Subversion In Plain Sight
Ridge's Grenache Blanc
Paul Draper, the winemaker at Ridge from 1969 to 2016, stayed true to his vision despite many changes in styles, technology, and financial fortunes. His vision lives on.
The Ridge wines are a familiar sight all over the world, and may be surprising to some to find on our shelves. But many people I know, even those who mostly drink natural wine, have a lot of respect for Ridge and their unchanging approach over the decades. They have been outliers in California for their transparent, low-intervention approach to winemaking. The results speak for themselves, as Ridge's legacy is widely accepted to be one of the most esteemed in California despite years of struggling or being out of fashion. They persevered and became a bulwark against the excesses of the later 20th century and the 'Big Flavor' era.
Paul Draper, who was the driving force behind Ridge until his retirement in 2016, was a philosophy major, never studying formal winemaking. He was recruited to Ridge in 1969 after he had given a talk on how he had been making what we would now call natural wine in Chile, using no additives or electricity. He was obsessed with winemaking texts from the 19th century and never strayed from his belief in pre-industrial winemaking fundamentals. In Santa Cruz, Draper was more free to pursue his anachronistic methods than had he been in Napa. Their vineyards are all certified organic and they are admirably transparent about their winemaking, listing all the additives on the labels, which is usually just some sulfur and some light filtering.
When we were selecting wines for our March Direct Press on Grenache, the Ridge Grenache Blanc jumped out at us. It is not that widely-known, and as far as we knew had mostly just been available to Ridge's own wine club membership. Ultimately we had to go with wines that were 100% Grenache, and this wine has Roussanne and Picpoul in the blend; but we were totally smitten with this wine and wanted it on our shelves. It's one of the most satisfying whites I've had all year, intellectually as well as gastronomically.
It is a paradox of the natural wine movement that while attempting to strip wines of pretense and bloated costs, the de facto limited nature of small-production wines has produced highly-allocated wines whose prices are driven up year after year. As much as we all enjoy drinking wines that are hard to come by, it hardly helps bring the much-needed embrace of natural farming practices to a broader audience. What were supposed to be thirst-quenching, irreverent wines made without a lot of bullshit have, in many cases, become status symbols and hypebeast fodder that don't reach far beyond a select few.
By contrast, the Ridge wines can be found in so many places in the US that they are stripped of the cool-kid appeal. Yet they are nevertheless made with a lot of care and environmental stewardship. You can't love the ethos of natural wine without wanting others to also experience its charms, too; and yet growing to a scale of mass distribution could easily compromise the very things that make it worth championing. Ridge at least is able to navigate some of the trade-offs of scale and quality with more integrity than I would've thought was possible for a bigger-name California winery. This was clearly not an accident, and the values of Paul Draper and the team that is continuing his vision is one that deserves a lot of respect, even if they are not the most hardcore natty wines around.
One of the best things about Ridge is that the wines often appear in situations that are otherwise barren of inspiring wines. Many of us have all found ourselves at restaurants with depressing, conventional wine lists. Just when you think you might have to skip the wine and drink tequila soda, you spy a bottle of Ridge and all is well with the world.
I hope the Grenache Blanc creates some cognitive dissonance for people, as it is an obscure wine from a familiar face. But more importantly it is a poignant reminder of how well-suited Rhone varieties are to Paso Robles, and a testament to Ridge's ability to allow the wine to have finesse and express the terroir. I've had some showstoppers from Ridge over the years, especially Cabernet or Zin-based red wines with 25 years of age on them. The Grenache Blanc is an entirely different animal, but still has the effect of making you really stop and notice what you're drinking and say, 'wow, that is a truly great bottle of wine.'