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Thoughts on a Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting



In California, we don’t get the extremes of weather that Europe does, but still, our vintages vary considerably from each other. You just have to know how to read the subtleties. Four years ago, 2011 was “the year summer never came,” and many of the wines have a lean, green streak, if not actual botrytis. Still, the best wineries successfully negotiated the challenge.

Yesterday we tasted a Ridge 2011 Monte Bello. It did indeed have a streak of mint and dried herbs, but it was clearly a wonderful wine, an ager, and the star of our Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet tasting. If I were rating it, it would score an easy 94-95 points, and earn a Cellar Selection designation. The Monte Bello terroir is fabulous (if you know Ridge’s history, have done verticals and visited the property, you already know that), but, perhaps more important has been the quality level of Ridge’s viticulture. I’ve never seen a crush at Ridge, but I imagine (and the evidence of the wine supports it) that they have perfectionist practices, including an active sorting table.

Unfortunately, in our tasting were some pretty flawed wines. I’m not in the reviewing business, so I won’t identify them. But a couple were severely afflicted with brettanomyces, so stinky it was like Steph Curry’s armpit that had not been washed for several days. (Eeew.) I attribute this to well-intentioned but impoverished winemakers who can’t afford to completely sanitize their wineries.

Others were okay wines, perfectly drinkable; someone noted of one of them that, were he served it at a restaurant, he would happily have drank it. But nothing special. It’s hard to explain to someone what the difference is between a superb wine, like the Ridge, and an okay wine whose grapes may have been grown right next door to it, but just doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle.

This Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is an interesting one. It’s one of the biggest in California, a whopping 408,000 acres, but contains only about 40 wineries, most of them very small. The reason, I think, is because suburbanization claimed most of the available vineyard sites, and the rest is too rugged and mountainous for cultivation. I always like to tell people about the old Woodside Vineyards La Questa Cabernets, originally planted in 1884; that wine was said to be the finest in all of California in the early 20th century, and the vineyard still exists in the little (and ultra-expensive) town of Woodside. Had that region developed an intensive wine industry, the way Napa Valley did, the Santa Cruz Mountains (or perhaps a Woodside A.V.A.) would be as famous today as Napa Valley. But things didn’t turn out that way. (The appellation also grows very fine Pinot Noir. The latter tends to be on west-facing vineyards on the cooler side of the mountains; the Cabs are on east-facing sites overlooking Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay.)

Someone at the tasting brought up the subject of how Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs differ from Napa Valley’s. Well, the most obvious distinction is alcohol levels: they’re quite low in the former. (The Ridge was only 12.8%, and if I’m not mistaken, Ridge has never had a Monte Bello in excess of 14%.) This is in part due to Napa Valley’s warmer climate, but also because Santa Cruz Mountains winemakers have resisted the pressure to emulate Napa Valley.

When you make lower-alcohol Cabs, any faults in the wine are more apparent than they would be at, say, 14.5% or higher. Alcohol covers a multitude of sins. Brett shows up more clearly; so do greenness and tannins; and those wines can’t handle as much new oak as Napa’s. There were a couple wines in our tasting where the oak just stood out like a sore thumb. I honestly will never understand how some people think you can take a more delicate wine and make it get a higher score by drenching it with oak. I suppose some critics will fall for that, but not the better ones.

This 2015 vintage is looking good so far. It’s a drought vintage, but that’s not necessarily harmful to quality. Spring has been cool, until this heat wave that’s striking today; but the heat will be short-lived, and is less damaging at this point in the vines’ lives than it would be towards harvest. Everyone is raving about the 2013s. The 2014s seem fine too. With 2015, we might be in for a three-fer. But it’s too soon to tell. Right now, all that the growers are hoping for is rain next winter—a good, long, drenching El Nino. And that’s exactly what we might get.


  1. Bob Henry says:


    Nice to see you have gotten on the bandwagon regarding Santa Cruz mountains and Ridge.

    My earlier “nudge” (see second and third comments):

    “A return to natural simplicity, in all things”



  2. Bob Henry says:

    “Serendipity” is my favorite word in the English language.

    Underscored with this discovery while researching my comment above:

    “The Golden Age of California Cabernet Sauvignon”


    Who’s a thunk it: the Viking cooking range company has a “blog” entry on California Cabernets from the era of the late 1960s into the 1970s?

    (Author unknown.)

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Two “unicorn” Cabernets missing from most lists (but revered by collectors):

    La Questa Vineyard in Woodside

    Gemello Winery in Mountain View




  4. Bob Rossi says:

    Very thoughtful piece, as always. And that’s coming from someone who almost never drinks California wines anymore (I’m mostly a French and Italian wine drinker). But I’ve always considered Ridge Zinfandels to be outstanding (I’ve hardly ever had their Cabernet), and I consider Ridge to be one of the top wineries in the world.
    One thing that intrigued me was your reference to brettanomyces in several wines and your attributing it to unsanitary practices at the wineries. Lately I’ve been wondering why so many so-called “natural” wines I’ve had, particularly from southern France, seem to have a sameness to them, a certain smell and taste, so much so that I have a hard time distinguishing what grape or grapes they’re made from. When I had that reaction to such a “natural wine” my niece opened, she smelled it and said “that’s brett.” I’ve since read more about brettanomyces, and its prevalance in many “natural wines”, but didn’t see any explanation of why it’s there. So maybe your explanation is the answer.

