Eric Baugher, Director of Winemaking at Ridge Vineyards

Eric Baugher

Originally published in 10/10/2016.

Recently we run a feature on California’s winery Ridge Vineyards and the wines the produce. Today we will talk to Eric Baugher. Eric is Chief Operating Officer and Winemaker at Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello Winery in Santa Cruz Mountains. A native Californian, Eric grew up on a small ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He joined Ridge as chemist in 1994 and in his first year he conducted a research to develop new, sophisticated analytical tests to support Ridge’s traditional winemaking practices. Eric has had his hand in the production of Ridge wines since the harvest of 1995. Since that time, Eric was promoted to Vice President of Winemaking in 2001, winemaker in 2004, and Chief Operating Officer in 2016. His passion for wine and the stimulating juxtaposition of low-tech winemaking and high-tech analytic techniques keeps him totally involved and constantly inspired.

Good morning, Eric and thank you very much for your contribution. You produce one of the most iconic wines in California, Ridge Monte Bello. What’s the secret of this wine?

Having a perfect combination of limestone subsoil, elevation, and ocean proximity makes Monte Bello a truly unique vineyard. To produce such a distinctive wine you need not only good ground and a moderate cool-climate. There is the need for expert viticulture. Our viticulturists are highly knowledgeable about organic farming on a steep mountain site. Without their ability to carefully raise a high quality crop, I wouldn’t have the ingredients to make top quality wine. On the winemaking side, I keep my hands off the process, except for guiding the fermentation along. I make all decisions by taste; when to pick, how much pump-over for extraction to give, when to press, what press fraction to add, etc. Once each of the seventy or so lots are fermented, sent to barrel for natural malolactic, at the fifth month the most important aspect of my responsibilities kicks in at the first assemblage and then again at the second. The assemblage is the most important secret to making Monte Bello. The rigorous blind tasting, where a selection is made for those parcels that carry a strong expression of “Monte Bello”. Then a careful tasting is done where the parcels are blended one at a time to build the Monte Bello. It’s a highly complex assemblage with many different blend possibilities. Once we think the blend is complete, it is blind-tasted against the last ten vintages to compare. Vintage characteristic will show, but a common thread of Monte Bello character will be present in all glasses.

In Monte Bello Estate Vineyard you also produce one Merlot and two Chardonnay. How do these varietals work here?

Depending on exposure and elevation, Merlot and Chardonnay grow just as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Merlot and Chardonnay, in particular, have the easiest time ripening. In fact, our Chardonnays have often been well into the 14-15% alcohol range. This has been mainly due to the clone that has efficient photosynthesis causing sugar to lead flavor. We’ve been planting new parcels of Chardonnay to old historic California clones at higher elevation points with cool ocean exposure. This has finally helped with our desire to pick earlier and at lower alcohol potentials. Merlot tends to hit full ripeness at 13.5%. The best parcels grow between 2,300 and 2,650 feet, and are often the ones blended into Monte Bello. Lower elevation parcels on richer soils, produce softer, more accessible Merlot, for the separate Estate bottling.

Monte Bello is the top wine produced in the winery, yet the Zinfandel is the most popular in terms of number of labels and areas with cultivated vineyards.

That is true; Monte Bello is the wine that was first made at Ridge in 1962. The first Zinfandel was made from a small patch of Prohibition-surviving Nineteenth Century vines on Monte Bello Road. The founders of Ridge made the Zinfandel no different than Cabernet, going for full extraction and producing the Zinfandel in a rich style that was popular before Prohibition. In replanting Monte Bello vineyard (which all vines, but the Zinfandel, from the 1800’s were lost during Prohibition) Ridge needed cash flow. They decided to search out other Zinfandel vineyards across the state, to harvest and make into single-vineyard wine. In the 1960’s, Zinfandel had a low reputation among consumers. Growers who had surviving Zinfandel vineyards encountered difficulties finding wineries to buy their fruit. Prices were low, there was no demand; odds were against Zinfandel not being ripped out of the ground and replanted to other varietals. Ridge became fascinated with this variety, its history, and ability to show vineyard character. Over the past fifty years, Ridge has made over 50 different single-vineyard labeled Zinfandels. The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) organization was founded by Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum in 1991. ZAP, and particularly Ridge, helped revive the popularity of California’s historically significant grape.

What Zinfandel offers you to work with it?

It’s a grape that can make many different styles of wine. The Zinfandels we make are generally modest in ripeness, contain full tannin extraction, and possess greater acidity. Our most interesting Zinfandels are produced from Nineteenth Century old vineyards. They are predominantly Zinfandel, but also field-blended with complimentary varietals (Petite Sirah, Carignan, Mourvedre, Alicante Bouschet, mission grapes). There are no two vineyards that have the same composition or soil, and as a result the wines we make all taste uniquely different, showing their distinctive vineyard personality.

