Olney joined Ridge Vineyards in 1996, and is now winemaker at Ridge
Lytton Springs. He joins a small and very talented group who have
served and learned from Paul Draper: Steve Kistler, David
Noyes (Kunde), Gordon Binz (Renwood, Villa Toscano) and
Mike Dashe (Dashe Cellars).
We sat down to talk in the house
that sits on a knoll near the winery, surrounded by ancient head-pruned
vines. Construction on the new winery was buzzing along with a sense
of urgency, since crush was soon approaching.
We started by chatting about John's
late uncle, Richard Olney - a renowned author of a number
of wine and food books.
califusa - "John, some
folks may not know that you are the nephew of Richard Olney, who
happens to be one of my favorite wine and food writers. Could you
speak just a little bit about Richard and your relationship with
John Olney - "Sure.
Richard is the one who got me into all of this in the first place.
I was running around in Europe after
completing a language program in Germany, and I went down to visit
him at his place in the South of France.
I was pretty innocent at the time
- I was only about twenty - and things like Yquem, La Tache, Tempier,
Vieux Telegraphe and Chave just showed up at the dinner table every
night. Remember, this was still pre-trophy wine era. Besides anyone
who knew Richard understood he wasn't much for posturing. These
were just wines he admired made by people whose work he respected.
Anyhow, I didn't know what I was doing, but it didn't take long
to get drawn in.
Richard just had amazing connections
- he got to know people who are huge figures in the winemaking world
today when some of them were kids, some of them were just starting
out, some of them were struggling to sell their wine. So, he developed
a lot of friendships that way and obviously that opened all sorts
of doors. The next thing you know, we did a tour through all of
Bordeaux, we did a tour through the whole Rhône, we did a
tour to Burgundy, went down into the cellars and tasted back into
the 50s, and then after lunch, went back even further with the cheese
In a nutshell, I would say that
was how Richard got me started."
C - "There is a circular
connection between the Olney family, Domaine Tempier and Ridge.
Could you explain that a bit?"
JO - "I think people
who share a similar view of the world, or philosophy or whatever
you will - I think there is a little more than chance that brings
those folks together. People who agree about "stuff" hang
Obviously, in terms of Tempier,
the fact that my uncle was already there brought a lot of my family
on site. The South of France is still a pretty good place to spend
a vacation. When you meet people, I think it doesn't take too long
to figure out if there's a common thread."
C - "Did that facilitate
your entrée to Ridge Vineyards?"
JO - "I think it did
- sort of in the same sense. Paul has a similar philosophy to, for
example, Domaine Tempier, certainly in terms of winemaking, and
it just seemed natural to me to check out Ridge. When you go back
and look at what Paul was doing back in the 70s - and even today
- he was doing things that were quite different for California at
the time, and I think I share that "natural approach",
that "forget the recipe approach" - whatever you want
to call it - to winemaking.
But there was also the connection
that before I went to Ridge I went to work for Kermit Lynch. Paul
had stayed in touch with a lot of European wines through Kermit,
so he would come in from time to time, and then Paul was also a
friend of my uncle's."
C - "So, how long have
you been here now?"
JO - "Well, I guess
I've been here...I was at Firestone when I first got back from France
- that was 1995 - a good friend was the general manager there, and
placed me in the cellar crew. I learned how to drive a forklift
really well (laughter) - so it was 1996 when the opportunity at
Ridge became available.
C - "You began in Cupertino?"
JO - "Yes.
C - "In what capacity?"
JO - "Basically, I went
right into the cellar with the cellar crew, and started working
with them. It was great for my Spanish. Then, I was participating
in all the tastings and gradually gained more responsibility from
C - "Let's talk a little
bit about the Lytton Springs facility. Up until this new construction
phase, which wines were produced at this location?"
JO - "In 1991, Ridge
purchased the Lytton Springs property and the winery that came with
it. The winery was called Lytton Springs Winery. It was a completely
separate entity from Ridge. However, in 1972, Paul was the first
person to purchase the grapes of Lytton Springs Vineyard from Richard
Sherwin, the person who owned Lytton Springs Winery. A few years
later, Lytton Springs Winery put out its own Lytton Springs label
that had a black label with a psychedelic looking cluster of grapes
on it. So then, after 1991, Ridge chose to keep on using this same
Lytton Springs Winery (black) label, and to continue to produce
a rustic, all around rich Zinfandel from a number of different vineyards
around Sonoma County."
C - "So, those last
three or four vintages of Lytton Springs Winery Zinfandel were actually
produced by Ridge?"
JO - "Correct. I'm not
100% sure, but I'll say 92, 93 and 94. In 95 we decided to come
out with our own label - it seemed natural - and that's when we
launched the Sonoma Station. Many of the vineyards that went into
the Lytton Springs Sonoma County wine were retained, others were
added, and it changes a little bit every year."
C - "In terms of sources?"
JO - "Correct. We also
make some of the ATPs (Advanced Tasting Program wines), We got access
to a terrific old vines vineyard owned by Stan Buchignani, and started
making his Zinfandel and Carignane here.
Frequently, since we are so into
Zinfandel and since sugars with Zinfandel can easily get out of
hand if you don't pick when it's ready - we pick so many grapes
in a day that grapes destined for here (Ridge at Lytton Springs)
would go to the other winery (Ridge at Monte Bello), and more often,
grapes destined for the Monte Bello winery would come up here, so
there is a juggling that has been going on.
With the new facility having a lot
more capacity and better equipment, I think we are able to plan
our lives a little more rationally."
