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“There were giants in those days”



The news that Paul Draper is retiring came, not as a complete shock, because after all, he’s 80 years old. Rather, it was a realization, the latest in a sorry series, that “the mighty men of old, men of renown” are passing from our scene like the last of a fine vintage gone to frost.

I did not know Mr. Draper well, although well enough for him to return my phone calls and to invite me to Ridge, where he was winemaker for more than 45 years. In fact, it was at one of those visits that he tasted me to about 30 vintages of Monte Bello, a tasting I will never forget. The quality was of course high, vintage variation was terribly interesting, and I found it fascinating that no Monte Bello had even been produced in excess of 14% alcohol. I also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Draper many times on the telephone.

That he was a “giant” is true in this sense: Certain industries, or perhaps “human practices” is a better term, seem capable of launching men and women to the status of “gianthood.” This is a near-mythic status in which we sense something more noble and inspirational than you might find in, say, insurance salesmen (with all due respect to insurance salesmen). The wine industry, and particularly its production side, seems always to have produced giants. I think of, for instance, of the winemaker, his name lost to history, who made the Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 121 BC, which Julius Caesar himself loved when the wine was more than sixty years of age. I think also of Arnaud III de Pontac, the proprietor of Haut-Brion, who hauled, with great difficulty and at great danger, his wine across France around 1660, so that the English King Charles II would fall in love with it, as Pontac knew he would.

I think of the Widow Cliquot, and the Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, and Andre Tchelistcheff, and Max Schubert at Penfolds, and of course of Robert Mondavi, a giant if ever there was one. These were men and women whose visions were capacious, and upon whose shoulders not only their own fates rested, but the fates of entire generations of vintners and wine drinkers. And they knew it, these giants, knew how large were the tasks they assigned themselves, respected the challenges and difficulties, and gladly accepted them; for they knew, also, that to trod the well-worn path would lead them only to well-trod places. In their fertile imaginations, they perceived places no man had perceived before them, and, in going boldly to those places, enabled the rest of us to follow their paths.

Mr. Draper’s story is well-known and need not be repeated here. What is interesting is that he helped, with his partners, to create, not only a First Growth of California, but to do it in a place—the Santa Cruz Mountains—that was not named Napa Valley. It is true that those mountains had a very noble place in California’s vinous history: the La Questa Bordeaux-style red wine, planted in the 1880s supposedly from cuttings obtained at Margaux, was one of the first “cult” wines. But by the time of Ridge’s founding, in 1959, the gaze of the industry already had turned to Napa Valley, which makes the decision of Ridge’s founders to locate in Cupertino all the more curious, and Draper’s achievement all the more noteworthy.

That Mr. Draper’s style of Cabernet—leaner, more elegant and ageworthy—also marched to a different beat from that of Napa Valley also contributes to his legend. He never deviated from his style, as wine writer Laurie Daniel noted in the San Jose Mercury News. That style, which she accurately called “graceful,” does not seem to have inspired other California Cabernet makers, aside from perhaps a Cathy Corison or two; instead, others marched towards higher alcohol, greater extraction, more new oak. Mr. Draper realized that if he allowed the grapes to reach the high sugars necessary for superripeness at the cool Monte Bello ridge site, they would result in a bizarre, unbalanced wine, of limited ageability. So he “danced with the one that brung him,” to the joy of Monte Bello fans everywhere.

Still, it would be misleading to ascribe Mr. Draper’s achievements solely in technical terms. The things that result in men being thought of as “giants” have less to do with their specific behaviors or creations, and more with something mysterious and inchoate which they inspire in others. (Alexander the Great had this very impact.) Some of that has to do, of course, with personality, and the fact that Mr. Draper was a consummate gentleman should not be overlooked. Nor should it be forgotten that he was a tireless worker and representative of Ridge, if not as indefatigable as Robert Mondavi, then at least in the same mold. Men like these—giants—are aware that they have a responsibility to the aura of legend others have built up around them; and they rise to that responsibility with, yes, grace.

