Winemaker’s Interview - Paul Draper from Ridge Vineyards


About Paul Draper

The names Paul Draper and Ridge vineyards are always linked together, even though Paul retired from Ridge just over 4 years ago. This legendary winemaker devoted almost half a century to Ridge vineyards. It was the Monte Bello he made that beat Bordeaux first growth in the 1976 Judgement of Paris and brought Ridge to the international arena. He is also well known for being the person that set a benchmark for California Zinfandels. 

Paul grew up in Chicago and studied philosophy at Stanford University.  Upon receiving his degree, he went to Italy and lived there for two and half years followed by a move where he studied at the University of Paris and traveled extensively in France. After Europe, he traveled to Chile, where he reopened a historic bodega with a friend, and made several vintages of wine before returning to California in 1969. He was offered a winemaker job at Ridge and his destiny has been linked with Ridge vineyards ever since. His experience in Europe had a huge influence on his winemaking philosophy; he is a strong advocate of the traditional winemaking approach, in contrast with a lot of new world producers, where the use of processing and additives are common. 

We are honored to have been able to talk with Paul and have him answer a few questions from us.

1971, the owner of Ridge, Dave Bennion and Paul Draper 

Q1: What are the 3 main factors that make Ridge wines unique?

Paul: Unique is an alerting word, I certainly keep it just to California or new world.  

First, follow traditional winemaking methods.  Back before 1920, California was making wines quite traditionally, using techniques that have been developed over centuries in Europe, from 1920 – 1934, we passed law that didn’t permit wines to be made and alcohol to be drunk, so there was an interruption in our traditions of wine making. No one made wines in that prohibition period and after that, only a couple people had come back who knew those original techniques.  I have the privilege of tasting 2 of those made in the 1930s, they were made traditionally, and they were the finest Californian wines I had seen prior to the late 60s. With the late 40s, as techniques were developed, processing was developed, additives were developed, and a modern approach of wine making was developed. In California and in the new world, the modern techniques really dominated. I did not follow that path.  My experience of those 2 wines from the 30s that had been made traditionally in California, and my experience of great vintages of Bordeaux were my teachers, they had so much greater complexity and they showed the ability to age that I wasn’t seeing in Californian wines being made in the 40s, 50s and early 60s. I am seeing that wines that are most interesting and the finest to me are these wines made by traditional techniques. We Ridge leant back to the past rather than going with the modern techniques that were being developed in the late 40s that would be one thing virtually unique for us. 

Second is tasting. All of our decisions are made on tasting. The actual decisions on how we guide our wines, how we select our parcels that are going to go in our wines is entirely based on blind tasting.

Third, in the last 10, 12 years, our federal government has allowed us, which it did not before, to voluntarily put the ingredients on the labels.  If we are going to do that, we have to say everything that we did, everything that was included, and so we have a list of ingredients and I believe in its completeness and accuracy, there is virtually no one else in California doing that.


Q2: Have you notice the effects of climate change?

No serious changes. We are close to the Pacific Ocean, we are only about 25km away. We are at an elevation…our highest vineyard is 800m and our lowest is above 4-500 m and so we are cooler, we are in a very cool climate, what that means, is that… here in Monte Bello, we haven’t seen that degree of warming, for us, alcohol degree perhaps has increased 2 or 3 tenths on average from what they were prior, part of that reason is we are affected by Mediterranean climate to the east, but also maritime climate of the Pacific Ocean to the west and what’s been happening with climate change is that we are seeing more fog coming from maritime climate and affecting and keeping us cool. We haven’t seen an increase in temperature like other parts of California.

Q3: Do you believe organic and sustainable farming have a positive effect on the quality of your wines. 

Yes, the health of the vines with true organic farming to be aware of, to be understanding the soil that you are growing in and the health of that soil, the micro life of that soil is so crucial. Also, understanding the vineyard and your vines that is to be watching and in touch with all the vines…and really watching them and seeing their reactions to your pruning and to the methods that you used in cultivating and maintaining them. Without that, what we might look at is agribusiness organic where the concern for the soil is minimal compared to true organic…but It’s hard to compare, simply because before we became organic, we were already so limiting in everything that we did conventionally with the grapes or the use of pesticides were so minimal, the change of organic has not been dramatic in looking at the quality of the soil of the vines or the grapes themselves.

Q4: If you could pick any other region in the world to make wine, where would it be and why?

I sort of thought about it occasionally over the years and it’s not easy, and I sort of change my mind as time goes on. I can give a couple answers perhaps.  

Piemonte, Italy is probably my first love, it’s where I first spent time, fell in love with the food and the wine. I admire the finesse of Piemonte wines, that is the Barolos. I particularly admire some of the traditional winemakers. I look at the quality of those wines, and how they age, and their complexity…The quality that I see in Piemonte, I would say, if I could have a fine vineyard, scale can be very small,  with correct exposures, I would love to work with Nebbiolo, and may be on the side, Dolcetto, I have such a love for Dolcetto that I wouldn’t mind trying my hand of that, that was my earliest decision. 

On the other hand, sort of in travelling around the world, I was in New Zealand, I was in the northern edge of the South Island, looking across at the mountains on the North Island… I was looking behind it at the snowcapped mountains behind me on the South Island, I was right on the coast, there were vines and apple trees right up to the water and it was so incredibly beautiful and having no idea of the quality of the wine I might be able to make there. It is sort of a dream of an incredibly beautiful place to work. I sort of thought, ok, this is sort of a wonderful thing to at least try and see if I could do something there, simply because this is one of the most beautiful spots in the wine industry in the world.