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Hidden Ridge, Indeed
By Gerald D. Boyd
Dec 27, 2011
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For some wine-grape growers, there is a certain inner-need urging them to push as far into the hills as possible to plant a vineyard.  Such is the case with Lynn Hofacket and Casidy Ward, a husband and wife team that roamed the western slopes of Spring Mountain for a few years, until 1991--when they finally found a site that can only be described as breathtaking.

Narrow twisting roads, towering redwoods and pines, woven with a network of rutted dirt side tracks that shoot off at every turn in the main road.  Carved into the hillsides by graders and the back-and-forth of heavy trucks, these routes are the only way of traversing the Mayacamas Mountains that form a western ridge separating the Napa Valley from the Sonoma Valley, to the Hidden Ridge vineyard.

The day of my appointment, I was to meet Hofachet at Neal Creek Road and St. Helena Road, which sounds clear enough until you drive up the twists and turns of St. Helena Road in a wheezing 1972 Volkswagon Beetle, my car of choice for rambling around wine country.  After down-shifting repeatedly, the old VW rounded a blind turn and chugged right past Neal Road.  Fortunately, I caught a glimpse of a man standing at the side of the road, so I stopped, backed up and then noticed the hidden sign for Neal Road.  Hofacket and I would ride up to the vineyard in his more-than-able, diesel-powered, four-wheel-drive truck, leaving my not-so-able VW parked partly off the road with two wheels in a ditch.  As I climbed into the cab of his truck, Hofacket told me that Hidden Ridge was accessible only by helicopter, foot, or by a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

“This is a freeway compared to what it was,” Hofacket quipped. “There was a road in to the vineyard site when we bought the property, but it had to be graded,” he added with a sly smile, as we bounced along up the steep rutted road.  It must have been graded a decade ago, I thought as I grabbed for the armrest in the door.  Hofacket explained that he and Ward came to California from Oklahoma in 1989, poked around Northern California for a while, finally purchasing 165 acres of mountain property on a ridge between Napa and Sonoma.  “Other than what was on the county map, we really didn’t know what we had,” Hofacket said nonchalantly.  “But we lucked out.  Planting the vines was easier than I thought it would be because, as it turned out, we have at least 20 feet of topsoil, while in most mountain sites you have, maybe, four to five feet of soil, then bedrock.”

At the top of the Hidden Ridge property there is a broad observation deck, anchored in some of that bedrock Hofacket admired, jutting out of the hillside affording a spectacular view of gracefully contoured vine rows hugging the sides of a bowl set into the top of the ridge.  Barely visible is a reservoir that supplies water to the vines through a complex drip irrigation system.  The site is less than two miles from the Napa County line, between Fisher and Pride Mountain.  

Hofacket and Ward started developing the site in 1997 and planted their first vines in 2000.  Gazing out over the vineyards, Hofacket noted that he and his crew sculpted the terraced vineyards from the steep sides of the canyon bowl.  “Now we have 51,000 Cabernet Sauvignon vines and 27,000 Petit Verdot vines,” he proudly explained.  Why Petit Verdot?  “Merlot was and is in over supply so we ruled it out,” he said.”

Casidy Ward recalls when she and Hofacket invited vineyard consultants to the remote site for an assessment of the challenge ahead.  “The experts told us if you can get this planted, it will make good wine.” And so it took Hofacket and his crew the better part of six years to plant the 60 acres of vines. The Hidden Ridge vineyard is divided into three areas, each with a geological name:  Ancient Slide, Twin Cinder Cones and Uplifted Riverbed.  The 21 blocks, with inside and outside rows, follow the natural shape of the mountain.  Hofacket says he planted for maximum vine density and sun exposure. 

Winemaker Timothy Milos and veteran winemaker and consultant Marco DiGiulio make three mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignons:  Hidden Lot #1, 55% Slope and “Impassable Mountain Reserve.”  Because of Hidden Ridge’s remote location and the difficulty of trucks getting in and out, Hofacket and Ward decided against a winery at the vineyard site, opting instead to have the wines made at Bin to Bottle, a contract winery on the Napa Valley floor, where DiGiulio is managing partner and Milos is the winemaker.

Hidden Ridge 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon is made from grapes grown on the original block that was planted at a very steep 55 percent, but now has been terraced to 5 percent.  Hidden Ridge Hidden Lot #1 Cabernet Sauvignon is a barrel selection combining grapes from the Twin Cinder Cones and Uplifted Riverbed blocks.  Hidden Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon “Impassable Mountain “ Reserve, also a barrel selection, derives its name from the conclusion by 19th century surveyors, tasked with finding a route through the rugged mountain, declared the land to be “impassable.” 

Lean soils and steep slopes, with east and south exposures, naturally limit vine vigor and give remarkably small-berried fruit.  Also, the extended growing day at moderate temperatures infuses the fruit with well‐developed tannins and a rich texture while preserving the complex fruit characters lost in warmer locations.  The Hidden Ridge Cabernets reflect a mountain-grown style and weight.  They won’t suit the taste of everyone, but they are definitely distinctive wines that speak clearly of a remarkable place.

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Comments?  Questions?  E-mail me at gboyd@winereviewonline.com