Food & Drink

California’s best cabernet hails from an unexpected place

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

The Napa Valley has become synonymous with great California cabernet sauvignon. I’d argue that the state’s greatest and most distinctive cab, however, is not from Napa but from a special ridge high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The winery is Ridge Vineyards, and the wine is called Monte Bello.

The Monte Bello style has changed little over the years, even as many California cabernets have gotten bigger, riper and higher in alcohol. Ridge Monte Bello — which used to be all cabernet but now is a cab-dominant blend — has remained elegant and graceful with modest alcohol, yet the wine is remarkably concentrated and ages extremely well. Much of that continuity is undoubtedly the result of Paul Draper, who has been in charge of winemaking at Ridge since 1969.

Monte Bello’s style is also a reflection of the site where the grapes are grown. The Monte Bello vineyard is a cool one for cabernet sauvignon. It’s just 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and the elevation climbs from 1,400 feet to around 2,700. Cool nights help the grapes retain their acidity. Flavors are concentrated because the yields are naturally low. A bigger crop wouldn’t get ripe because of the climate and poor soils and because most of the vines are dry-farmed.

I’ve been fortunate to taste a number of older Monte Bellos over the years, and I got the chance again recently at the Relais & Chateaux GourmetFest, held in Carmel. The tasting included eight Monte Bellos, poured from magnums and reaching back to 1977. The oldest wines were showing their age, but even they displayed the savory character that is a hallmark of Monte Bello. Taking a whiff of Monte Bello is like breathing in the scents of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Draper, who studied philosophy at Stanford University, had short stints at wineries in France and California, and made wine for a couple of years in Chile. He was fascinated by traditional winemaking — he calls it “pre-industrial” — and his winemaking bible was a late 19th century book by Emmet Rixford, who had established La Questa Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1880s. (“I’m never going to be able to do better than that, so these are the techniques we use today,” he says.) The current Monte Bello vintage, 2011 ($160), was not in the Carmel tasting, but I tasted it later. The wine has the typical savory notes, along with concentrated black fruit and firm structure. It’s a big wine, but it’s still elegant and refined.

In addition to the Monte Bello, Ridge makes an estate cabernet sauvignon from the property; it’s less expensive ($50) and is generally made to be drunk sooner. You can also reduce the cost of your Monte Bello purchase by buying futures. The 2014 Monte Bello, for example, is available for $105 a bottle, with a 2017 release.

Each vintage, Draper and the rest of the viticulture and winemaking team tweak and refine. “We’ve never achieved what we’re aiming for,” he says. “We never will.”