Paul Draper (winemaker)
Paul Draper thieving wine from a barrel at Ridge Monte Bello.
Paul Draper (born March 10, 1936) is a California winemaker who has been the chief winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in California since 1969. Without any formal training in winemaking, Draper first gained recognition for his 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon when it placed fifth at the Judgment of Paris wine tasting. Draper has played a significant role in the history of California wine through his pioneering work in popularizing "vineyard-designated" wines as well as instigating the resurgence of old vine Zinfandel. Along with Ravenswood Winery's Joel Peterson, Draper is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Californian Zinfandel, rescuing the grape from obscurity and demonstrating its full potential as a serious wine.
Born in Evanston, Illinois in 1936, Draper was raised on a farm and exposed to agriculture at an early age. He graduated from The Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Connecticut and Stanford University, where he majored in philosophy and first became aware of Ridge Vineyard, which was then owned by a group of Stanford Research Institute engineers. After graduation in 1959, Draper joined the Army where he was stationed at Italy. During that time, in a desire to see the sights from his favorite film La strada, Draper rode through the Italian countryside on a motorcycle, learning about the local culture, cuisine and wine. Following his release from the Army, he spent some time at Sorbonne studying French cuisine and nutrition. On his return to the United States, Draper went to work for at Chateau Souverain in Napa Valley as a cellar assistant with the harvest.
The next year, Draper went to Chile as part of a Peace Corps mission where he leased a Chilean winery with Fritz Maytag, a fellow volunteer and friend from Stanford. Using Cabernet vines from local vineyards, Draper got first hand experience with winemaking in a very low-tech environment. During this time he also read many books on winemaking to expand his knowledge of the field. In 1968, he traveled to Bordeaux where he discussed winemaking with the maître de chai of Château Latour. The experience gave him the confidence he needed to meet with David Bennion and accept the chief winemaking position at Ridge Vineyards in 1969.
While Ridge had some success with Cabernet, the mission that Draper was charged with was to make Ridge "respectable". One of the first tasks that he set about was in modernizing the facilities of a winery that was first built in 1886. He then went to focus on Ridge's Cabernet Sauvignon and became an advocate of the potential of cool climate Cabernet in contrast to the very ripe, highly alcoholic styles that came out of warmer climates. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, the high altitude of Ridge's vineyards as well as its proximity to the Pacific Ocean created a cooler climate that was distinctly different from that found in Napa Valley or Sonoma County. Draper also embraced the French wine concept of terroir and began producing single-vineyard wine that was designated on the wine label with the name of that vineyard. As the reputation of his wine grew, consumers soon began to recognize names such as Monte Bello, Picchetti Vineyard, Jimsomare and Geyserville from their vineyard-designated bottlings.
The style of Draper's Ridge Cabernets are often compared to more Old World styles like Bordeaux and have been reviewed by critics in favorable comparisons to the wines of the First Growths. That is a style that Draper actively tries to parallel and would often serve blind tastings of his Monte Bello Cabernet with a bottle of Château Latour to get feedback on the differences between the two.
Judgement of Paris
The 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon was selected by organizer Steven Spurrier to take part in his 1976 blind tasting that would pit the best of California wines against the best of France's wines. On the tasting notes, Draper describes the 1971 vintage as the first vintage that they were able to achieve balance in the wine with less sugar in the grapes prior to harvest and the benefit of small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet franc. The wine was fermented dry with extended skin contact and then put through malolactic fermentation and aged in small American oak barrels. The wine was expected to hit its peak after 6 years in the bottle. Prior to the tasting, Spurrier expected the Ridge Monte Bello to be the best performing American red. In the final results it ended up being the fifth best overall red wine (and second best American wine) after Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Montrose and Château Haut-Brion.
In the 2006 rematch, the 1971 Ridge was the highest ranked red wine beating out the 1973 Stag's tastings of the same vintage wine as the original competition. A second tasting was held of more recent vintage wine in which the 2000 Monte Bello red wine came in second place behind a 2000 Château Margaux.
Influence on California Zinfandel
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Zinfandel was primarily a jug wine grape. Draper sensed the potential of the wine if grown in the right spot and with low yields. Prior to his arrival, Ridge had been making some Zinfandel in small quantities, often blended with Carignane and Petite Sirah, but it was never much of a focus. Elsewhere in California the grape was also drawing little interest from "serious" winemakers. Remembering the lessons he learned in Europe about the benefits of "old vines", particularly with keeping low yields, he went looking for some of the oldest vines of Zinfandel that he could find and found several vineyards with plantings from the 1880s-1900s. Over the course of his career he would uncover other "ideal" spots for Zinfandel including Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Dry Creek Valley, Mendocino, Lodi, Paso Robles, Amador County and Geyserville. While many of these areas had long histories of Zinfandel production, most of these areas never received much recognition until Draper and Ridge began using them and touting their terroir with vineyard-designated wines.
Draper is an advocate of natural winemaking, though Ridge is not a certified organic winery. His view stems from his desire to let the vineyards "express themselves" and their terroir without over intrusiveness by man. He has been a critic of overly-powerful, over oak and highly alcoholic wines made from excessively ripe fruit, preferring his wines to be more about finesse and balance. He has also been a critic of high wine prices and consumers who purchase wine for speculating purposes rather than to enjoy them. He has been a harsh critic of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology in their emphasis of more "industrial winemaking" versus the traditional methods that he prefers. In contrast to other California Cabernets, Draper's wines are normally around 13% ABV which is low even in comparison to Bordeaux wines. Though his wines are often more of a French style, he has preferred to use American oak because they seem to perform better with his wines.
Over the years Paul Draper has influenced a number of winemakers, both in California and abroad, with such notable wine personalities as Jean-Luc Colombo counting him as among his favorite non-European winemakers.
- 2000: Wine Spectator Distinguished Service Award
- 2005: Wein Gourmet Lifetime Achievement Award, Germany
- 2006: San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year 
- G. Taber The Judgment of Paris: California vs France pg 181-182 Simon & Schuster ISBN 0-7432-4751-5
- Laube, J. Wine Spectator (November 15, 2000). "Paul Draper".
- Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes pg 287-291 Harcourt Books 2001 ISBN 0-15-100714-4
- Bonné, Jon, San Francisco Chronicle (December 8, 2006). "Winemaker of the Year: Paul Draper". The San Francisco Chronicle.
- E. Arnold "Winemaker Talk: Jean-Luc Colombo" Wine Spectator April 26, 2007
- Gray, W. Blake, San Francisco Chronicle (March 10, 2005). "Philosopher/winemaker Paul Draper runs Ridge Vineyards with a different, broader bottom line". The San Francisco Chronicle.
Darlington, David, ANGEL'S VISITS An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel, Henry Holt and Company 1991, ISBN 0-8050-1608-2