I am a big believer in fate. Sometimes, there is no other explanation.
A few weeks ago, I drafted a post on one of my favorite wines. Not just a favorite, but perhaps most favorite. I held back from posting for rather selfish reasons. Please understand, I just did not feel prepared to share yet. For now, let’s just say that my favorite wine is a Ridge.
Then last week, as I was catching up on my reading, I saw on the Ridge Blog a call for California wine bloggers to participate in a special Tasting Event at the Monte Bello Tasting Room. I may have let out an audible gasp. Now, by no means am I a wine expert. I am not even a wine-specific blogger. But I am certainly a wine enthusiast — and definitely a lover of Ridge wine. I felt compelled to message Christopher Watkins, the Monte Bello Tasting Room Manager, to express my keen interest. I was beyond thrilled when he extended an invitation to join the soft launch of the Wine Blogger’s Tasting.
If you are not familiar with Ridge Vineyards, they are a small, dare I say “boutique,” winery founded in the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1885. Monte Bello was the first Ridge winery that was built, but it was not until closer to the 1960’s when Ridge’s growth as a premier wine producer took hold. At that point, the unique backgrounds of the partners (Stanford Research Institute engineers and a Stanford philosophy alumnus turned wine maker with experience from a Chilean winery) lent to its growth in producing excellent Cabernets and Zinfandels. A little bit of Chardonnay was also produced. In 1991, Ridge acquired Lytton Springs Vineyard in Sonoma.
So, about a week after I received the fateful invitation, I found myself zipping towards the western hills of the Bay Area. Northern California had burst into Spring, and I can’t even describe how perfect the day was as I drove up the winding roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains to reach the Ridge Monte Bello Winery. The skies were blue, the air was warm, and as my car rolled through the very unassuming gates leading to the intimate tasting room, I was treated to a gorgeous view of the San Francisco Bay Area. This is why I love living in California, I thought.
I found myself in the company of true aficionados – wine experts with noses that have been indoctrinated in the nuances of bouquet by years of experience and well-trained palates that easily parcel out the key characteristics in a wine. I am clearly not as educated when it comes to wine. As they likely scribbled down industry words in their notebooks, I took note of the wines in my own way. I may not be an expert, but I know what I like. When I taste wine, I consider when would I drink this? With whom? And most importantly, with what? So, I will not assign points, nor will I use buzz words…I will simply share my experience.
And what an experience! The tasting featured wines that are part of the Spring release, many of which will be made available April of this year. Ridge was extremely excited about their recent extensive write up by Robert Parker for the Wine Advocate, and the idea was to mimic, bottle for bottle, the wines he reviewed. It was a unique opportunity to taste their collection of wines across several varietals and many vintages.
The tasting began with a few Chardonnays. The most exciting was the chance to try their very first release of the Jimsomare Chardonnay. The 2008 vintage will be a winery only limited release, and takes its fruit from the lowest level planting of the Monte Bello vineyards. This very special wine was bottled just last fall, and of course, it tasted quite young. But I can imagine that in a few years, it would be a wonderful choice for an elegant weekend backyard gathering with friends. I couldn’t help but think of grilled herbed shrimp, fresh salads and even a nice whole grilled fish, as I tasted the Jimsomare.
The 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay was more vibrant in taste and Monte Bello in style. This wine will be released nationally in April and is one that could be enjoyed younger, which is good news for those of us who have a hard time waiting to open a bottle. I love the Ridge Chardonnays, and secretly wish they could produce more.
We moved into the Zinfandels, starting with Ridge’s newest designation: East Bench. The 2008 East Bench Zinfandel will be released in mid-April and is one of the first debuts of the planting. The 2008 East Bench definitely tasted quite young, and was very spicy to me. In about 5 years, I imagine it would be delicious with a flavorful eggplant parmigiana or roasted garlic pork loin. We compared the ’08 with the 2006 East Bench Zinfandel, and this vintage had definitely mellowed out, but still had its nice spice and was fairly dry. It was a great sneak peek into the 2008’s potential.
The Geyserville Zinfandels were next. We tasted both the 2008 and 2007 Geyserville Zinfandels, and with the first sip, you could tell we had moved into Ridge’s flagship Zinfandel. While the 2008 was very dry and tannic, it was so refreshing, and had a smoother texture than the East Bench varietal. Due for release in April, the 2007 Geyserville Zinfandel spoke to the very care that Ridge has used in every aspect of the wine making process. From vining, to picking, to how each vineyard is broken down, you could really taste the exceptional quality that Ridge pioneered when they began producing their Zinfandels. My taste of the 2007 really reflected more complexity and maturity; it was amazing to taste how much one year could make a difference. I can imagine how well it will taste in the next 5 to 7 years, and if one could be patient, even in 10 years. These Zins had such style, and they would pair beautifully with Asian foods — I couldn’t help but think of seared ahi tuna with cilantro and soy sauce, Thai curry coconut noodles, or spicy Korean barbeque.