  5. Bill Stephenson says:

    I had never known of the Santa Cruz Mountains until Daryl Corti turned me on to the 1997 Martin Ray SCM Cab. His statement; “This is what Napa used to taste like” was a bit lost on me at the time due to my naivete’.
    If I had 10% of that man’s knowledge I would consider myself a genius.
    Like Livermore, the Santa Cruz Mountains are known for many things other than wine and as you pointed out, most of the prime grape-growing land is now subdivisions and shopping centers. Perhaps that makes some of their wines a little more special, knowing that there is only so much to go around.

  6. Sam Harpinger says:

    Funny you mention Ridge and Brett in the same sentence but with no connection to eachother. While I have not had the 11 Monte Bello, everything I have ever had from that SC Mountains facility has been very heavy on the brett and some of the wines from up north. I always thought that was just Paul Draper’s style. Some vintages the wines gain a little complexity but others, and far too often, the wines are just way too over the top for me to enjoy. I always thought it was interesting that they got great scores and acclaim when that style of wine from virtually any other producer would never score well. It pays to have clout!

  7. Dear Bob Rossi, I’ve always understood excessive brett to be a sanitary problem. Since brett is a yeast, it can’t be considered a part of terroir.

  8. Steve:

    I’d have to disagree with your terroir comment. Notwithstanding the lack of a truly understandable, global, and inarguable definition for terroir, I’d consider the flora that rides in on the backs of the grapes as part of the “where-ness” of the place. Researchers are finding that the micro-biome of vineyards has almost a finger-print’s uniqueness, and I’d consider these critters to be part of the terroir notion too.

    Echoing Sam’s comment, I’ve scarely had a bottle of Montebello that didn’t show Brett to varying degrees.

  9. But Steven Mirassou, doesn’t a lot of brett live on equipment etc. inside the winery? From Wines & Vines: “While [brett’s] immediate origin may be from cellar equipment, especially used barrels, its ultimate origin is undoubtedly the vineyard.” So it’s complicated.

  10. No doubt, Steve. Yeast is ubiquitous, and if one doesn’t take care in the cellar, Brett can explode. I guess I was referring more to the evolving notion that the definition of terroir is even more complicated than it currently is, if one begins to factor in not just the composition of a vineyard’s soil but what lives in that soil.

  11. TomHill says:

    Bill sez on Darrell: “If I had 10% of that man’s knowledge I would consider myself a genius.”
    Having been a long time friend of Darrell’s, I’ve often said that if Darrell had become a physicist, instead of just a grocer (as he advertises himself), the Higgs’ Bosun would have been discovered 30 yrs earlier.
    The breadth of Darrell’s knowledge, on pretty much any subject you choose, is absolutely mind-boggling.
    There are two people in the wine biz whose intellect leaves me in awe. DarrellCorti and PaulDraper.

  12. TomHill says:

    Guess I’d have to disagree w/ Sam & Steve on the brett issue and the MonteBello wnry.
    Ridge had a big problem in the ’78-’83 time frame w/ brett. But a wholesale replacement of cooperage eliminated that problem. Since that time, I’ve very/very rarely picked up any brett issues. In wines from either of their winemaking facilities.
    Ridge is positively anal about doing laboratory analysis of their wines. If there were a brett issue, I’m sure they’d have picked it up long ago. To characterize Ridge wines as bretty is laughable to me.

    As for the Ridge wines being “way to over the top”, that’s a term that I’d almost never apply to any Ridge wine. Compared to some from Calif (Saxum/SQN/JCCllrs/Turley/LinneCalado…to name a few candidates), the Ridge’s strike me a masters of restraint and balance. To be sure, not everybody likes Ridge wines; but “over the top” is hardly how I’d describe them.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    “Ridge is positively anal about doing laboratory analysis of their wines.”

    See this press release: “Winemaking Techniques”


    Excerpt: “We’ve been told that we have the most sophisticated analytical laboratory of any winery our size. Given our minimal use of SO2, we depend on lab analyses to alert us to any problem long before it could be perceived by tasting.”

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Kudos to Paul and his team:

    “Paul Draper Named Top 5 Winemaker in the World” (Decanter magazine)


  15. Bob Henry says:

    LET’S TRY AGAIN . . .

    Kudos to Paul and his team:

    “Paul Draper Named Top 5 Winemaker in the World” (Decanter magazine)

    Blog link:

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