Does the Zinfandel change a lot from one AVA to the other?

Zinfandel is highly influenced by its region’s microclimate and soil composition. In a warm region, it will produce a ripe style wine with moderate color and soft tannins. That style of Zinfandel is for near-term drinking. As the regions become cooler, closer to the Pacific Ocean, Zinfandel takes on greater seriousness. The best region for Zinfandel is Northern Sonoma County, inland enough from the coast to be warm by day, but cool at night. We farm most of our Zinfandel acreage in Dry Creek Valley and just over the hill to the east in Geyserville.

Where do you believe the Zinfandel gives its best soul?

I find the most classic Zinfandels are coming from Dry Creek Valley and west-side Alexander Valley. Whether our own Zinfandels, or other producers, these two areas have optimal climate to produce highly complex and age-worthy wine.

How are two Merlots, Estate and Perrone?

Estate Merlot is made from several parcels rather than a single one such as what makes the Perrone. The Estate is made mostly of lower elevation/richer soil locations, where the wine produced is less tannic and more fruit-forward. It makes a wine that can be enjoyed young. Perrone, named for the nineteenth century founder of the upper elevation ranch of Monte Bello Estate. At this high elevation point, with eroded soils that are poor in nutrients, the Merlot vines produce highly concentrated grapes. The wine can often join the Monte Bello blend, but in 2013 we held out a portion to bottle separately. It is a serious Merlot with deeper flavors and richer tannin structure. The Perrone will be enjoyable to drink when it has had ten years of bottle age.

How do you manage having two different wine facilities, one at Lytton Springs and the other at Monte Bello?

We have had two facilities since 1991, when Ridge bought the Lytton Springs Winery. A small amount of wine was still produced under the original owners label through 1994. Finally, with additional investments made in the equipment and cellar, the winery was capable of reaching Ridge quality and the 1995 Ridge Sonoma Station Zinfandel was made. However, the facility was inadequate for reaching higher quality. In 1998 we began the design of a new facility. All the while, Lytton West was purchased and replanting was being done. There was soon going to be a point when we could not continue to make all our Zinfandel at Monte Bello winery. In 2003, Lytton Springs Winery was complete. Lytton Springs could be made there, along with our new Estate vineyard called East Bench. Since then, we have been able to move the production of several other wines to the new winery. At Monte Bello, we have been planting more acreage to Cabernet and will eventually have a higher percentage of total production be Bordeaux varietal. Yet, with Zinfandel ripening early, at Monte Bello we can continue to produce several Zinfandels such as Geyserville, Paso Robles and a couple for ATP members, and our Syrah. These vineyards are usually finished by the time we get into harvest of Monte Bello fruit.

Before we had Lytton Springs Winery, the Monte Bello winemaking facility was pushed to its limit. Fermentors had to be turned quickly, maybe sometimes more quickly than allowing ideal extraction. Now with two facilities, each location has the ability to carefully ferment and extract without time constraints. It does require having a team of quality-oriented individuals who have also bought into the pursuit of making fine wine. John Olney, my counterpart at Lytton Springs, is exactly that kind of individual. He and I both trained under Paul with the same philosophies, rigor, and quality-minded winemaking approach. He runs a cellar team who work by those same high standards as my cellar team at Monte Bello. While we don’t get involved in each other’s wine during vinification, we do collaborate after the harvest by blind-tasting through the wines and giving feedback. We both have been involved in making these wines for a long time, within a very specific style so it’s important that we check each other.

How is your approach to winemaking?

My approach is to respect the varietal and vineyard, not produce a wine that is a reflection of me. I call it “egoless” winemaking. In fact, I am not a fan of the use of the word “winemaker” as it reduces the vineyard’s contribution to the quality of the wine. For a wine to show its unique vineyard character, it must be picked at ideal ripeness-not overripe. It shouldn’t be over-exacted, over-oaked, or manipulated with color or tannin adjucts. A natural wine, showing place, shouldn’t be allowed to spoil either or be kept overly preserved with sulfites. It must receive proper care in the cellar and have patience to slowly develop in barrel. I would say my winemaking approach is what I have learned from Paul: keep wines elegantly restrained, complex, age-able.

How come this area of Northern California offers so many great wines? What’s so special in Santa Cruz Mountains?

