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Paul Draper: Great wines are made with very straightforward techniques

The 2013 Winemakers’ Winemaker award went to Paul Draper of California’s Ridge Vineyards, who talks to Patrick Schmitt about his non-interventionist approach.

Each year the Institute of Masters of Wine and the drinks business honour an exceptional figure in the world of wine with a unique award, the Winemakers’ Winemaker. The two previous recipients of the award, inaugurated in 2011, were both Peters: Sisseck, of Pingus and Gago, of Penfolds. This year it went to a Paul: Paul Draper, of California’s Ridge Vineyards.

The award’s name stems from the selection process, which requires MW winemakers to vote on a list of candidates drawn up by the drinks business and the Institute. In essence, it’s an opportunity for high-achieving cellar hands to reward a highly respected peer. However, as pointed out at the awards ceremony in Germany, this year’s recipient may not like the term winemaker, but in commending him, it was used twice.

For Draper, the title suggests wine is created by man, rather than man guiding a natural process. And for those who know him, he is highly opposed to interventionist measures in the cellar in making fine wine. Indeed, as discovered during a dinner with Draper after the awards event, he has opted for voluntary ingredient labelling to promote his non-interventionist approach, which has always seen him eschew commercial yeasts or modern winemaking tools such as micro-oxygenation.

As a result, all wines from the 2011 vintage now carry information identifying every addition to the wines, including an explanation of why and when water might be used. His simple explanations (see following page) are a sign of Draper’s clarity of thinking, as well as his practical approach to winemaking. He doesn’t choose a particular path for marketing reasons, but to enhance quality without compromising the inherent characteristics of the grapes. “Great wines are made with very straightforward techniques,” he says.

Label lover

Of course, Draper is not the first to adopt ingredient labelling, but he would have been had US controls allowed it back in the 1970s. “I tried to do ingredient labelling 30 years ago, but the federal authorities said ‘You can’t do it, because we don’t require it and no-one else does it.’ However, they have now changed their attitude,” he explains.

Ridge Vineyards’ guide to ingredient labelling

In keeping with Draper’s courteous and thoughtful approach, before actually releasing the altered back labels, he sent a letter to his customers explaining his plan to include more information. “We have taken this step because we believe that, when working with a fine vineyard, modern additions and invasive processing are not needed to make a fine wine,” he wrote. Continuing, he noted: “We refer to winemaking at Ridge as ‘pre-industrial’ – an approach that involves the use of native yeasts, hand-harvested, sustainably grown grapes, naturally occurring malolactic bacteria, and a small number of natural ingredients used in making fine wine over the last two hundred years.”

But he has also admitted that the move was partly designed to prompt others to adopt ingredient labelling. “We are hoping to encourage other fine-wine makers to provide a list of ingredients for their customers,” he added. Pointing out that there are currently over 50 wine additives approved worldwide, including one called Ultra Purple, a 2000-to-1 concentrate of red wine, and another additive called Velcorin that kills every living thing in a wine, he commented: “The correction of deficiencies or excesses in wine has moved inexorably from gentle, non-invasive methods to modern additives and mechanical processing.”

Such sentiments are not surprising from Draper who learnt his winemaking techniques from 19th century French and Californian texts and began his career by reopening a small winery in Chile during the ‘60s producing Cabernet Sauvignon. “When others were looking forward, I was looking back,” he recalls.

Draper, who studied philosophy at California’s Stanford University, can trace his vinous interest to his teens when he was a boarder at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut. “I had a roommate whose parents were Swiss and I used to stay with them on weekends,” he says, explaining that his own parents lived 1,000 miles away in Illinois, where they had a farm.

In this European household, Draper says lunch and dinner were always served with wine. “The idea of wine as part of everyday life, and enjoying each day, intrigued me – I’m a romantic,” he says. Continuing he adds: “Later, part of the reason I came out to Stanford was because they grew grapes in California.” And his interest in wine intensified after graduating from university in 1958.

