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Paul Draper is an icon of California winemaking and a past recipient of Decanter Magazine’s prestigious “Man of the Year” award in recognition of his significant contribution to the world of wine. But more than that he is one of the most interesting, compassionate and knowledgeable people I’ve ever met. It was a great pleasure and privilege to attend a tasting of eight vintages of the highly acclaimed Ridge Monte Bello in magnum led by Paul at last week’s Relais & Châteaux Gourmet Fest in Carmel.

I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed Monte Bello vertical tastings with Paul on three other memorable occasions. However, this experience was different, focusing more on Paul’s background and the history of Monte Bello and Ridge. Also, this was the first ever Monte Bello tasting done exclusively from magnum and all from Ridge’s library.

We were captivated by the 1977, 1984, 1994, 1997, 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages with ongoing commentary and insight from Paul along with panelists Jon Bonné (San Francisco Chronicle and Decanter) and Angus Wagner (sommelier at Nepenthe in Big Sur). While each wine conveyed the characteristics of the vintage, all were strongly linked by the core appeal of the Monte Bello vineyard. An amazing experience indeed and beautifully enriched by Paul’s story.

I was fascinated to learn Paul grew up in an Illinois farming family and always loved being close to the soil. He graduated with a degree in philosophy from Stanford with extended studies in Paris and elsewhere. Paul’s wine epiphany came while attending a Thanksgiving dinner in Dry Creek with four generations of a friend’s family. He was so taken by the beauty of the wines and how they contributed to the atmosphere of the evening, he made the decision to make wine his life’s work.

Paul’s travels initially took him to many disadvantaged areas of the world where he helped the underprivileged local populations. While in Chile, he established a winery focused on exporting to the U.S. before returning to Northern California and joining the “upstart” Ridge Vineyards in 1969.

In 1959, four Stanford Research Institute engineers headed by Dave Bennion purchased the original Monte Bello vineyard (now known as the “middle vineyard”) and inactive winery with the intention of selling the fruit. The partners, with no knowledge in winemaking, made a quarter barrel (about 15 gallons) that year and results were so good Dave persuaded his partners to re-bond the winery with the first commercial vintage being 1962. Until 1968 they continued to make Monte Bello as “weekend warriors” in a non-interventionalist style to a welcome reception.

To go to the next level, they needed help and turned to Paul. He joined the team in 1969 based on his tastings of the 1962 and 1964 Monte Bellos. Here he found a great stylistic similarity to his vision of winemaking and patterned his future efforts and philosophy after the wines he so enjoyed from the 1930s and 1940s where little technology was available or used.

Paul’s mentor of sorts was a book written in 1898 by E.H. Rexford of La Questa Vineyards. Even today, his winemaking philosophy continues to follow the same teachings of picking at proper ripeness, native yeast fermentation, natural malolactic fermentation, no sterile filtration, no additives and minimal handling.

Ridge has always relied on the quality of the vineyard and fruit, not on many of the technological advancements currently stressed by so many others. Through Paul’s leadership, the goal of Ridge’s winemaking and viticultural team is to achieve small quality advances each year. While perfection is an ever-changing objective the team is determined to see each vintage contributing to the improvement of the next.

I was not surprised to hear Paul say, “Winemaking is the joy of my life and never work.”

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My Feb. 27 column “2011: Same wines different palates” generated many comments on the vintage, personal experiences and the true nature of “Old World” palate preferences.

Pablo — “I’ve tasted many 2011s showing excellent balance and varietal character. To dismiss this vintage would be a mistake. Your comparison to 1998 is appropriate. The dichotomy of palates and preferences in the ‘old’ and ‘new’ world wines are often noted, however, it’s interesting that European tasters often show a California preference when comparing blind.”

Michael — “It goes to more than Old versus New world. In France and Italy they very much have a local palate. Familiarity breeds preference. They enjoy the wines of their local region.”

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at napavalleyregister.com/wine-exchange or email me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.

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