Some tasks are just… unenviable.
Take, for example, trying to say something new about iconic California producer Ridge that’s not already been said. Go ahead, give it a shot; it’s not easy, folks. Some people are adept at taking the same few chords or themes and churning out something that sounds totally new; The Kinks, The Who, John Grisham (okay, maybe not Grisham). I am not one of those people. The Ridge story has been told several times in print, and from a wine perspective equates to something like “these are excellent, potentially long-lived reds, go buy some; the end… why are you still here?”
And so in recapping my visit to Ridge Lytton Springs in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, I find myself entertaining a sense of dread that I’ve not felt since I’ve had to turn in a term paper in undergrad, the kind that you avoid for as long as possible because you know it’s going to be hard to write. I can offer at least one take on Ridge that is original, though, since it happened to me personally; so I suppose I’ll start there.
A couple of years ago, when interviewing the equally iconic California stalwart Kermit Lynch at his Berkley area shop, I noticed a shelf of old empty bottles on a wall in his office. I pointed out to him that only one of those bottles was from an American producer: Ridge. “Yeah!” he exclaimed, “and check this out!” taking the bottle from its display and showing me the back label, pointing to the small text that proclaimed its sub-14% alcohol by volume. I then tried (unsuccessfully, I think) to convince him that Ridge was still making elegant, long-lived, balanced wines despite an uptick in abv, and that I’d had several aged examples over the years to prove it.
Interestingly, my host at Ridge’s DCV winery was winemaker John Olney (onboard at Lytton Springs since the 2003 vintage), who once worked for Lynch… see, I knew if I tried hard enough there’d be something new there!
“We’ve got good raw materials,” Olney told me when we toured Ridge’s DCV vineyard, much of which was planted to Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignan, Mataro, Mourvedre, and Alicante back in 1901 or 1902 (they’re not sure of the exact date). Ridge’s path to Dry Creek Valley wasn’t an obvious one: they started in Monte Bello in 1959 with a single barrel of wine, and began looking for more Cabernet, which wasn’t common back then. Instead, they found this spot in DCV planted mostly to Zin (some of which has a fuzzy underside to its leaves, offering a natural bug deterrent). Duly impressed, Paul Draper bought grapes from the vineyard beginning in the `70s, and bought it when it came up for sale two decades later (augmented by the neighboring vineyard in 1995, which sports similar plantings). The rest is history (a history that includes plenty of critical acclaim, and for the spots when the critical acclaim is missing, includes ample told-you-so examples of wines that aged gracefully enough to outlive their cooler initial reception).
Since then, the formula has basically been not to mess too much with what works. Everything is picked together as a field blend, and co-fermented with natural yeasts.
Despite the entire vineyard being mapped out by vine and GPS coordinates, new plantings are still done randomly to maintain the mix (“as Olney put it, “you don’t want to have your little ‘human control’ thing going on” and messing it up).
Olney and I tasted new releases (more on those in a few minutes) and, of course, went back a few decades because, well, that’s just what you do with Ridge, isn’t it? An example of the potential: the 1997 Ridge California Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley red, a blend of Zinfandel, Mataro, Carignan, Petite Sirah, and Grenache, a wine Olney described as “anticipating El Niño by a year.” Dried herbs, graphite, dark red fruits, cedar; just a gorgeous, gorgeous nose. The palate was equally interesting, and pretty; soft, luxurious, but also still powerfully chewy, expressive, and alive. The finish was long and spicy.
2011 Ridge Lytton Springs Estate Primitivo (Sonoma County)
That the somewhat (and often not unfairly) maligned Primitivo could be one of Dry Creek Valley’s more promising story lines came as a surprise to me, but this is just one of enough recent examples I’ve tasted to convince me that this Zin clone has a brighter future in Sonoma than it does in much of Italy. A smattering of Petite Sirah and Carignan were thrown in here in this case; the result is a wine with intense minerality, dusty spices, tart red and black plummy fruit, a bit of palate heat, and a vivacious sense of self. There’s a ton of energy to this, and an elegant, spicy finish that shouldn’t be that long coming from younger vines, but is.
2012 Ridge East Bench Zinfandel (Sonoma County)
Things got darker and richer when we moved to this youthful number. The oak spice is still prominent, the wine is undoubtedly powerful, but give it a few minutes and several storylines start to emerge: tobacco, deep structure, acidic lift. “When this fruit comes in, Olney remarked, “it’s some of the darkest looking Zin I’ve ever seen.” This one will please lovers of the more traditional (read: jammier) flavor of California Zinfandel, but it’s a more complete package than many of its peers in this price point.
2011 Ridge Lytton Springs Red (Dry Creek Valley)
Mostly Zin, with 16% Petite Sirah and 2% Carignan (nice to see some Carignan luv, isn’t it?). Some herbs to start, then tart, jammy fruit that has a pleasantly stewed character to it, moving to… something else. Something that’s paradoxically poised and briary, powerful and yet with verve. It’s juicy, but also refreshing (particularly for Zin), with hints of meat, smoke, spices, leather, and a finish that’s long, chewy, and energetic.