Draper had volunteered for the army rather than be drafted in order to attend language school and be stationed as a civilian working in liaison in Italy. He then spent a year in Paris at the Sorbonne studying French language and literature. But it wasn’t until 1965, when Draper teamed up with his best friend from Stanford, Fritz Maytag, that he had his first experience making wine.

The two set up a foundation to work on nutrition in Latin America and ended up based in Chile. They then decided to set up a for-profit business that would relieve the foundation of their modest salaries yet keep them in Chile to direct its projects. Chile was exporting only 2% of its wine and they attempted to convince the exporting wineries of what would be needed in winemaking and packaging to increase exports.

Draper, who admits he failed quite predictably in this, decided with Maytag to demonstrate what was needed. They leased “a beautiful, ancient bodega on the coast range and a fine, old Cabernet vineyard”. “Finally,” he says, “after all these years, I got a chance to do what I had wanted to do all along.” With no formal training in winemaking, Draper studied 19th century Californian and French winemaking texts which he came across in a wine library in San Francisco. These provided him with the day-to-day practices he still uses, with improvements, to this day.

Then, in 1968, when invited by a group of wine lovers and collectors to speak at Stanford on Chilean wines and winemaking, he met one of the partners at Ridge Vineyards. Hands off Despite being Stanford Research Institute engineers involved in the “virtual world of technology”, their winemaking style was hands off. “These guys had no training in wine and were interested in a more traditional, hi-touch approach as a balance to their hi-tech vocations,” he says.

As a result they were enthralled by Draper’s presentation on non-interventionist winemaking in Chile, and offered him a job. Draper, having tasted the Ridge Monte Bellos from 1962 and 1964 that had been aged in neutral French and US oak, was so impressed he accepted the offer. “These were deep, complex wines and given the simplicity of the winemaking, it was clear they had an exceptional terroir at Monte Bello” he says.

He joined in 1969 – meaning that Draper has now been at Ridge for 44 years. During this period he stresses that “the quality of the wine has always been the basis of decision making… we were not yet breaking even in those early years but I was never asked to make any compromise on quality.” He has been able to make changes over the years.

For example, speaking of Ridge’s flagship label, the Cabernet-based Monte Bello, Draper says they have recently gained access to more of the 19th century abandoned parcels and are gradually replanting them to bring up production levels which in the 19th century had been higher. The large 2012 vintage produced 4,800 cases of Monte Bello and a further 4,400 cases of the Estate Cabernet, formerly called Santa Cruz Mountains. The Estate is from separate parcels of the Monte Bello vineyards that produce somewhat softer wines. Grapes destined for the Estate undergo gentler extraction than those from the Monte Bello parcels that can carry more tannin.

Furthermore, almost all blocks are now certified organic. “We have never used pesticides,” he says, “and the only reason we were not fully organic is that on a few areas of the steep slopes it has been very difficult to control grasses and weeds between terraces without herbicides.”

Just cask

Oak use is another area where Draper’s stance is supported by sound thinking. Monte Bello is aged entirely in American oak barrels, rather than the French oak more commonly used for top Cabernet Sauvignon blends in California. Although US white oak, Quercus alba, was initially, and mistakenly thought inferior to Europe’s Quercus petraea (sessile oak) or Quercus robur (pedunculate oak), it was because it was not air-dried which is essential.

Instead it was being kiln-dried by the whiskey industry cooperages which does not allow the harsh, excessive elements to leach out as they do with several years of air-drying in the rain and sun. Draper says that the domestically grown wood provides him with a high-quality result when dried and coopered correctly, as well as being a point of difference to Bordeaux.

He also speaks of an historic oak-ageing experiment set up by the University of Bordeaux made up of all the first growth Bordeaux from the great vintage of 1900. Running over 10 years this showed – using blind tastings each year – that Baltic oak which was what the top growths were using in the 19th century was preferred or at least most familiar to them. It was followed by American, then Bosnian with French oak in last place in all the châteaux. “It wasn’t until the First World War that the top classed growths started using French oak,” he notes.

