An Informal Talk With Ridge Winemaker Eric Baugher

Ξ June 7th, 2010 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine News, Winemakers |

A former Biochemistry and Molecular Biology student of UC Santa Cruz, Eric Baugher’s path to Ridge began as a summer job in 1994. It was essentially essentially a scientific inquiry with a bit of research thrown in. Unsure of his graduate school plans, whether to pursue a PhD and enter the pharmaceutical world, or to go into Dentistry, Eric decided to take a year off just to figure it out. After more time spent at Ridge, he made the proper decision: “No way am I going to any grad school. This is what I want to do. There is no better drug to be making!” Now the winemaker at the Monte Bello winery division of Ridge, one of California’s best known producers and a shining star in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, Eric has fully realized the skills of his mentor, Paul Draper. Mr. Draper needs no introduction. His merits, awards, and deserved international recognition are the stuff of legend. The Judgement of Paris anyone?
But for all of that the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA does not receive a tenth of the recognition of its noisy peers, Napa and Sonoma in particular. This is for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the dispersion of the properties and lack of organizational savvy. The pioneering spirit of the AVA, its strong sense of independence, has its downside. Ask anybody to name a Santa Cruz producer. Chances are folks will draw a blank. I have even heard people exclaim that they had no idea Ridge’s Monte Bello was made from Santa Cruz Mountain fruit!
In any event, I learned that Mr. Baugher was to helm a tasting at VinoCruz, Santa Cruz’s premier retailer for showcasing the wines of the AVA. Not wishing to be a bother, but insisting on a story, I hustled to the venue and made a bother of myself. Pausing between the public’s questions and his answers, I stepped in from time to time to ask my own. Though by no means a rigorous interview as readers here have come to know, it does have its charms.
Admin I understand that you were in Bordeaux recently [late May]. The reason?
Eric Baugher En Primier! I wanted to check out the competition. I was touring with some other California winemakers, going to some of the chateaux and tasting. I visited a cooper near Cognac just to see what they were up to there.
When I arrived there it was 91 degrees! I was unprepared. Normally Bordeaux is cool, especially this time of year. You always expect rain and cool weather. that’s what I packed for. When I got there it was Summer. Then I heard that back here it was raining and very cold. But at least I was able to bring back that weather to California.
Just out of curiosity, what cooperage does Ridge use for Monte Bello?
EB Always new oak, and 95% American, a nice mix of: Canton Cooperage, Kelvin Cooperage, Radoux, Demptos, Barrel Associates, it is a wide, diverse mix. We don’t rely on one barrel to make the wine. We really want the diversity of flavor from the coopers, and the different forests of America.
I was going through an older book on the California wine world circa 1979 and I can across a rare picture, the first one I had seen, actually, of Dave Bennion. I did an interview some time ago with Ken Burnap who, along with Mr. Bennion, paced out the original boundary of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. How is Dave Bennion memorialized at Ridge?
EB I know there is an area, a spot in the vineyard where there is a large rock, one of the limestone rocks that were dug out when they were planting what is now known as the old vines. It is a spot where Dave Bennion used to go sit. There is a nice clearing around the rock, and ever so often people go out there. Fran Bennion still lives right below the winery. She is very close to the winery. We see her often, especially when we have special events at the winery. Usually the Bennions will come up.
Have you ever seen Ken Burnap up there?
EB No. We hardly ever see anyone [other winemakers] in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s surprising; but it is a different appellation. We’re so spread out. Everyone is off doing their own thing. It’s really difficult to see people. Whereas in Napa and Sonoma? Everyone is watching over who is doing what. Anytime anyone goes out to lunch you run into winemakers. In the Santa Cruz Mountains we just don’t have that. We all kind of occupy our own part of the mountain and stay to it.
In the old days there used to be all kinds of dinners, back when there were 17 wineries.
EB Nowadays there are more than 70 wineries and, again, we’re so spread out. There is no single road you can take. They are all so far apart.
So, are these selections principally your responsibility?
EB Most are. The Lytton Springs we now make at the winery in Dry Creek Valley. This is produced by my colleague John Olney. I’m responsible for Geyserville, everything that’s produced at Monte Bello winery. That would be the Mont Bello, the Chardonnays, our Rhone varietal wines, and several of our Zinfandels. And I’ve been responsible for 16 going on 17 vintages, working with the master, Paul Draper.
How is he, by the way?
EB Oh, he’s doing well. He’s in great shape. He’s very active, and actively involved in the day to day business of Ridge. But he’s relied upon me to take over winemaking long ago. And I didn’t go to UC Davis! So I didn’t bring any of that, you know, the technical, industrial methods of winemaking to Ridge. That’s not the way we do things.
A visitor asked after the recent heat wave we’ve experienced in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
EB We need this heat. Our growing season is off by three weeks. We’re starting off really late. It’s been a long Winter. And very wet. These late Winter rains is making for very good weed growth this year. At one point before we mowed, the weeds were taller than the vines. It was horrible.