So, to Mr. Draper I say, enjoy your retirement! Well done, sir, well done.

  1. TomHill says:

    “makes the decision of Ridge’s founders to locate in Cupertino all the more curious”
    For those familiar w/ the history of Ridge, this choice is hardly a curious one. The founders (Bennion/Rosen/Crane) were all high-level scientists at SRI and MonteBello just happened to be in the mountains above them. When they bought the property, which happened to have vnyds on it, it was merely for a weekend retreat, not w/ the intent to found a winery. On a wild hair, Dave decided to try his hand at making wine from those grapes. And the rest is history.

  2. Patrick says:

    All of this praise for giants sounds a bit tedious. May I suggest looking again at “War and Peace” for different view of the intersection of “great” people and the currents of history. This is not to deny the importance of Paul Draper. He made many wonderful wines in a consistent style over many years. But he also arrived at winemaking in CA at an opportune time, when we were ready for what he had to offer.

  3. redmond barry says:

    If it hadn’t been for Churchill they’d be speaking German in London today.
    Draper also has made some of the greatest Zins . He’s a legit giant.

  4. Bob Henry says:

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

    [Alternate link — be prepared to do a lot of scrolling]

  5. Let’s not forget that Ridge Monte Bello is aged in AMERICAN oak, not French (although trace amounts are used for scientific/trial purposes). Often overlooked, the deft use of American oak by Ridge is a hallmark of the winery since its founding and a bold move when so many bash American oak for too much vanilla and coconut flavors. I’ve tasted barrel samples of Monte Bello that have espresso and chocolate oozing out of the palate in the first 6 months of barrel down purely from American oak.

    I have never been fortunate enough to meet Mr. Draper, but I have met and spoken with at length on several occasions and tasted with, Eric Baugher, winemaker for the Monte Bello property. Speaking with (more like listening) to Eric is truly a master class in wine making, terroir, native yeast and the understanding American oak; with an incredible knowledge base and history.

    Ridge Zin and Cab have always been benchmarks for me. Lovely wines, elegant, focused. I’m confident that after retirement, Ridge will continue to be as focused and diligent as they have since its founding.

  6. I think it’s also noteworthy that as Paul Draper leaves, his legacy is not just of great wine, which we all adore, but also his legacy of integrity.

    Draper should be remembered for his insistence on ingredients labeling on wine and his passion for transparency. No one else has carried the banner for labeling as high as he has.

    It should also be noted that upon his retirement. all of Ridge’s estate vines are either certified organic or on the verge of being certified organic.

    The 2016 vintage of Monte Bello, when I last checked, was on target to be the first one sourced entirely from organic estate grapes.

    Ridge is by far the largest organic vineyard owner in Sonoma County (200 acres) and in Santa Clara County (101 acres).

    It’s this kind of integrity that Ridge has pioneered – and that’s a model that should be much more widely emulated.

  7. Bob Henry says:

    See this Los Angeles Times article:

    “The Long Finish;
    A historic Los Angeles tasting of Ridge Vineyards vintages this month shows that the roots of California’s wine underground run deep.”

    Tom Hill attended this tasting and at one time posted his notes here:


    Tom, is there an alternate website one can navigate to for your notes?

  8. Bob Henry says:

    I thought I was being too clever by half in trying to bypass “moderation” when embedding tow URLs in one comment.

    Submitted once again (and hoping for better results) . . .

    See this Los Angeles Times article:

    “The Long Finish;
    A historic Los Angeles tasting of Ridge Vineyards vintages this month shows that the roots of California’s wine underground run deep.”

    Tom Hill attended this tasting and at one time posted his notes here:

    http [colon] // www [dot] sbwines [dot] com / trh / desai99 [dot] html

    Tom, is there an alternate website one can navigate to for your notes?

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Steve and Charlie,

    Bring me up-to-date: is Rod Smith still writing on wine?

    If so, for what publication(s) or website or blog?

    (I note this 2007 book: )

    The same Rod Smith affiliated with Lost and Found winery in the Russian River?

    ~~ Bob

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