Considering the nature of oak today, he says, “If you air dry American oak for two to three years and then cooper it correctly you should have something as good if not better than French oak.” As a control to continually test his preference, since 1970 Draper has put 3% of Monte Bello’s annual production into French oak from two or three of the finest coopers to see how it performs, with regular comparative blind tastings. “In blind tastings of Monte Bello with MWs and other expert tasters we have virtually never had anyone say they identify the oak as American.”

Draper is a champion of not only US oak, but also of America’s native grape, Zinfandel, although it is now known to have originated in Croatia as early as the 14th century. Recalling his first exposure to the variety, he says: “I joined Ridge for the Bordeaux varieties and here was this wine – especially from 80-year-old low yielding vines – that was so immediately delicious but with a structure to age… I became intrigued.”

Draper is credited for raising the reputation of Zinfandel from jug to fine wine. Ridge produces a range of very old vineyard-designated releases led by estate-grown Lytton Springs and Geyserville.

Amazingly, Draper gives no sense of slowing down despite his 77 years on this earth. He credits his health and energy to “red wine… hiking and [his wife’s] marvellous cooking”. He adds that she criticises him for feigning an inability to cook, as well as the fact he can’t make fine Champagne, “which we both love”.

When not tasting his own wines Draper often drinks reds from Italy’s Piedmont, old vine Carignan and Mourvèdre from Priorat and “of course Bordeaux and Burgundy still interest me immensely”.

What he may not be aware of, however, is that when winemakers from those classic regions are asked what they would drink from outside Europe, it’s usually one of Draper’s wines, above all Monte Bello. It’s revered for its restrained style, capacity to age, and distinct character, as well as a striking, elegant and wonderfully simple label. It is a winemakers’ wine – made by a winemakers’ winemaker.

Biography: Paul Draper

Paul-Draper with his dog called Bhodi

Paul Draper grew up on an 80-acre farm near the Chicago suburb of Barrington. After attending the Choate School and receiving a degree in philosophy from Stanford University, he lived for two years in northern Italy. He went on to attend the University of Paris and travelled extensively in France. In both Italy and France he sought out and studied traditional winemaking practices. In the mid-1960s, with a close friend, he set up a small winery in the coast range of Chile and produced several vintages of old-vine Cabernet Sauvignon. He joined Ridge Vineyards in 1969 and resides atop Monte Bello Ridge with his wife, pianist and author Maureen McCarthy Draper. He is known for the fine Cabernets and Chardonnays of the Monte Bello estate vineyards, and as a pioneer in the production of long-lived, complex Zinfandels, in particular those from the Geyserville and Lytton Springs vineyards.

Paul Draper: ‘A beacon of winemaking excellence’

IMW chairman Patrick Valette MW with Paul Draper and db editor-in-chief Patrick Schmitt

Paul Draper was named the 2013 Winemakers’ Winemaker by the Institute of Masters of Wine and the drinks business at a ceremony at ProWein in Düsseldorf on 25 March. Recognising outstanding achievement in the field of winemaking, the award is now in its third year, with previous winners being Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus and Peter Gago of Penfolds. Draper, who has been chief winemaker at Ridge Vineyards in California since 1969, was chosen as the recipient of this year’s award by a panel that comprised Master of Wine winemakers from all over the world and the previous winners of the award. Draper said: “This honour means so much to me because of my respect for the Masters of Wine – and most especially for the winemakers among them, who have such a breadth of knowledge of wine as well as expertise in my chosen vocation.” Commenting on this year’s recipient, chairman of the IMW, Jean-Michel Valette MW said: “It’s a delight for me, as a fellow countryman, to be presenting this award to Paul Draper. Paul has done so much for winemaking in the United States, and, in his quiet way, has been a beacon of winemaking excellence and inquiry to so many. It’s a privilege to have this opportunity to show the respect in which he is held by his peers worldwide.”

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