How has our troubled economy affected sales at Ridge?
EB Well, at the bottom of last year, March of 2009 was probably the lowest point of our sales. It really affected our distributors mainly who were not buying wine because they didn’t want to sit on inventory. As things improved last year, by June things came back, distributors were re-ordering wines to replenish their inventories; and on the sales side we were seeing that the distributors were actually getting the wine into the marketplace, selling it to retailers and restaurants. So health returned to our sales by June of last year. And every month since sale have continued to improved. We’re actually 39% better this year than we were last year at this time.
Exports have really picked up substantially for us! Particularly in the UK, but also Germany, Switzerland, Japan, those are the big markets. Australia and France, we have distribution there. About 25% of our annual sales are to the export market. It’s a good diversity for us to have those markets. And as the US market comes back stronger, hopefully that will counter any effect that we may see in the export market. European markets are having some issues recently.
I noticed a Parker score on their tasting table placard so I asked, Do you think Robert Parker will ever retire?
EB Well, he’s got people in place now; he’s got his understudies there slowly taking over. I would imagine that in the next ten years we’ll see some change. Jim Laube as well, from the Wine Spectator. Hopefully some new writer will come in with a different sense of taste and style, or a greater appreciation for real wine rather than these fruit bomb, cocktail-style wines. And I think they’re slowly losing out to the on-line world, the new generation of wine consumers are necessarily going to be relying on Jim Laube and Robert Parker for their wine information. They’re going to be getting it off the internet through blogs. That’s a greater power.
But here on your placard you’ve got a Robert Parker score!
EB (laughs) That’s true! You can’t get away from him. We actually have not submitted samples to him for three years. There was a long hiatus where he didn’t review our wines… because we don’t worry about what the critics have to say. We don’t court them. Our customers let us know when we have succeeded by buying our wine. Firstly, we begin by making wines that we truly enjoy drinking ourselves and that our customers keep coming back to buy. We’ve got to begin at that point. And if then the critics come along and give some favorable scores, then that’s great. But we don’t count on that as part of our economic engine to retail sales.
Getting back to Bordeaux, how were the wines?
EB The 2009s that I tasted were terrific, absolutely beautiful. It’s a high quality vintage. The Bordelaise haven’t yet released their pricing because they’re waiting for the Chinese to decide how much they are willing to pay for the wines this year.
So the Chinese are that important a player?
EB Well, the Chinese were everywhere on the streets of Bordeaux.
They were everywhere in Cahors as well.
EB But I do think the Bordelaise have a very beautiful vintage in 2009. And I would love to buy some, as long as they’re reasonably priced.
A last question, about climate change. Many winemakers will not associate climate change with viticultural adaptations from vintage to vintage. The human mind can no more remember the weather last week let alone last year. We’re not wired that way. But if they go through their records they can then see they irrigated a little bit more here, they were a little more aggressive with the green harvest there, or they messed around with their canopy… they can detect subtle viticultural trends if sufficient attention is given. Is there anything about Monte Bello, about Santa Cruz’s Ridge that you’d care to add?
EB The only thing that we’ve been seeing it that to get physiological ripeness we’re generally having to go to slightly higher levels of brix. So what that has done is that the average alcohol of Monte Bello through most of the history of that wine, up into the 80s, the late 80s, early 90s, was right around 12.8% alcohol. That was a pretty precise measurement. As we moved into the mid-nineties to the present, the alcohol has moved now into the 13% to 13.1% range. We haven’t seen a general trend of hotter growing seasons. What we’re seeing is a lot more weather variability, or extremes. The coldest days of Winter have become much colder. The hotter days of Summer have become much hotter. Wind comes at unusual time of the year. The weather has become much more unpredictable. This has made the grape growing a little more difficult, more challenging. There is a lot of high anxiety for us, trying to grow with these extremes.
In 2004, the earliest harvest in our history, we began picking grapes in the middle of August that year. We were out sampling, tasting. We saw that verasion came early. It was on our radar that the harvest was going to be early. For a lot of California winemakers it just didn’t register. A lot of people picked too late and produced over-ripe wine; whereas we produced beautiful wines. A different style, though. They were lighter just by the nature of an early season with heat.
So do you plan to stay where you are? (laughs)
EB Oh, absolutely! I’m a Santa Cruz native and I work at one of the first growths of North America. There is no other place to go!


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  1. on June 19th, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    This was a fun read Ken! I can’t taste any of the wine but you give a sense of flavor to your conversation! See you in a few days at WBC10!

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