I met Cole Thomas at a 2019 tasting event highlighting the next wave of Santa Cruz winemakers. Coincidentally, I was in town that weekend to work on a story about four other young winemakers in the region for the San Francisco Chronicle. I've been following Cole's exciting project, Madson Wines, ever since.
The Santa Cruz Mountains are one of California's top sites for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the western side of the region having a front-row seat to the Pacific's coastal winds and morning fog. Cole says he is always looking for Chardonnay, though that's easier said than done. Most vineyards here are allotted to Pinot Noir and consist of a few acres at most, vying with the mountainous landscape, redwoods, and forest. Regardless, Madson produces compelling, spice-driven Pinot Noirs that remind me of driving through the Santa Cruz Mountains with the windows rolled down.
Cole has built his career here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After earning a degree in environmental studies at U.C. Santa Cruz, he worked in vegetable farming and landscaping before landing a job at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, where he met viticulturist Ken Swegles. They launched Madson together in 2018 and solely farm using organic and regenerative practices.
Ridge Vineyards' Monte Bello vineyard atop the Santa Cruz Mountains needs little introduction, but what's still somewhat under the radar is their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, comprised of 15 to 20 parcels from Monte Bello. Lovers of old-school California Cabernet from the coolest, Pacific-influenced terrain, take notice!
The black fruit, racy mint, and graphite tones in Monte Bello always impress, but it comes at the expense of long bottle aging. The Estate Cabernet has those inherent Monte Bello vineyard characteristics, only showing them through a softer lens. Ridge also stands out from other California Cabernets because of its deft use of American oak. The limestone soils of Monte Bello have long stood up to the new oak regimen (70%), providing more silken texture and elegance without obscuring terroir.
Monte Bello's history goes as far back as 1885 when the 180 acres were purchased and planted by San Francisco-based doctor Osea Perrone. Surviving prohibition, multiple sales, and re-planting, the Monte Bello estate came into its own when Paul Draper arrived in 1969. Draper's insistence on producing pre-industrial wines has received much attention, and he's challenged other winemakers to list out ingredients on their labels. His end goal is wines that reflect site, relying on native yeast ferments and strictly opposing modern manipulations.
Last night, a stunning 1999 Ridge Monte Bello reaffirmed that within the discussion of What is California Grand Cru, this is where the argument should end.
Today, we're taking a look back at an earlier offer on the best value California Cabernet Sauvignon, a "Baby Monte Bello", Ridge's 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Also offered are a range of back-vintage Monte Bello, including one of the most prized American wines from the last 50 years, the epic 1991.
Monte Bello Estate vineyard atop the Santa Cruz Mountains needs little introduction. The Monte Bello designate Cabernet Sauvignon releases around $200 per bottle. What's still somewhat under-the-radar is their Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, comprised of 15 to 20 parcels on the Monte Bello vineyard that have historically shown a more approachable and softer fruit profile.
Each vintage the Estate Cabernet is a favorite of mine, still displaying the magic that Paul Draper started here in 1969. The drought conditions of 2014 gave an added element of concentration and weight to this Baby Monte Bello cuvée. For lovers of old school California Cabernet Sauvignon from the coolest, Pacific-influenced mountain terrain, this is a moment to take notice.
Monte Bello's black fruit, racy mint and graphite tones always impress, but the experiences also come at the expense of long bottle aging. The Estate Cabernet has all of these same inherent Monte Bello vineyard characteristics, only showing them through a softer focus. In all years this is the case, but 2014 was immediately recognized as something quite special:
"Readers who are looking for a more affordable alternative to Ridge's iconic Monte Bello should consider the 2014 Estate. Look for the Estate to be a real overachiever in 2014 as well as one of the best - possibly the best - California Cabernet in its price range."
The history of Monte Bello extends as far back as 1885 when the 180 acres was purchased and planted by San Francisco doctor, Osea Perrone. Through a tumultuous series including prohibition, multiple sales, and re-planting, the Monte Bello estate really comes into its own with Paul Draper's arrival in 1969. Draper's insistence on producing "Pre-Industrial" wines has received a lot of attention, as he challenged winemakers to put the full list of ingredients on their labels. Draper's end goal is producing wines that reflect site, relying on native yeast ferments and strictly opposing modern manipulations such as Ultra/Mega purple concentrate, reverse osmosis, and the like.
Ridge also stands out from much of California Cabernet Sauvignon in their deft use of American oak. The limestone soils of Monte Bello have long stood up to the new oak regimen (here 70%), providing more silken texture and elegance without obscuring terroir - easy to say, not so easy to execute. Along with the fabulously open-knit 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, today's list features perfectly stored, back-vintage Monte Bello.
2014 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
$65 per bottle.
"Sustainably farmed, hand-harvested, estate-grown grapes; destemmed and sorted; fermented on the native yeasts; full malolactic on the naturally occurring bacteria; 0.25g/L calcium carbonate to moderate high natural acidity in four of twenty distinct parcels; 1.7% water addition to twelve of the twenty lots; minimum effective sulfur (25ppm at crush, 120 ppm during aging); a fining of 5 fresh, egg whites per barrel for the press wine; pad filtered at bottling. In keeping with our philosophy of minimal intervention, this is the sum of our actions." - Ridge
3x 2001 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon
$399 per bottle.
1x 1999 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon (not online)
$199 per bottle.
5x 1997 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon
$319 per bottle.
8x 1991 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon
$679 per bottle.
1x 1991 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon 1.5L
$1,379 per bottle.
1x 1980 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon
$384 per bottle.
Living in St. Helena in 2011 I had the opportunity to drink a wide range of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. From Calistoga south through Carneros, from Howell Mountain west across the valley to Spring Mountain. And everything in between. Of all the newly-released wines that were opened that year there's only one that still stays with me, as if only last night I was on that patio with friends in front of a fire atop Diamond Mountain.
Curiously, that wine didn't come from the lionized Napa Valley, or from a sprawling grand estate. Instead, it hailed from a vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and from a small winery established by two young friends in Sonoma. It may break some people's views on the rules of California Cab hierarchy, but to me one thing is very clear:Arnot-Roberts Fellom Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is truly one of the great wines in all of America.
Like the two most historic Cabernets from the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ridge's Monte Bello and Mount Eden's Estate Cabernet, Fellom Ranch falls into an ideal landing spot between the styles of Napa Valley's sun-kissed fruit and the gravel and more earthy characteristics common in Bordeaux. Elevation of 2,200 feet and cool winds racing through from the nearby Pacific ensure gradual ripening and serious freshness in the finished wine. The amalgamation of shale, loam, and limestone soils bring a diversity of terroir, and gives layers of complexity.
Fellom Ranch is powerful, but balanced with bright acids and a freshness that always makes it emptied quickly - the real litmus test for any great wine. Smoke, graphite, mint, and dried herbs dazzle each vintage, and the 30% use of whole cluster fermentation adds savory, yet bright qualities that make it so distinctive. Duncan and Nathan's fondness for the wines of Marcel Juge and Thierry Allemand of Cornas, to me, make themselves known in Fellom's dark and decidedly wild traits.
Like all the wines of Arnot-Roberts production here is very limited. Only 162 cases of Fellom Ranch were produced in 2014, and most have been allocated to top restaurants. I'm thrilled today to offer a wine that captures the most exciting elements of California Cabernet Sauvignon, and the adventurous spirit of the two friends who've brought this epic vineyard to the forefront.
2014 Arnot-Roberts Fellom Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon
$99 per bottle.