Dan Berger On Wine: Ridgecrest, a new wine brand, 40 years old
On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: Ridgecrest, a new wine brand, 40 years old

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Wine lovers who seek classically structured, cooler-climate wines would do well to remember the name Ridgecrest, a new wine brand from Oregon’s Willamette Valley that’s four decades old.

This seeming contradiction is easily resolved: the vineyard was planted 40 years ago in the hills of one of Oregon’s most prestigious vineyard sites, and over the decades served as the heart of some of the area’s best wines, made by the man who was that first planted there.

One of those who saw the future here was Harry Peterson-Nedry, a longtime Riesling lover who (when he bought the property in 1980) knew that Pinot Noir was likely to be the star in his firmament.

The winery he founded, Chehalem, planted its first vines in 1982 on Ribbon Ridge and made its first wine in 1985. He stumped for Ribbon Ridge to be an appellation and named his property Ridgecrest. And thus, the name of the “new” brand that’s celebrating its 35th harvest!

Willamette Valley is a special place. Harry always knew that. And by 1990 the world was being told assertively by several wine critics that the magic of the place was how it allowed for production of monumental Pinot Noirs.

That media-made message was made so forcefully that it may have left the world with two unfortunate residual problems, both of which had a dampening effect on the area as a wide-ranging wine mecca.

First, the tale about Pinot Noir’s infallibility in this valley might have been delivered too convincingly, since it gave people the wrong impression: that all Willamette Valley Pinot producers always made great Pinot Noir every year.

The real story is that Oregon in the 1980s showed great PN potential, but over time some producers made only good wines, not great. And some made passable wines even in in good vintages. And there were a number of poor vintages due to things like rain.

Yet prices for many mediocre Willamette Valley Pinots rose to heights that were unjustified on a year-to-year basis. Yet prices almost never declined.

As if that reality weren’t enough, there was a worse effect. By trumpeting Pinot Noir’s greatness so loudly, it obliterated the real story of Willamette: it could make truly world-class white wines, and with a regularity that Pinot could never approach.

We’ve known Harry for decades. On a visit in 2013 we had a chance to taste some current and slightly older white wines from Chehalem and others. It was clear that the region’s most important message wasn’t just the potential greatness of Pinot, but how amazing so many other grapes fared.

As we traversed the Willamette before and after our Chehalem visit, we found great Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and other vinous excitements that achieved more than any overpriced, mediocre Pinot ever could. Beyond producing a remarkable Riesling (see below), Harry’s new Ridgecrest brand (first vintage: 2018) makes several superb Pinot Noirs, a stylish Grüner Veltliner, a fascinating Gamay Noir, a dry Pinot Noir Rosé, and an old-vine Pinot Gris.

Everything comes off 40+ acres of estate vineyards. Total production is only 2,500 cases for now; the family sells some of its fruit to neighbors until Ridgecrest’s production can be ramped up. (There is also a small affiliated brand called RR, referencing the appellation Ribbon Ridge.)

The winemaker for this project is Harry’s daughter, Wynne, who earned a degree in enology at UC Davis and who has worked at wineries in Burgundy and New Zealand getting a firm grasp of cooler-climate wine-growing. She also was Chehalem’s assistant winemaker between 2009 and 2012.

She is part of the winery’s slogan, “A dad, a daughter, and a hill.”

One handsome touch with Ridgecrest wines: each bottle has a slightly different label bearing a line art drawing by Peterson-Nedry himself, an artist by avocation. https://www.ridgecrestwines.com/product/2019-ridgecrest-old-vine-estate-pinot-gris/

Two years ago, Harry chose to sell his share of Chehalem to his partner, Bill Stoller, and concentrate exclusively on his Ridgecrest vineyard for other brands.

Every wine in the Ridgecrest line is exemplary, and because of early interest by Harry’s friends (being in the business for 40 years brings a built-in clientele!), the family is expanding its vineyards, adding four acres of Chardonnay, an acre of Chenin Blanc (!), and another acre of Gamay Noir.

There’s fewer than two acres of Riesling, but it’s some of the best in the country.

The greatness of Willamette (beyond Pinot) now is becoming clear in the wide variety of great wines I’m seeing, not only from Ridgecrest. However, that message has yet to make it to broad-market consumers, partly, I suspect, because the wines may seem to some people to be more expensive than they think they should be.

But that’s an incorrect notion. If anything, they are below market. The Pinot Noir ($42) is about $12 to $15 less than a comparable cool-climate California PN would be. The dry Grüner Veltliner ($24) is among the finest such wines I have ever tasted and is roughly half of what a great dry Austrian version would be. And the 2019 Pinot Gris is about the same price that a top-of-the-line Pinot Gris from Italy’s Alto Adige would fetch.

The best example of a bargain is the nearly bone-dry Riesling, which Harry’s wholesale rep Tom Elliot (Northwest Wines Ltd.) adores. Elliot has been importing German Riesling for decades, and he compares the Ridgecrest to a cross between great Mosel flavors and a Pfalz structure and weight.

I have tasted many such wines. Great versions are usually about $35 to $40. The Ridgecrest is $24 and will be greater in many years of proper cellaring.

Tasting Notes, all Ridgecrest wines from Ribbon Ridge:

2019 Riesling ($24): Dramatically floral with an aroma of blossoms, tropical notes of fresh pineapple, golden kiwi, and a delicate peach/stony character that is beneficial to the finish and portends a long cellar life. Amazing wine.

2018 Pinot Noir ($42): The deep fruit on first opening is plum-, beet-, strawberry-scented, and it explodes with two to four hours in a decanter, indicating how great it will be in six to 8 years. It has a slightly Burgundian rustic-ness with a trace of pepper/earth, which grows in complexity ss the wine sits open. (A few ounces left in an unrefrigerated bottle for two days never oxidized, due in part to a very low pH of 3.52.)

2019 Grüner Veltliner ($24): Minerally and varietally precise, with traces of fennel, green tea, and an iron-y note on the palate. Dry, demands seafood! One of the four best American-produced Grüners I’ve ever had.

2019 Pinot Gris: Racy aroma of fennel/herbs and dried tree fruit. Its texture is slightly like a red wine, so can be served with oily seafoods like salmon or tuna. Aeration actually expanded the aroma.

2018 Gamay Noir ($30): This grape (native to Beaujolais) had had a meteoric rise in Oregon, and Wynne’s take on it is utterly fascinating. Start with an aroma slightly reminiscent of a great Cru Beaujolais, then shift: the flavors turn countryside – molasses brown bread, wet earth, plum, cherry compote, and baking spices. Then shift again: in the mouth, it’s as tart as early cherries, not unlike a great Italian Dolcetto, based on an absurdly low pH (3.1!).

https://www.ridgecrestwines.com/

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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