C - "I remember hearing
a story that one of the wines - I can't remember specifically which
wine it was - needed to be designated "late picked", because
at the time you were ready to pick there was simply no tank space,
and the fruit had to be left hanging for two or three days, until
there was room for you to crush."
JO - "The "late
picked" designation was Paul's idea, and I think a very good
one. The idea was to try to let people know that this was a wine
that was not a "late harvest", but it's going to be heavier
and have more alcohol than a typical table wine, claret style, something
in the 13-14% range."
C - "The equivalent
of a warning label." (laughter)
JO - "You could say
that (more laughter), although I don't think many people take heed
of that warning label if you look at the kind of Zinfandel that's
been made for the last seven or eight years."
C - "I agree with you,
but that may be a whole separate discussion.
Well, with the new facility now,
how is that going to change the distribution of where wines are
JO - "The old facility
was quite modest. First, we didn't really have the capacity, nor
did we have the equipment - the variety of tanks that we wanted
to have or fermenters - to be making one of our top wines, such
as the Lytton Springs.
So, now that we have that, the biggest
change will be to actually bring all of Lytton Springs grapes here
to this winery, whereas previously it was made all at Ridge (Monte
C - "Do you think that
will - it would seem to me as a layperson, that having the grapes
brought directly from the vine to the hopper can only enhance the
quality of the wine."
JO - "I think the vintages
of Lytton Springs that were made, even with the hauling all the
way up to Cupertino - judging on the quality of the wines - didn't
suffer too much.
But certainly the control over what
and when to pick is greatly increased. So rather than needing to
say, fill up a truck, or picking only so much because that's all
that fits on a truck, here you have the option of proximity, where
you can do a little back and forth. You can pick that block right
now, and after lunch we'll go over and pick that one - that sort
C - "So, do you think
there will be more and smaller lots processed individually?"
JO - "To me, the greatest
advantage to having the winery right next to the vines is that you
increase the opportunities to catch the grapes at that ideal moment
that we all talk about, (and never really know if we have). Whether
that means we will be picking in smaller amounts, or perhaps larger
amounts, because we see that everything is ripe and we can do two
truckloads in one day - because we have to - remains to be seen.
97 is a good example. Had we been
able to pick everything at once, we probably would have killed ourselves,
but maybe we would have made an even better wine."
C - "I'm glad you mentioned
97. Just last week I happened to open and serve a 97 Grenache and
a 97 Syrah (both ATP wines) at a friend's home to accompany dinner
and they were both very, very impressive.
Could you tell us about the Rhône
variety program - how it got started and where it's heading? I know
it's something that Paul is very excited about."
JO - "Oh, absolutely.
I guess there's two parts to that. First Grenache, which, oddly
enough, you don't see that much, especially in this area - Dry Creek.
One of the hills here at Lytton is planted to Grenache - very, very
old Grenache. You especially don't see that often - they might have
had a French intern here that year during planting, and he got away
Paul began fermenting the Grenache
separately in the early 90s. In 95 we blended roughly 50% Grenache
and Zinfandel. Then, in '96 we released the first varietal Grenache
as an ATP. We then planted some more Grenache next door at the Lytton
West (Norton Ranch) vineyard. It took off from there.
I think the inclusion of some Zinfandel
and Petite Sirah - which is growing side by side right there on
that hillside - to me, makes a better wine. So, I'm certainly excited
And the Syrah was the kind of thing
we just fell upon - it had been planted by the Hambrechts when they
owned the Norton Ranch. So, when Ridge purchased that ranch in 95,
in 1996 they harvested the Syrah, and when it came in the idea was:
'let's see what we get.'
It really surprised all of us, and
I think that's where the excitement came from. We still are making
the wine down at Monte Bello - Paul and Eric have been getting to
know the grapes better, and I think the wine keeps on improving."
C - "I heard through
the grapevine, if you will, that there was a rather highly regarded
French winemaker who exclaimed after tasting the 98 Syrah: 'This
is what the grape should taste like!'
Do you know if there is truth to
JO - "I can't confirm
or deny it. (laughter) I think I would actually agree with it -
there's a purity of flavor there, whether you want to say that it's
more French or more Californian..."
C - "That's an argument
I will not take part in."
JO - "Right. I tend
to not go down that road - it doesn't seem to mean much."
C - "Do you think the
- it's hard to call it 'experimentation" - the venture into
Rhône varieties will continue here?"
JO - "I think it will
continue, but we're after something that is of the highest quality.
Growing the grapes in the right place, and producing something of
quality is essential to us. For us to go out and buy a bunch of
Syrah from any vineyard that has it just to keep the program going
or to "build the brand" is just not what we're about.
So, yes - I think it will keep going,
but we're not in a hurry."
- "What's in the future for you and Ridge Vineyards?"
JO - "Well, hopefully,
variations on the themes of the past - continuing to make outstanding
Zinfandel and outstanding Cabernet, and all the other things we
do. I think that it's important that we remain focused.
I have no problem - once I've found
something I like doing - just sticking to it. My wife calls me the
'young curmudgeon', so I think it's just holding on to what got
you there in the first place, which is the quality of the wine."
C - "Have you found
a home here - I mean in a figurative sense - regarding winemaking?"
JO - "Oh yeah, definitely
- I've found a home in all senses here. I love it here."
C - "It must be extraordinary
to work with Mr. Draper on a regular basis."
JO - "It is. It's great
experience and it's obviously enormously educational."
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