Ridge Monte Bello and its role in history (and on film)

I attended a screening of “Somm 3” last week at Ridge Vineyards, in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Cupertino, Calif. But this is not a review of that movie, nor a comparison with the first two in the series. (I may be the only wine writer in the country who has not seen either of them.)

Rather, it’s about why the film was shown at Ridge, to an audience made up mostly of devoted wine club members. Ridge Monte Bello, a cabernet-based wine that is one of California’s (and the world’s) greatest, has a prominent role in the movie.

“Somm 3” filmmaker Jason Wise uses the famed 1976 “Judgment of Paris” tasting as a departure point. Steven Spurrier, formerly a Paris-based British wine merchant who organized the 1976 event, sits down with Master Sommelier Fred Dame, an American, and British wine writer Jancis Robinson for a tasting. Each has brought a bottle that was important to their lives in wine.

For Dame, who was at the Ridge screening, that bottle was a magnum of 1968 Ridge Monte Bello. (Dame says he wanted to be sure that a California wine was represented, and he figured that neither of the Brits would bring one.) Still, Monte Bello is a wine that was familiar to both of them. Robinson has tasted it many times, and Spurrier put the 1971 Monte Bello in his Paris tasting.

The 1971 Monte Bello placed fifth in the Paris tasting, in which the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon famously finished atop the red wines. At a re-enactment 30 years later, staged in London and Napa, the Monte Bello came in first. (I attended the Napa event but wasn’t an “official” judge; although I loved the Monte Bello at first, I ultimately placed it fourth because it started to fall apart in the glass.)

The re-enactment also included a tasting of current releases from a number of high-profile producers, both American and French, although wines from the two countries were tasted separately. Among American cabernets and cab-based blends, the winner was not a wine from Napa, but – ta-dah – the 2000 Monte Bello. It was a judgment with which I thoroughly agreed. The wine was elegant and restrained, in contrast to some of the riper, more exaggerated reds. At the time, Paul Draper, who retired as Ridge’s winemaker in 2016, expressed some surprise at the reception given to the 2000, because it was from a vintage that was poorly regarded. But he also said he was gratified that judges “actually preferred the more moderate style.”

Master Sommelier Fred Dame, left, and Paul Draper at the “Somm 3” screening.

Draper, now chairman of the company, was also at the “Somm 3” screening and makes an appearance in the film. He joined Ridge in 1969, so he wasn’t responsible for the 1968 wine featured in the movie, though he did make the wines that figured in the Paris tasting and re-enactment.

At the screening, the winery poured the 2007 Monte Bello, which is quite fresh, with dark fruit, a bare hint of eucalyptus and the beginnings of some meaty nuances. Then, a surprise wine: the 1968 Monte Bello, poured from 750s rather than the magnum in the film. The wine still displayed some sweet fruit and plenty of acidity, but there were also flavors of truffle and smoke, with tannins that built on the finish. “It showed everything I expected, and then some,” Dame said of the magnum he shared with Spurrier and Robinson.

The current release of Monte Bello is the 2015, and it’s a remarkable wine, too. It’s dark and dense, with ample black fruit, notes of cedar and bay leaf, firm tannins and a long, persistent finish. It’s a powerful wine but not at all heavy or overdone. It also shows a sense of place: The woodsy surroundings of the Santa Cruz Mountains are reflected in the taste of the wine. (For $60, Ridge sells an estate cab that’s also delicious, although it’s not as long-lived as the Monte Bello.)

Fashions in wine come and go. The trend in recent years has been for riper, more powerful cabs, although that’s started to change a bit. But Monte Bello has never been a wine that’s a slave to fashion. Draper and the rest of the Ridge team never strayed from the goal of making an age-worthy wine with finesse. And it shows, whether the wine is 50 years old or a baby from 2015.



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