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The Decanter Interview: Paul Draper

With only three years’ experience of winemaking behind him, back in 1969 Paul Draper took on a small, historical vineyard in California, turning it into a legend and himself into an icon in the winemaking world. Jeannie Cho Lee MW meets the reigning Winemakers’ Winemaker

Draper at a glance:

  • Born: 10 March 1936
  • Education The Choate
  • School: Stanford University; University of Paris- Sorbonne
  • Career: Worked for a development foundation in Latin America (1964-1966), then helped set up a small winery, Fundo San Jose, in Chile (1966-1969); in 1969 he joined Ridge Vineyards as head winemaker, and in 1988 became its chief executive officer
  • Family: Wife: Maureen McCarthy Draper, classical pianist/ author; daughter: Caitlin, 33
  • Hobbies: Hiking, travel, reading, design

Draper’s awards:

  • 2000 Decanter Man of the Year 2000, UK
  • 2000 Wine Spectator Distinguished Service Award, USA
  • 2000 Food & Wine magazine: Winemaker of the Year, USA
  • 2005 Wein Gourmet Lifetime Achievement Award, Germany
  • 2006 Personnalité de l’Année, Les Grand Prix du Vin, Bettane/ Desseauve, France
  • 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year, USA
  • 2013 Winemakers’ Winemaker, Institute of Masters of Wine


Standing at 800m elevation on Monte Bello Ridge, with its winemaking facilities behind us, Paul Draper gestures towards the gorgeous landscape of undulating mountains. ‘These are the Santa Cruz Mountains, which are part of the Pacific Coast ranges. In front of us is the San Andreas Fault, and there, to the west, about 25km away, is the Pacific Ocean,’ he explains. It’s a sunny late afternoon in February, the landscape looks like a Thomas Cole painting from the 19th century, and Draper’s explanation of the limestone subsoil, greenstone overlays and submarine volcanic friable material is drowned out by the overwhelming beauty of the place.

‘This particular exotic terrain is only 24 by 5km of area,’ Draper’s voice rises excitedly. ‘This is a unique piece of land that can be traced back to Indonesia!’ Although Draper didn’t know it when he first joined Ridge Vineyards in 1969, the area is one of the few regions in California to contain a large amount of limestone subsoil. And, as Draper enlightens me in detail, the high altitude and special location of Monte Bello vineyards mean it is as cool as Bordeaux during the growing season, with slightly warmer days but cooler nights.

Perhaps these site conditions and unique geology partly explain the longevity of the Monte Bello Ridge Cabernet blend, legendary for its capacity to evolve and age gracefully over decades. In the momentous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, the 1971 Monte Bello was placed fifth; and in the 30th-anniversary rematch, it was ranked first, ousting the first growths of Bordeaux. But as I spend more time with Draper and his team, it becomes clear that while the land and conditions may provide the basic DNA and structure for the wines, it is the people who embody and contribute to their personality and soul.

And no one embodies the Ridge spirit better than Draper. In fact, Ridge and Draper are nearly synonymous in people’s minds – their timeless style, their longevity and their ability to mature gracefully. As Draper eloquently describes his vineyard and winemaking philosophy at Ridge over the past 40 years, there are certain words that come up time and time again: ‘excellence’, ‘consistency’ and ‘authenticity’. These are obviously qualities he strives for when crafting Ridge Vineyard wines, as well as for himself.

Very little in Draper’s past points to what he would become later in life: a symbolic wine figure who helped build one of the most historic and noteworthy wineries in America. Draper does not have a degree in oenology; in fact, he studied philosophy at Stanford University and, prior to joining Ridge, worked for only three years helping to set up a small, now-defunct, winery in Chile, called Fundo San Jose.

His first exposure to wine was when he left his family farm in Barrington, Illinois, to attend the Choate preparatory school in Connecticut. It was during meals with his Swiss-American roommate’s family in New York that Draper first started to fall in love with wine. He says: ‘At prep school, we were reading Hemingway, and the idea of having wine with every meal was wonderful.’

At Stanford, Draper initially dreamed of becoming an architect, but says: ‘I hated math and calculus and so I chose philosophy.’ After Stanford, he spent four years in Europe, initially serving in the army in Italy, then studying French and literature for a year at The Sorbonne. Those years reaffirmed his love for wine, and turned it into a serious hobby.

Steep learning curve

After returning to the States, Draper was offered a job setting up a foundation in Latin America, to improve nutrition in countries such as Costa Rica, Venezuela and Chile. Then, in 1966, Draper finally got his chance to become involved in the wine industry, helping to set up Fundo San Jose for the purpose of exporting. ‘In 1966, only 2% of Chile’s wineries exported, and we believed there was potential for wine,’ he recalls. With primitive equipment, Draper helped make wine the oldfashioned way, with no cooling equipment or fancy machinery and no additives.

It was a chance encounter in 1969 that led Draper to the three Stanford University scientists who owned Ridge Vineyards. Draper was asked to give a talk about making natural wines in Chile, and the owners were so impressed that they asked him to join Ridge as head winemaker. Draper knew there was potential to produce authentic, excellent wine on their property after tasting the 1962 and 1964 Monte Bellos, and, of course, he accepted the trio’s offer.

‘The three men, David Bennion, Charles Rosen and Hewitt Crane, had already owned Ridge for seven years when I met them and the winery was struggling,’ says Draper. After only three years, he became an equal partner. ‘During the first 18 years, it was hard. Even three years after I joined, we were either breaking even or losing money,’ he says. ‘But never during those years did they ever question me about my stringent selection or ask me to make more wine. They never said a word, even when we could not pay salaries. We had our houses on a bank loan to keep it going.’

