Middle Ridge Winery, based in the picturesque, mountaintop town of Idyllwild, in Southern California (6000-foot elevation), is a real life winery in every sense of the word. It may not have its own tasting room or vineyards, but the wines and other beverages it produces are distinctive and widely acclaimed. Created by winemaker Chris Johnston and his wife, Melody, Middle Ridge started as an experiment in their garage and now is a thriving boutique winery with sales all over California.
Chris and Melody are the perfect people to embark on this continually evolving wine and beverage adventure. Chris (sometimes called “the Mad Scientist” by his friends) tapped into his memories of college chemistry classes and then into his problem-solving expertise developed over many years in an IT career. Melody added her extensive educational and marketing expertise to the blend. They took some viticulture courses at UC-Davis to prepare them to move forward with their winemaking. Of course, they both love good wine and good conversation (which is only enhanced by good wine) and “voila,” a winery was born. It’s not surprising that the tagline on the winery’s bottles says, “When the conversation is as important as the wine.”
At first Chris experimented in his garage with a variety of blends, but when his friends started raving about his homemade wines, he and Melody felt it was time to explore what steps they would need to take to become a real winery and start selling their wines. Chris travelled around the state to find the ideal grapes for the wines he wanted to make. They bottled their first vintage in 2006, releasing their first bottles in 2008. Today their grapes come from Temecula Valley, Paso Robles and Lodi. They have a thriving wine club and sell their wines through a variety of venues (listed at end of article). Their winery’s popularity and wonderful reputation only continue to grow.
Chris says, “We are trying to make casually sophisticated products that are easily accessible. There is no need to be a wine snob. Sophisticated doesn’t need to be snobby. We produce wine we like and hopefully others will like it too and enjoy drinking it in a comfortable environment.”
Middle Ridge has also been garnering impressive awards. For instance, their 2009 Dark Canyon, a cab blend aged for 29 months in French Oak, won a Gold medal at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition and Silver medals at the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition and at the Long Beach Grand Cru International Wine Competition. The complex nose on this wine is full of berries, currants and cherries with a touch of vanilla and its palate is smooth and elegant.
At the same prestigious competitions, Middle Ridge’s 2009 Meritage, a Bordeaux blend, won Silver medals. This delicious wine is scented with cherries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries and has a long finish and well-balanced tannins. Middle Ridge also produces a variety of other wonderful wines, frequently described as “elegant,” including a lemony, fresh Pinot Grigio, a floral and spicy Cabernet Franc, a Bordeaux-style Zinfandel, and a mellow Merlot with notes of plum, mocha and spice. And in keeping with Chris’s adventuresome approaches, he has produced a wonderful Sauvignon Blanc with tantalizing overtones of kiwi and a flavorful Tangerine Pinot Grigio.
At a recent wine tasting party at the lovely Creek House restaurant in Idyllwild, guests were greeted with Chris’s newest concoction, a sparkling, Middle Ridge-crafted cocktail, called “The Mule,” inspired by the original Moscow Mule, which was created out of vodka, ginger beer, and simple syrup in the 1940s and has been popular ever since. The creation of Middle Ridge’s Mule was originated and stimulated by a conversation Chris had with celebrity mixologist, Jeff Josenhans, from San Diego’s luxurious U.S. Grant Hotel. After discussing the possibility of producing their own Mule, Chris decided to go back to his garage and experiment with his version of this historical drink.
After a lengthy trial and error period of experimentation, the ultimate result is a luscious Champagne-like cocktail that combines Muscat grapes, ginger-infused hops and grape-based vodka that ferments right in the bottle. The night of the party this sparkling drink was served with a garnish of wet hops to rave reviews. Middle Ridge is now producing The Mule in greater quantities and marketing it all over the country. As a result of his success with The Mule, Chris has created the “Cocktails Sur Lie” team, which will produce a line of crafted cocktails made using the Méthode Champenoise process usually only applied when making the finest champagnes. (The French term “Sur Lie” refers to the process of fermentation in the bottle.) Keep tuned for more news about these innovative drinks.
Another characteristic that distinguishes Middle Ridge is its approach to educating wine drinkers. Melody is the leader in this educational component. For instance, at some of their wine tasting parties, they present an aroma table where guests can learn to identify aromas in wine and recently they offered tasters an experience where they could try different toastings on the oak staves used in aging. The level of toasting dramatically affects the taste of oak in a wine and Chris typically strives for a balanced oak taste that is not too intense.
Middle Ridge will be holding its Annual Barrel Tasting on Saturday, November 10, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Temecula Valley Wine Management at 27495 Diaz Road in Idyllwild. Guests will have the opportunity to preview some great reds from 2010 and celebrate the release of two new Paso Robles reserves, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines were aged in new French oak for 29 months and promise to be elegant and delicious. The cost for the barrel tasting is $25 per person with a reservation or $30 per person at the door or free for Wine Club members. Reservations can be made by going to Middle Ridge Barrel Tasting online.
Middle Ridge wines can be purchased online or at Crush & Brew (formerly called The Collective) at 28544 Old Town Front Street in Old Town Temecula. They are also available at selected restaurants in Idyllwild—Café Aroma Bistro, Restaurant Gastrognome, Creek House Restaurant, and Idyll Awhile Wine Shoppe & Bistro. In addition, Middleridge wines can be found on the menus of a growing number of other California restaurants, including FarmShop in Los Angeles, The US Grant Hotel in San Diego, and Highland Springs Resort.