The Outsider

After 47 vintages, Ridge Vineyards' Paul Draper can reflect on an amazing career, elevating Ridge to international acclaim and taking Zinfandel to an elite level

From the Sept. 30, 2016, issue

In 1969, the owners of Ridge Vineyards realized they needed a real winemaker. Since its founding a decade earlier, Ridge had essentially been a weekends-only home-winemaking operation, albeit a sophisticated one, and the trio of scientists and fine-wine intellectuals who owned it knew their limits. They hired Paul Draper, a 33-year-old former Stanford philosophy student who had served in the Army and the Peace Corps and who, after studying French and Italian cuisine, aspired to be a winemaker.

Draper’s assured presence, his quizzical mind and his passion for the kinds of wines Ridge fancied quickly proved the right fit. The winery modernized, added new vineyards and grew in reputation. All the while, however, it retained its cultish charm and never moved into the mainstream the way many other California wineries did.

It championed old-vine Zinfandel and obscure reds and employed an Old World mentality inside its Santa Cruz Mountains facility. It had a magical aura. Draper had landed his dream job, and Ridge had found its new leader.

Six decades and 47 vintages later, Draper can reflect on an amazing career. Not only elevating Ridge to international acclaim, he took Zinfandel, an underappreciated blending grape, to an elite level as well, rescuing the variety from insignificance by demonstrating its full potential.

The winery also paid tribute to dozens of old vineyards in areas such as Sierra Foothills and Paso Robles, putting names like Dusi Ranch on the labels. Some sites, like Lytton Springs, in Dry Creek Valley, and Pagani Ranch, in Sonoma Valley, contained field blends of off-beat grapes planted in the 1880s that had largely been ignored as vintners pursued trendier wines. Those stumpy vines would have been plowed under in the name of progress had it not been for the respect Ridge gave them. Draper believed that old vines were the best and yielded the most unique wines. For me, old vines are like people who have lived in their homes for decades. They’re predictable. They’re dependable. They’re able to adjust and stay strong.

Of course, any story about Ridge or Draper would be incomplete without a discussion of what Draper considered the winery’s crown jewel—the Cabernet Sauvignon from its home Monte Bello Vineyard. Like Ridge’s other vineyards, Monte Bello is primal, tracing its roots as far back as the old winery it overlooked. Draper and Ridge embodied the Francophile spirit of celebrating not only old vines and ancient methods but also classical grapes, and in this Château Latour offered Draper the best model. He loved Latour and Cabernet as much as any Bordelais, but while Monte Bello reminded him of the great first-growth, it also had its own spirit, resting at a 2,300-foot elevation. Another facet Draper focused on was longevity: He considered how long and well a wine aged to be a measure of its greatness.

Draper’s fascination with Cabernet led him in 1971 to buy grapes from Milt Eisele’s vineyard in Napa Valley, Monte Bello’s equal in stature. Eventually the Eisele grapes went elsewhere, but in the meantime Draper proved he could master Napa Cabernet. In 1986, a devout Ridge lover in Japan bought the winery, and so trusted Draper that he didn’t change a thing.

While Cabernet and Zinfandel intrigued Draper, so did Mataro, Petite Sirah and even Chardonnay, with the latter of these becoming Ridge’s little secret, overlooked by many. In some vintages, the delightfully rich and stylish estate-grown Chardonnays could easily pass for grand cru white Burgundy.

That Ridge’s wines today are better than ever is a tribute to him and his successors. Draper set the bar at the highest level, then surrounded himself with a disciplined team that would challenge his marks, even as they appreciate the value of their mentor’s stature and presence.

Now 80, Draper says he is finally ready to bow out. We’ll see. He has been phasing out of Ridge for the past decade, but exiting isn’t easy. This is his life. In a sense he’s like the old Zinfandel vine that stubbornly refuses to surrender to the motions of time. He remains a powerful, spiritual and inspirational figure, and once the tempo of the next harvest gains rhythm, the draw might be hard for him to resist.

Senior editor James Laube has been with Wine Spectator since 1981.