During the early years, Draper says he relied on two books to provide him with an understanding of winemaking: The Wine Press And The Cellar by Emmet H Rixford, and Wines: their care and treatment in cellar and store by Raimond Boireau. Nestled far away from the revolution occurring in the northerly regions of Napa and, to a lesser extent, Sonoma, Santa Cruz was the ideal place to preserve traditions and not be swayed by the demands of a fickle public and the growing influence of American wine critics.

The 1976 Paris Tasting put Ridge Vineyards on the radar of a growing number of wine professionals and collectors, and the winery’s financial situation improved. In 1986, with the Stanford scientists looking to retire, the winery was purchased by Japanese pharmaceutical magnate Akihiko Otsuka, with the stipulation that Draper stay on. ‘We went to dinner one evening and Otsuka said Californian wines do not have the finesse of Bordeaux,’ Draper recalls. ‘I served him two wines blind – one was the 1970 Mouton and the other the 1970 Monte Bello. He correctly guessed which wine was which, but he changed his mind about Californian wines – he agreed they had as much finesse as Bordeaux.’ As a hands-off owner, Otsuka visits the winery about once a year and gives free rein to Draper.

Unlike many wineries that employ seasonal part-time labour, especially during harvest, at Ridge the 75 staff are not only employed full-time but also live on the premises in company-provided housing. Employees at Ridge are loyal (the average tenure is 20 years) and the family spirit that pervades the property is also present in the wines – there is a sense of continuity and consistency year after year. When questioned about what he is most grateful for when looking back, Draper replies: ‘Definitely hiring the right people.’ Those people include Eric Baugher, Monte Bello’s winemaker; John Olney, Lytton Springs’ winemaker; David Gates, the vineyard operations manager; and Mark Vernon, president and chief operating officer of Ridge. Most of them have been with the company for at least two decades.

Ridge’s winemaker Eric Baugher, operations manager David Gates, Paul Draper and winemaker John Olney

Even the 2011 vintage, which many winegrowers in California found challenging after a rare disappointing summer, is less dramatically different at Ridge. The 2011 Monte Bello Cabernet is elegant and tightly wound, and at 13.1% alcohol falls right into line of the average alcohol range of 12.5% to 13.5%. Draper explains: ‘Our wines are always below 14% alcohol, even in warm vintages. Our approach has changed very little in 40 years compared with other Californian regions.’

Technology counts

Making wine at Ridge is clearly a combination of art and science. While the goal is to make natural, ‘real’ wines, the winery achieves this authenticity by embracing the latest scientific knowledge. Draper says: ‘By the mid-1970s, our analytical lab was equipped with a spectrophotometer; a few years later, a high-performance liquid chromatograph was added, and then a gas chromatograph shortly after that. For a number of years, we have had very possibly the most sophisticated lab of any winery our size.’

Having the equipment to produce the right data, Draper believes, can help winegrowers do less and know when it is, and isn’t, necessary to intervene – with the general principle that less is more. In the lab, Draper says analysis has helped Ridge learn about skin and seed tannins, how they bond and what that provides. In the vineyard, the team uses minimal, widely spaced, deep irrigation channels – and for the 40- to 60-year-old vines, no irrigation at all is used. Draper adds: ‘We judge the need for water visually and by using sap-flow meters in those blocks equipped with the Fruition Sciences [water-monitoring] system.’

In a region where loud, expressive, flashy wines were all the rage in the 1990s and beyond, Ridge never veered from continuing to make subtle, restrained wines built to age. After 44 years at the property, Draper is still enthusiastic and talks about replanting more of the 19th-century vineyards on Monte Bello that were abandoned during Prohibition. ‘I am most looking forward to planting three parcels at Lytton Springs vineyard to each of three old Croatian clones of Zinfandel, which were originally called Tribidrag in the 14th century,’ he says with the vigour and ambition of someone 40 years his junior. At 77, Draper, who looks no older than 50, embodies the Monte Bello secret of ageing stylishly with grace and dignity (it is one of the few American wines that sells 65% of its production en primeur).

Draper talks about Zinfandel in California with the same ardour as a newly besotted lover. ‘The first time I had Geyserville Zinfandel, which was planted in the 19th century, I was astounded. Mature or old-vine Zinfandel, carefully made, can show differences in terroir more clearly than Cabernet in California,’ he says. ‘Cabernet, all too often, is made by the winemaker to fit a consensus style, rather than having the style and character determined by the terroir.’

Draper is a pioneer in crafting masterpieces from old-vine Zinfandel – just try his Geyserville or Lytton Springs wines from 1991 or 1992 and you will be convinced. His quest has influenced many others and inspired the creation of ZAP, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of Zinfandel that today includes 250 growers from around the world.

In March this year, Draper was named the 2013 Winemakers’ Winemaker by the Institute of Masters of Wine – adding yet another honour to a shelf groaning with awards. When I ask him which are his favourite gongs, he replies: ‘Oh, there were a bunch.’ He waves that topic aside and focuses again on the nuances added by old Zinfandel vines: ‘Geyserville has 80-year-old vines; we replant one by one and we haven’t torn any out. We learned over the past 10 years that if you plant a field blend of Zinfandel, Petit Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and others, it produces higher quality earlier than planting just a block of pure Zinfandel.’

An afternoon spent with Draper is energising and uplifting, and I leave Ridge convinced that wine can keep one youthful and enthusiastic about life. Draper’s life story reinforces the belief that, with patience, perseverance and faith, one can achieve greatness with humility, and respect for the land and the people who work it.

The Santa Cruz Mountains rise behind the Ridge vineyards.

Written by Jeannie Cho Lee

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