By definition, the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation is exactly that, a rugged mountainous grape growing area. There are hardly any flat vineyards to be found, everything is steeply sloped or terraced. Yields are low, the Pacific Ocean and the fog it brings can be moderating of temperatures, and make ripening somewhat more difficult. It’s an appellation made up mostly of small winegrowers. There are no large commercial/conglomerate wine operations anywhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This challenging viticultural area and expensive land cost keep those large producers out. It allows the small boutique wineries a chance to focus on making respectable quality without the area’s reputation being hurt by the mega-wineries producing lessor quality. Also, the Santa Cruz Mountains is made up of several coastal mountain ranges of varying soil, microclimate, and elevation. At the coast you can grow burgundy varietals. At the appellation’s mid-point the Rhone varieties grow well. Across the San Andreas Fault line, on the eastern Ridge where Monte Bello is located, Bordeaux varietals do well.

Ridge has two annual releases. Do you choose every year the wines going in each release or they are always the same?

Over time, our experience with the many vineyards we produce wine from, and how they age in barrel and bottle, has allowed us to establish fixed release dates. Generally we release the more accessible wines in the spring, while the more structured wines remain in barrel longer for the fall release. In between, many wines made for our Advanced Tasting Program (ATP) are released each month. Those wines may get 2-3 years of barrel age, additional bottle age, and are usually very drinkable upon release. We never rush an ATP wine, or any other Ridge wine, to market.

What’s the criterion for each wine to be in each release?

Accessibility is crucial; have the tannins settled down and resolved? Is there good balance between all the elements? We make wine-by-wine assessments before bottling by blind-taste to decide bottling date. From there we continue to taste and decide when to release.

And what about the wines offered only to list members? Do they change every year? Why they are so particular?

The ATP members will get fairly unique wines each year. Many are vineyards that we have worked with for a long time, like Mazzoni, Bucchignani, Dusi Ranch, etc. This is also the outlet for our Rhone varietal wines. Occasionally, we’ll find and test out a new vineyard site, crushing a few tons to make a couple hundred cases. Those small production lots will be available to members.

How much production goes to the membership programs and how much to the market?

Members receive about one-fourth of our production volume, which accounts for nearly half our total number of labels. We make roughly twenty-eight unique wines in a single vintage. Thirteen are sold via US wholesale (of which eight are exported to forty countries). The rest are sold direct-to-consumer through the three different wine clubs of Ridge. Members are given first priority to purchase our small lots. The limited quantities remaining are sold in the two tasting rooms.

Do you have a preferred wine? Maybe it changes with each vintage?

It is very difficult to pick one over another. I love all the wines I make. These vineyards are special to me, having worked with their fruit for the past twenty-three vintages. Of course, the wine that interests me the most to produce, offers me the greatest intellectual challenge, is Monte Bello. This steep vineyard is made up of forty-five parcels of Bordeaux varietals, which ripen slowly and are vulnerable to weather. It is a wonderfully complex site to work. It requires the greatest amount of effort to produce. Once each lot has carefully been made into wine, resting in barrel, a careful blind-tasting is done to make the selection. It will vary in the varietal composition by what sort of growing season the vines endured.

Which style of wine do you like to drink when you are not at work?

I am mostly interested in wines from other cool-climate regions that have high natural acidity and good tannin structure. I enjoy wines from Left-bank Bordeaux, Loire, Mersault, South Africa, Northwest Spain, to name a few. I am especially fond of aged wine. That is why Bordeaux is the wine region I travel to more often.

And what’s your personal touch in your wines? That one making a wine an Eric Baugher wine?

It is my hope that I am not leaving a personal touch on the wine. I can say my touch is much like Paul Draper’s, which is to not leave a mark on the wine. I want the vineyard character and varietal to translate from grape to wine. I don’t believe in heavy extraction to have aging potential, so the wines are often elegant, balanced and full of finesse. That has a lot to do with careful tasting during fermentation and decisions about remontage or when to press, what to do with pressings, and assemblage of the selected ingredients.

Since you are at Ridge, which are the three wines you are fonder of?

Our one and only white wine is the Estate Chardonnay from Monte Bello. I am absolutely convinced (from all the tasting I have done of other regions) that it is one of the great white wines of the world, and getting better over the years as I’ve shifted the approach of selection, battonage, and elevage.

I am also fond of Geyserville, a proprietary field-blended Zinfandel of 130+ year old vines. They grow on an ancient river bed, with gravel and river stone sub-soil for drainage. Geyserville has been made for 50 years. The track record of this site is terrific for producing powerful wine with aging potential of 30-40 years. In fact, you can still drink a ’68 vintage. The third wine is Monte Bello red. It is made with a discipline that goes beyond many first-growth chateaux in Bordeaux. When you look at all the wine regions of the world, there are no other places that have ocean proximity, limestone, Mediterranean climate, and elevation all in one site.

Thank you very much, Eric.

Photos © Ridge Vineyards