You can tell a man by the company he keeps, as the saying goes. And you can also tell a man by how he talks about a famous colleague, one who soaks up the oxygen whether he’s in the room or not.
David Gates, a veteran of 34 vintages at California’s Ridge Vineyards, is in charge of growing across Ridge’s entire portfolio. He became vice president when Paul Draper, the visionary winemaker who created Ridge’s reputation, retired in 2015; Gates and head winemaker John Olney are the face of the operation, alongside CEO Mark Vernon. Draper remains chairman of the board.
Just as its impossible to discuss, say, Au Bon Climat without reference to the late Jim Clendenen, so a conversation about Ridge is unthinkable without mention of Draper – one of the half-dozen or so winemakers in the world for whom the adjective ‘legendary’ is quite apt. What’s it like to take over from such a figure?
‘You have to remember he’s still intimately involved in the winery. He comes to all of our tasting sessions. He’s still very much there.’ Gates makes clear his admiration for Draper – ‘As a young man he had a vision for the winery and he stuck to it, regardless of the fads in California wine. I look at him and I think “here is a guy that has dedicated his life to Ridge”’. He stresses that yes, Draper is a big character (‘everyone wants to have their imprint’), but it’s the vision that matters. ‘It’s all about staying true to the style of exceptionally long-lived wines with a lot of acidity and moderate alcohol levels.’
Gates is a compact and energetic figure. He has the deeply lined face of a person who has spent most of their time outside, and the modest assurance of the master craftsman. He nods emphatically, ‘Exactly!’ when he agrees with something you’ve said, and he uses the words ‘exciting’ and ‘fun’ about 57 times over the course of our conversation. He’s 63, with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a six-year-old in possession of the most marvellous train set in the world.
This year, Ridge is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and Gates and Olney are in London for a retrospective going back to 1964. Ridge is a bit like the late Queen, not only in terms of its longevity, but in the way it has maintained its style for more than half a century while so many others scramble after fashion.
Trends in the vineyard are circular. Every ten or fifteen years someone has the same idea they had ten or fifteen years before
As a grower, does he notice that the trends in the vineyard follow the same rollercoaster trajectory as they do in the winery? ‘It’s not so much rollercoaster as circular. Every ten or fifteen years someone has the same idea they had ten or fifteen years before.’ He mentions pruning techniques – first it was all cane pruning, then it went to cordon, now it’s back to cane again. And Zin: ‘So Zinfandel got bigger and bigger, then it was in vogue for a bit and now it’s back out of fashion. But we kept on doing it.’
We talk about Ridge’s huge range of wines. From the beginning, Draper was a champion of old-vine Zinfandel, but Ridge is indelibly associated with the Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, its most famous wine (the 1971 starred in the 1976 Paris tasting). Ridge actually comprises three main sites: Lytton Springs in Dry Creek Valley AVA in Sonoma; Geyserville in the Alexander Valley; and Monte Bello. There are some ancient vineyards: Lytton Springs has very old field blends of Zinfandel, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Tinturier Grand Noir, Mataro, Grenache, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Picpoul, Burger, Palomino… Geyserville’s Old Patch vines contain 130-year-old Carignane, and 50-year-old Zinfandel.
In all, Gates farms about 10 estate vineyards and buys in grapes from another 20, from Mendocino to Paso Robles; they make some 30 wines from this wonderful array of sites. The ‘core wines’ – the Geyserville Zinfandel, Monte Bello Cabernet and the Lytton Springs Zinfandel – are the bedrock of Ridge. The rest? ‘It’s fun to experiment. It’s exciting.’
Then there’s the thrill of the chase. Six years ago, they found some Grenache Blanc in Paso – ‘it’s a beautiful variety for California so we’re excited about that’ – and they’ve just ‘got their hands on’ some Falanghina and Vermentino from ‘way north in Mendocino, a little vineyard called Alder Springs, where this crazy guy has twenty different varieties. So that’s going to be fun.’
It certainly sounds it. But there are challenges ahead: climate change, labour shortages, water. All are demanding attention: ‘How do we mitigate the effects?’ The main strategy (in common with producers all over the world) is the search for heat-resistant varieties, ones which retain their acidity as temperatures soar. Here Gates has the advantage of the old vineyards in which forgotten varieties have been quietly growing for a century and more.
‘There’s an old Jura variety called Béclan Noir which we found in the Old Patch at Whitton Ranch in Geyserville, and St Macaire, an old Bordeaux variety with great colour and great acidity and nice clusters which we’ve planted at Lytton Springs.’ Then there’s Cabernet Pfeffer, which he’s ‘really excited’ about (look it up – it’s the coolest grape in California).
Sixty years ago, Ridge was being worked by a ‘part-time crew of hippies’ as Draper remembered it in a recent blog post. I wonder if there’s still a remnant of that vibe. ‘It’s morphed. We’re more corporate now, which is a sign of the times, but there is a sense of community. We all have a similar purpose…’ Gates smiles. ‘Not getting high… but making these amazing wines. If your ego gets in the way of that, you don’t last long at Ridge.’