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Paul Draper: The Visionary Winemaker Behind Ridge Vineyards

Paul Draper

In the world of wine, certain individuals leave an indelible mark on the industry, reshaping perceptions and pushing boundaries. Paul Draper is one such luminary, a California winemaker who has dedicated his life to crafting exceptional wines and championing the concepts of “terroir” and “balanced vines[1].” In this blog post, we’ll delve into the life and achievements of Paul Draper, the chief winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, and explore his profound influence on the world of wine.

Early Life and Global Exploration

Born on March 10, 1936, in Evanston, Illinois, Paul Draper’s journey into the world of wine was far from conventional. Raised on a farm, he developed an early connection to agriculture[2]. After graduating from The Choate School and Stanford University, where he majored in philosophy, Draper embarked on a remarkable journey.

During his service in the United States Army, he was stationed in Italy, where his love for wine began to flourish. Inspired by the Italian countryside, cuisine, and wine, he embarked on motorcycle adventures, immersing himself in local culture and viticulture. Following his military service, Draper continued his culinary exploration at Sorbonne in France, studying French cuisine and nutrition.

 

Did you know?

Draper’s passion for wine developed when he was still in the Army stationed in Italy.

It was during these formative years that Draper’s passion for wine began to take root. His thirst for knowledge led him to read extensively about winemaking, expanding his expertise in the field.

A Transformative Experience in Chile

In 1960, Paul Draper joined a Peace Corps mission in Chile, where he met Fritz Maytag, a fellow volunteer and friend from Stanford. Together, they leased a Chilean winery and experimented with winemaking in a low-tech environment, using Cabernet vines from local vineyards[3]. This

hands-on experience deepened Draper’s understanding of winemaking and instilled in him a profound appreciation for the craft.

Turning to Bordeaux and Ridge Vineyards

In 1968, Paul Draper traveled to Bordeaux, where he engaged in discussions about winemaking with the maître de chai of Château Latour. This experience bolstered his confidence and prepared him for a momentous decision. Draper met with David Bennion and accepted the position of chief winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in 1969.

Monte Bello | Source

Revolutionizing Ridge Vineyards

Upon joining Ridge Vineyards, Paul Draper was tasked with modernizing the winery’s facilities, which had been originally constructed in 1886. He embarked on a journey to transform Ridge into a respected winemaking institution. Draper’s focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and his commitment to a cooler climate approach set Ridge apart.

Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, Ridge’s vineyards benefited from their high altitude and proximity to the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a distinct microclimate that favored cool-climate Cabernet. Draper also embraced the concept of terroir, producing single-vineyard wines that bore the name of the specific vineyard on the label.

The style of Draper’s Ridge Cabernets drew comparisons to Old World Bordeaux wines, emphasizing finesse and balance[4]. He actively sought feedback, even conducting blind tastings of his Monte Bello Cabernet alongside Château Latour to discern the differences.

Judgment of Paris Triumph

In 1976, Paul Draper’s 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon was selected for the Judgment of Paris blind tasting, a historic event that pitted California wines against France’s finest. Despite being an underdog, Ridge Monte Bello remarkably placed fifth overall and second among American wines, earning well-deserved recognition.

Champion of California Zinfandel

Draper’s influence went beyond Cabernet. In an era when Zinfandel was overlooked and primarily used for jug wines, Draper recognized its potential when grown with care and low yields. He scoured California for old-vine Zinfandelvineyards and identified ideal spots in various regions, revitalizing the grape and showcasing its terroir through vineyard-designated bottlings.

Winemaking Philosophy and Legacy

Paul Draper advocated for natural winemaking, allowing the vineyards to express themselves without excessive intervention. He prioritized finesse and balance over excessive ripeness and high alcohol content, leading to Ridge wines with lower alcohol levels compared to many California counterparts. Despite being influenced by Old World winemaking traditions, Draper chose American oak barrels for his wines.

Over the years, Paul Draper’s philosophy and approach influenced countless winemakers worldwide, leaving an indelible mark on the industry.

Honors and Legacy

Paul Draper received numerous accolades throughout his career, including the Wine Spectator Distinguished Service Award and the Wein Gourmet Lifetime Achievement Award in Germany. He was named the San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year in 2006[5]. Even when Paul retired as CEO and Winemaker of Ridge Vineyards in 2016, his legacy lives on. His dedication to crafting exceptional wines.

Links to wineries represented by Paul Draper

Read More:

References:

[1] Matthews, Mark A, Terroir and other myths of winegrowing, Univ of California Press, 2016.

[3] Liz Thach, “Legendary Winemaker, Paul Draper, Reflects On The 60th Anniversary Of Ridge Monte Bello Vineyards,” Forbes, (Nov 30, 2022). https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizthach/2022/11/30/legendary-winemaker-paul-draper-reflects-on-the-60th-anniversary-of-ridge-monte-bello-vineyards/?sh=61cc32b5495b

Want to read more? Try these books!

History and philosophy of winemaking at Ridge Vineyards 1970s-1990s : oral history transcript / 199 Greenwood Ridge Vineyards

Bibliography

Bonné, Jon, “Winemaker of the Year: Paul Draper,” San Francisco Chronicle, (December 8, 2006).

Liz Thach, “Legendary Winemaker, Paul Draper, Reflects On The 60th Anniversary Of Ridge Monte Bello Vineyards,” Forbes, (Nov 30, 2022). https://www.forbes.com/sites/lizthach/2022/11/30/legendary-winemaker-paul-draper-reflects-on-the-60th-anniversary-of-ridge-monte-bello-vineyards/?sh=61cc32b5495b

Matthews, Mark A, Terroir and other myths of winegrowing, Univ of California Press, 2016.

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