Chris Watkins and I have been discussing getting together for a really cool Ridge tasting ever since he reached out to me after my mention of Ridge at the Wine & Spirits Top 100 tasting. Finally he came up with a great angle. Robert Parker's latest scoring of Ridge wines inspired Chris, the tasting room manager at Ridge Monte Bello - an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and all-around cool dude, to throw a re-tasting for the mere mortal wine blogger folk. Armed with fancy cameras, shabby notepads, and cute business cards, a small army of wine and food writers showed up at Ridge on a beautiful sunny morning of March 18. I also invited my friend and wine director at Donato Enoteca - Eric L. - for second opinions and witty commentary!
I see Parker's scores far from being something I rely on for personal enjoyment, but if you learn to calibrate his scores against your palate, then it's a useful data point. After the tasting of the same portfolio, my conclusion is that Parker's scores were generally reasonable, although expectedly he preferred the bigger, fruitier wines over lighter, earthier ones, which is a matter of taste and where Parker and I clearly diverge. Let me just get it out there in the open - I was very impressed with the Ridge wines across the board, more so than ever before - which is undoubtedly a reflection of my own taste evolution. And not just the famous Monte Bello, but also the Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, the eye-opening Santa Cruz Mountains Estate blend, and even the 100% East Bench Zin. The acidity, balance, and non-over-ripeness or over-oakiness on these wines should make anyone wonder why the rest of California doesn't follow this lead. Beats me.
It's hard not to compare Ridge's Cab-dominated blends to the Left Bank of Bordeaux - the balance, the gorgeous cool fruit, the acid and earthiness. I find the best examples of Ridge to rival top Bordeaux in complexity. Lesser Monte Bellos do not quite get to the top classed growths (Grand Cru) level, but they certainly hold their own against most Bordeaux. Add to that the deliciousness factor and the local Santa Cruz Mountains patriotism (after all, I live in Palo Alto, just minutes away from Monte Bello), and it's easy to love Ridge.
However, word of advice for a value-conscious wino. It is not so easy to swallow the prices for all but the very grandest of Monte Bellos. Most retail for $145+/bottle on release, and with time, only go up. While compared to other California top wines, Monte Bello is still a bargain, some fabulous Bordeaux such as Chateau d'Issan 3rd growth Bordeaux can be had for less than half. But a huge eye-opener for me was the "2nd-label" wine - the Santa Cruz Mountains Estate blend - retailing for ~$40/bottle, this is the real deal and real value, my friends.
So let me get the line-up and the 3 pages of tasting notes out of the way, so I can get on with philosophizing. I will spare you from extended explanations and history of Ridge and the specific wines, as you can read more on that on Chris Watkin's Ridge Blog, also linking to the accounts of this tasting by the other blogger attendees. Suffice it to say, in my opinion and to my palate, all things considered, Ridge is and has been the greatest winery in California, maybe in the whole New World! Now, on to the wines...
Here is the tasting line-up, with notes further below.
1. 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Jimsomare Chardonnay ($30-40)
2. 2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($30-40)
3. 2008 East Bench Zinfandel - RP: 90-92 ($25)
4. 2006 East Bench Zinfandel ($25)
5. 2008 Geyserville - RP: 90-92 ($35)
6. 2007 Geyserville - RP: 91 ($35)
7. 2008 Lytton Springs - RP: 91-93 ($35)
8. 2007 Lytton Springs - RP: 92 ($35)
9. 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate - RP: 88 ($40)
10. 2006 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate - RP: 91 ($40)
11. 2005 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate - RP: 92 ($40)
12. 2008 Monte Bello - RP: 94-96, barrel sample
13. 2007 Monte Bello - RP: 92 ($145)
14. 2006 Monte Bello - RP: 94+ ($145)
15. 2005 Monte Bello - RP: 97+ ($148)
16. 2004 Monte Bello - RP: 91 ($175)
17. 2003 Monte Bello - RP: 95+ ($150)
18. 1996 Monte Bello - WS: 96 ($300)
Rather than go through notes for each wine, I will generally say - there was not a bad or disappointing wine! But here are the ones that really stood out for me:
2008 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay - lighter, more mineral, higher acid than Jimsomare. Balanced, elegant, and a good example of what California Chardonnay could be - an eye-opener!
2006 East Bench Zinfandel - this is the best Zinfandel I've ever had! Secondary nose, liqueur, spice, acid, incredibly complex for a Zin, much better than the already quite good 2008. 14.9% alc was not a problem.
2005 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate - 75% Cab, 22% Merlot, 3% Cab Franc - beautiful balanced nose; on the palate - not thick but concentrated, Margaux-like texture is just perfect, great balance and finesse. Alcohol in the 13% range. In terms of QPR, this was the wine of the tasting for me! I have to give props to the 2007 SC Mountains Estate as well - noticeably earthier (more root vegetable - beet, etc.), sweet & zingy tart at the same time, but less refined than 2005, but so so Cab and incredibly alluring food wine - "good with unadulterated tri-tip" - suggested Eric Lecours. I agreed.
2006 Monte Bello - 68% Cab, 20% Merlot, 10 Petit Verdot, 2% Cab Franc - much better (at this point) than 2008 or 2007 - great balance and finesse, great softer texture, beautiful fruit. 13.5% alc. ($145)
2005 Monte Bello - 70% Cab, 22% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 2% Cab Franc - nice nose. On the palate - heavier than '06, maybe heavier than I prefer but good balance, bigger more tannic than '06. 13.4% alc. ($148)
2004 Monte Bello - 76% Cab, 13% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 3% Cab Franc - nice texture, good acid, good secondary fruit, liqueur. 13.2% alc. "Ribeye with mushroom sauce", suggested Eric L. ($175 n/a)
2003 Monte Bello - 85% Cab, 8% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot - good too, more classic Bordeaux, pensil/graphite. ($150 n/a)
1996 Monte Bello - 80% Cab, 11% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot - nose: hints of meat jerky; taste: very good, Bordeaux-like, meat, still tannic (!), pâté-like aftertaste. "Short rib, hawaiian rock salt, done!" - Eric L. 13.2% ($300).
It's hard to pin-point which Montebello I liked better - all the ones above were very good. If I had to pick, I'd say 2006 and 1996. I can see why Parker scored 2005 higher - it's a bigger wine, which is why I preferred the 2006. I could also see that with age, given their excellent tannic and acidic structure, low alcohol and secondary complexities we saw in older bottles, these wines are top candidates for cellaring. The '96 Monte Bello was still tannic and would certainly last a long time. All in all, many thanks to Chris Watkins and Ridge Vineyards for providing me with an opportunity to taste through such esteemed line-up. I had alloted two hours for the tasting, yet the two hours were clearly not enough. Alas, I had to go back to my real job, getting ready for an upcoming Board of Directors meeting. With my teeth stained and a twinkle in my eye, luckily I made it back to the office on time, very much appreciative of Chris' hospitality, flexibility, and promptness, which I am sure had nothing to do with my extremely favorable review of Ridge! Seriously though, kudos, kudos, kudos, finally a winery that makes me a proud Californian!