The Zinfandel portion of the tasting closed with the 2008 and 2007 Lytton Springs Zinfandel. The 2008 Lytton Springs Zinfandel is due for release in Fall 2010, and was very recently bottled just a few weeks ago. Ridge considers Lytton Springs to be their other “twin tower” of their Zinfandel collection, and it really was a beautiful complement to the Geyserville. It tasted much more fruity, and while it was so young, it was very nice! Lytton Springs is very different in character to the Geyserville, and I can see enjoying the Lytton Springs Zinfandel with braised pork chops or a Caprese salad with beefy heirloom tomatoes and luscious mozzarella. [Oh dear, I’m getting hungrier as I write this.]
Now for what many consider to be Ridge’s crown jewel: their Cabs. This portion of the tasting included three vintages of the Santa Cruz Mountain Estates Cabernet. The 2007 is en route to be released this Spring, and this first taste gave a great sneak peek into what I could expect from older vintages. This is a cab that will hold up very nicely to traditional food, but it certainly needs time in the bottle. My next taste was the 2006, the current vintage that is available in markets right now. It was definitely more mellow and I couldn’t help but imagine a perfectly grilled, meaty portobello mushroom, perhaps with blue cheese. However, the big surprise was our tasting of the 2005, a sold out vintage, and I couldn’t help but think, Wow, this is fantastic! It was dry but bright, and I envisioned a lovely dinner party with friends over prime rib or a succulent leg of lamb. The progression of tastings from 2007 to 2005 really allowed me to see the promise of the 2007 that will be released next month.
Time in a Bottle
Finally, it was time for the Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, the crown jewel of Ridge. We had the rare treat of a barrel sample of the 2008 Monte Bello, which is en route to bottling and scheduled for release in March 2011. This wine is most definitely young, but oh my, I could already imagine how wonderful it will taste in seven years. In general, the Monte Bello is a much more serious Cab than the Santa Cruz Mountain Estates. It is the type of Cab that you can most certainly enjoy on its own or for those special occasions.
The Monte Bello tasting was most impressive, starting with the 2008 barrel sample, tasting each year down to 2003. To smell, feel and taste the wine mature with each glass was most enlightening and such an educative wine experience. And to also experience the nuances between so many vintages was incredible. In particular, there were huge differences between the 2006, 2005 and 2004 vintages, where the 2005 was practically polar opposites to its surrounding years. Robert Parker raved about the 2005 vintage, but I have to admit that it was not my cup of tea (or glass of wine, rather). I think that of all the Monte Bello Cabs we tasted, my absolute favorites were the 2006 and the 2003. They were so classic and had such a beautiful complexity to them. In a word, they were: perfect.
Regardless of vintage, Monte Bello Cabs would be lovely with that roasted Thanksgiving turkey, but I think it would also be fantastic with a thick Kobe beef burger, topped with sautéed mushrooms and a spicy cheese, and a side of crispy sweet potato fries.
In case you were wondering, the 2007 Monte Bello will be offered initially to Ridge Futures Members, then to the general public this fall.
The grand finale of the day’s tasting was the 1996 Monte Bello they pulled out as their last treat of the day (as if we haven’t had enough!). It truly was the pinnacle of the tasting, and had all the wonderful characteristics of the classic Monte Bello, but with the perfection and maturity that only time can provide. For me, this was just a perfect way to end my morning at Ridge. It is also what I need to keep in mind the next time I am tempted to open a bottle of wine that I know would be well served to stay corked longer.
Two Hours Later…
When the tasting was complete, this was the resulting line up. It was most impressive. Go ahead, count ’em. That’s 17 bottles. Seventeen! Wait, it’s actually 18 bottles! My line up is missing the 1996 Montebello! [Thanks to fellow taster Iron Chevsky for catching that omission!]
It was perhaps the most ambitious tasting I have ever experienced, and certainly one of the most memorable. My taste buds were so fatigued at the end, but I can’t even tell you how much I loved learning so much about one of my favorite wineries. It opened up my eyes to some of their wines I have not yet encountered until now, and reaffirmed my love for the wines I already know are phenomenal.
As for my favorite Ridge wine, I promise to reveal that soon. In the meantime, here are my top choices from this incredible tasting:
2006 Monte Bello
2003 Monte Bello
2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate
I hope you get a chance to try these wines and enjoy them as much as I did! If you’re curious to see how my experience compared to the other bloggers in attendance, you can check them out at: