Building Monte Bello: The 2011 Assemblage

It was a beautiful day on the mountain, and a beautiful day to make history.

I left the morning sun behind, and entered the true velvet sur-surface catacomb of The Monte Bello Room.

I emerged on the other side, into the comparatively harsh radiance of an office, a hallway, and then, the room. The room in which it was to all transpire. The sacellum within. It wasn’t exactly with confidence that I walked into the room, though neither was it with the abject terror that had so twisted my guts the first time around. The mantra cycled in my mind, “You’ve done this before, and you can do this. You’ve done this before, and you can do this. You’ve done this before, and you can do this.” It felt good to be a part of it all again, and while I wasn’t nervous to the point of emotional instability, I was still imbued with an awe that can’t be tamed, and will never dissipate.

The room looked as if it hadn’t been touched since this same time last year. The glassware was shimmering in all its crystal purity, the weight of the wooden table immense, reassuring, stable. The bread basket was full, the cheeses were cut and in their places; knives glistening at their sides. Pools of beatific olive oil lying languidly in shallow white dishes, and on the glossy black matte of the counter, the wines.

A seeming acre stretching into infinity; beakers, bottles, glasses. And hovering over it all, the butterfly-fleet fingers of winemaker Eric Baugher. An odd thought, but watching the intense choreography of his concentration, the near effortless rhythm to his subtle movements, the curious dance of his hands, with not a sprig of energy wasted, I was reminded, of all people, of Jamey Turner playing the glass harp on the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The way he too hovered over a sea of glassware, making a beautiful and eerie music all his own.

This was the second day of the Monte Bello First Assemblage Tasting, and the news from Day One was very good. Thirteen lots had been selected from the core twenty-four, the highest in recent memory, possibly ever. And this from the 2011 vintage, a growing season near universally decried across California. This is one of so many singularities about The Ridge Way, that in the most challenging of seasons, we should find ourselves blessed with the most intensely concentrated of flavors, at a quality level almost impossibly high.

The Monte Bello is a “built” wine; built literally from the ground up, relying on little more than the natural complexities, nuances, and variations present within the boundaries of the vineyard. All three “tiers” of our mountain — the lower, the middle, the upper — are sub-divided into much smaller blocks, identified and isolated to capture each micro-climatic miracle of distinction. Think of a painter’s pallet, each hue and tone the ingredients of a waiting masterpiece. Swirled together, a formless, charmless mud, but kept separate and distinct, the origins of genius. Think of the vineyard in the same fashion; harvested all at once, all together, and with total disregard for the unique personalities of each and every sub-parcel, the result is formless, shapeless, undefined, a wine unremarkable. But keep them apart, carrying them safely and distinctly through harvest, through fermentation, through tasting, and you have the origins of greatness, the pure building blocks of magic.

This is how Monte Bello is built. From a baseline group of twenty-four vineyard parcels, so defined for their consistent and historical offerings of Monte Bello-caliber fruit, a “control” is “assembled,” a compendium of juice indisputably consistent with history, with quality, with beauty. This assembled control becomes the beginning of the First Assemblage process. Alongside the control, a second glass; in it, the control PLUS ONE. Juice from one additional parcel, added to the mix. We taste “blind,” no one knowing which is which. And we taste, and we taste, and we taste. And we write. And we sip, swish, spit. Again and again. We ponder, we debate inside our minds, we debate with one another, we debate with the gods. We stare at the colors, bury our noses in the aromas, let the liquids lay widely on our palates. We aerate aggressively, we savor delicately. On the page, metaphor upon metaphor, analysis upon analysis. Are the tannins coated or exposed? Are the acids firm or lively? Is the fruit robust and powerful, or delicate and elegant? Eventually, a decision must be made. One wine gets the dreaded minus, one the plus of affirmation. In secret, each taster shares their votes with Eric. Then the talking begins anew, a break from the near funereal and holy silence preceding. Each taster explains their vote, offers their perspectives. The “speeches” have the passion of conversion to them, but of course the votes are already in, there is nothing that can be changed now. But the insights are fascinating, and we each take notes on one another’s thoughts; new jottings joining the stained mosaics already decorating our yellow-lined pages. Will the addition make it? And what WAS the addition? Young Cabernet Franc from Rousten? Merlot from the middle? The curtain comes up, the votes are tallied, the verdict is clear.

After the first flight, it was clear the day would be unusual; nine tasters, seven in favor of the control (i.e. no “addition”). But the two “plus” votes? Paul Draper and Eric Baugher! A conundrum right out of the gate! Would they wield their “winemakers veto?”

They did not. The control moved on. Flight two commenced. Another seven-to-two vote! Again, the control took the majority of votes. Two flights in, and still no addition! But at least we had unity amongst the trio of winemakers this time; Paul, Eric, and John Olney all voted the control.

Flight three? Yet another seven-to-two vote! This was unprecedented! And this time, John and Eric united in favor of the addition, while Paul came out for the control. Which put Paul in the minority camp, as the addition had taken the seven plus votes. Now what??? Would Paul veto?

He did not. What he did instead was take a moment to acknowledge the extraordinary caliber of the wines we were tasting. The voting profile kept changing because it was simply so HARD to make distinctions. Everything was, in fact, delicious. Personally, flight three had been the hardest yet for me to decide on. But in the end, I’d settled on the addition, which put me with the majority. We had a new control! Fourteen lots.

Things got upended all over again with flight four. This time the vote was tight as tight could be, five-to-four! And this time, John and Paul voted in unison, while Eric was odd man out! The 5s were on the control; Eric and the 4s were for the addition. After much discussion, all at the table opted to move the addition on, even though it had taken only the four plusses. Truth be told, we were getting excited, and the prospect of another parcel in was just too much to resist.

And now came yet another wrinkle; John Olney had to return to Lytton Springs to attend to developments on the bottling line.

That left eight tasters, with no tie-breaking vote! Fortunately, flight five saw a six-to-two clear majority, again in favor of the addition. A 4.4% introduction of Cabernet Franc! I was thrilled.

The inevitable happened with flight six; a tie! Four for the sixteen-lot control, four for the addition. And what an interesting split! The extended winemaking team was all in on the addition (Paul Draper, Eric Baugher, Shun Ishikubo, and Shinji Kurokawa), whereas the vineyard team (David Gates, Will Thomas, and Kyle Theriot) were all united behind the control (which is where I voted as well). The vineyard team and I lost out; the addition prevailed, we were at seventeen lots!

Flight eight, the final round. Another tie! Four-to-four. What to do now, oh, what to do? This time, restraint prevailed, we held at seventeen lots. This was now “officially” the First Assemblage of the 2011 Monte Bello!

In describing the wine, Paul used the word “satisfying” (then immediately noted that he didn’t think he’d ever used that term to describe a wine before!), and he was right. This was a very satisfying wine.

But the final challenge still remained; a four-wine “blind” tasting of the new 2011 First Assemblage, alongside the previous three vintages of Monte Bello: 2010 (barrel sample), 2009 (unreleased, in bottle), and 2008 (current release). This was to make sure we hadn’t all collectively tunnel-visioned our way into a fatally narrow paradigm, into a restricted palate calibration, into a world of 2011; too self-reflective, too self-justifying, too far away from history.

As the tasting was blind, the challenge was of course to guess which vintage was which, while also ideally affirming the 2011’s proper place in the lineage. To add a wrinkle, I gave myself a little test. First, I voted entirely on smell; ending up with (from left to right) the 2008, the 2011, the 2010, and the 2009. Then I voted on taste, ending up with a chronological order; 2008-2011. When the metaphorical curtain came up, I’d been right on taste, and two-out-of-four on aromatics. What this told me was two things: 1) I wasn’t quite over my cold yet, and my nose was still compromised! And 2) That the 2011 sat in there just fine. Strong, concentrated, deep, full, complex.

Me? I was tired, wiped out, exhausted, spent, flattened.

But also exhilarated, excited, rapturous.

This was a day for the ages, and this was a wine for the ages!

This wine will see release in 2014. It may sit in your cellar for, what, ten years? Twenty years? Thirty years? It might be the year 2044 before you taste the full flower of this wine’s potential. 2044! If I am fortunate, I will be an old man then, but hopefully still a vibrant one; full of passion, still enacting a reconciliation between the wildness of my youth and the wisdom of my age. I wish the same for all of us, we assemblers. May we all live to 2044 and beyond! And may we still be bridges between the unbridled passions of our younger selves, and the wise and peaceful souls of our winters.

When you taste this wine, this is what you will be tasting. The bookends of our souls, and all that breathes between.

Both the sage and the wise were drinkers,

Why seek for peers among gods and goblins?

Three cups open the grand door to bliss;

Take a jugful, the universe is yours.

Such is the rapture found in wine …


(from “Vindication” by Li-Po)

Categories: Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Events, History, Merlot, Monte Bello, Paul Draper, Petit Verdot, RIDGE Staff, Tasting Flights, Tasting Notes, Varietals & Blends, Video, Vineyards, Viticultural Salmagundi, Wine & Art, Wine Tales, Winemaking

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5 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Postdenominational and commented:
    There is something sacred in the way Ridge Vineyards makes wine. They seem to be powerfully connected to creation, to the particular dirt where their grapes grow. I first read about Paul Draper, the head winemaker at Ridge, in an article in a magazine called New West. It was back in the 80s, and I was sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. Another article in the magazine was about an up and coming computer company called Apple.

  2. 2044? Hmmm, I’ll be a ripe, young 82 years of age. Dionysus allowing, I’ll save a bottle to open in 2044.

    Christopher, thanks once again for your words. Not only a detailed depiction of how a truly iconic wine is assembled – something that could all to easily be merely process, clinical, rigid. But also for illuminating the poetry, emotion and reverence with which the participants approach the process. These are the beautiful things that should be embraced when we open a bottle. And they will be – I’m printing this now to save with the wine when it arrives in 2014.



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