernets rank with the best wines in the world and California wines can last as long as the greatest French wines.  Great soil, old vines and low yields are the ingredients of Paul Draper’s recipe for success.  Also, not to be missed is the fact that Paul has kept the style of wine true to his conviction to make wine of power and strength, but with balance and the ability to age, instead of over-extracted wines meant for immediate consumption.

If you prefer wines that follow the current fad of high alcohol and super-ripe flavors, Ridge Monte Bello wines are not for you.  But if you prefer wine that ages gracefully and gains complexity and complements fine cuisine, these are definitely for you.  In fact, Ridge Monte Bello is truly a wine you can buy with confidence every year as I have been doing for some 30 years.

American wines have no classification as they do in Bordeaux, because they do not have the history, except at Ridge.  Ridge has the longest history of producing the best Cabernets of any California winery existing today.  If any California wine ever earned the right to be called a first growth, it has to be Ridge Monte Bello.  Others may follow, but for now there is only one!