11/19/2009 04:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ridge Vineyards: Paul Draper's Quest for Vineyard Expression in Wine

Paul Draper has all the trophies, accolades, honors, and celebrity trappings that any winemaker could possibly have. Yet, there is a sense of humility and purpose that seems to set him apart. When I asked the legendary winemaker from Ridge Vineyards in California's Santa Cruz Mountains, what his most gratifying achievements in winemaking were, he answered;

"Above all, being told by so many people over the years, how much our wines have contributed to the pleasure in their lives. Next would be finding vineyards that give a distinctive, individual and consistent character and high quality. Equally important the way that a traditional, non-industrial approach allows the wines to be in balance when young yet develop greater and greater complexity with years of age.

That Monte Bello, for example, is probably the most age worthy California Cabernet, and I hope one of the finest."

That "traditional non-industrial approach" seems to be at the core of how he would like to see vineyards assessed, grapes grown, and winemaking techniques administered. Yet he is realistic in looking at the California wine industry's future.

" I hope," he said, "That it moves back toward wines that complement food rather than dominate it with excessively ripe fruit or high alcohol. However, despite the opinions of most sommeliers, many experienced tasters and some critics for a more moderate, refreshing style, I don't yet see it happening. Napa Valley seems to feel its niche is for over ripe, high alcohol Cabernets.

I also hope that more winemakers and proprietors who have some of the best sites and have planted them to appropriate varietals will consider allowing the character of their vineyards to dominate rather than creating their own idea of an international style of wine through manipulation in the winery."

Mr. Draper, who began his work at Ridge Vineyards in 1969, used the tradition and history of California winemaking to influence and shape his own career.

"The makers of the great post Prohibition 1930's wines from, for example, Fountain Grove, Larkmead, Simi and Inglenook, as well as those who made the great vintages of Bordeaux from the 1920's to the early 1960's. Tasting those wines and studying the techniques used to produce them and then through experience learning how to perfect those techniques further. I have no degree in Enology. Without a mentor, the wines were my teachers."

When history looks back at the accomplishments of Ridge Vineyards, there is no doubt the Chardonnay and Cabernet from Monte Bello Vineyards will be considered the "jewel" of their accomplishments. This is an amazing duality, as Ridge would also have to be considered one of the champions of Red Zinfandel as well. Mr. Draper is confident his Montebello wines express the personality of the vineyard. Zinfandel has been more of a restless quest.

"Given that we focus entirely on Montebello for Chardonnay and the Bordeaux varietals, it is Zinfandel that we have worked with well more than fifty vineyards over the years. In those, I look for old vines. Vines that were planted ninety to one hundred years ago, before prohibition. They were considered by their owners to be so fine they were not torn out during Prohibition or the Depression. Then we make wines from those grapes for a few years given that the grower is experienced and will work with us in balancing yields. Then we look for quality and individuality in the wines. Wines that make themselves without having to 'improve' them through wine making."

The conversation with Paul Draper is dramatically similar to speaking with a modern great chef. The chef will speak of using great ingredients and letting them speak for themselves on the plate. Paul Draper speaks of the uniqueness of the land and the vineyards, and allowing the wine created from grapes of those vineyards, to speak for itself in the glass.