If you’re at all familiar with Ridge Vineyards, you likely already know that our winemaker, Paul Draper, who came to Ridge in 1969, was a philosophy major.
And even if you didn’t know that, I’ll wager you’re at least aware of the full extent to which philosophy drives our approach to winemaking.
But what you may not have experienced, however, is Paul Draper speaking directly about the relationship between philosophy, and the practical realities of producing wine.
Here is an excerpt from an interview conducted back in 1994, in which Paul discusses Ridge’s adherence to relying on “natural yeast” for fermentation. It’s a truly fascinating read, and I hope you not only enjoy it, I hope it enhances your experience of drinking our wines.
While the interview from which this quote emerges was conducted nearly 20 years ago, the content not only remains true for Ridge Vineyards today, it is deeply contemporary in its focus and committment. In an era where words like “organic” and “sustainable” have become marketing buzzwords, an era where things like “biodynamism” and “carbon footprints” are regularly debated at high-profile conferences and seminars, an era where the word “natural” has become so controversial it has been rendered seemingly unusable without igniting some sort of firestorm, I find it intensely heartening to read Paul’s words.
“You’ve got to remember I was a philosophy major. Also I was interested in the reasons behind things, their symbolism. I think there’s no question but that one of the reasons I was attracted to wine was that it is and has been throughout western civilization such a powerful symbol. It has been a part of the ritual of the most important religions of the western world. It has been the central symbol for transformation, whether physical or spiritual for thousands of years.
Unlike any other non-distilled alcoholic beverage, wine is made from grapes; in the grape, fully mature, all the elements are present to naturally change it into wine.
That is not true of beer, where you must take the grain and extract the sugar, and in the dawn of civilization, masticate it so the yeasts in your mouth would be added, and it would ferment. That’s how they think the earliest beer was made, and today you cook the grain and add a cultured yeast. Man is essential to beer- making for fermentation to take place. Distilled spirits, of course, depend entirely on man and his process of distillation.
With wine, you have the cluster of grapes growing in the vineyard. In the grape itself the balance of sugar and acid is such that there is sufficient sugar to form alcohol to a level that will make a stable, sound beverage in which pathogens cannot grow. Also there is enough natural acid to give that beverage liveliness and interest.
On the outside is a dusty coating that, let’s say, Mother Nature put there for a purpose. You can polish that coating off and make the grape nice and shiny. That coating is called the bloom. As the winds blow through the vineyard, stirring up the natural yeasts from wherever it is that they reproduce in nature — on wood, on the soil, on decomposed fruit — those yeasts stick to the bloom on the grapes. If picked and put into a receptacle and broken or allowed to just deteriorate enough so that they break themselves, the yeast on those skins then attack the sugar in the juice. Without any assistance from man, wine is made. How good a wine? That’s where man comes in. He’s got to begin to take care of it. In the grape are all the elements needed to make wine. That’s the reason why it’s the symbol of transformation. You have this simple but delicious fruit that, through a natural process, becomes something as exotic, stimulating, and incredible as a glass of wine. That is so amazing that the transformation it symbolizes has stayed with us through the history of western civilization.
So natural yeast; that’s why we use it. Can we as men and women really improve on nature in this case? Why not tie into the symbolism of something that separates wine from all other alcoholic beverages, that shows why wine is special, not just another intoxicant, not just another drug. Why would I stick with natural yeasts? It gives meaning to what I’m doing. I’m not in the driver’s seat; there is a natural process going on here that I can assist by choosing the vineyards, by watching over the wines, applying my experience and my team’s experience to how we handle the wines. But the wines in a sense make themselves. That’s far more interesting to me than simply producing another commodity.”
HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF WINEMAKING AT RIDGE VINEYARDS: 1970S -1990S
Interviews Conducted by Ruth Teiser, 1994
Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California