Chris Johnston has put Idyllwild on the wine map with his award-winning Middle Ridge varietals. Three of his wines won top awards at the 2011 Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition in July. Two of the bottles were named for local icons.
The 2008 Cabernet Franc, “The Mountain,” won the Grand Sweepstakes. The Chairmen’s Best of Class was a 2008 Cinsaut, labeled “Tahquitz.” His 2007 Red Meritage wine, blended in the exceptional Bordeaux tradition, with combinations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, won the silver medal.
Middle Ridge is a member of The Meritage Association, an invented word that combines “merit” and “heritage.” This national group identifies only the most outstanding wines.
So how did Johnston, a network engineer, become an enologist, a chemist who does the lab work to make the wine? It all started when his wife, Melody, who knew how much he loved wine, signed both of them up for a wine appreciation class held at University of California at Davis. “The next thing I knew, he was jumping into wine making,” remarks Melody.
“My first wine was made from a kit and was horrible. I decided to go back to Davis and enroll in some serious wine making classes,” said Johnston.
Serious is the word that describes Chris when he’s inventing new wines in the home laboratory where he developed and made his first wines in 2006. The vinous aroma permeates the air as he explains the taste of a zinfandel from a French oak barrel as opposed to an American oak; he uses both. His wine is now produced in Temecula.
Johnston carefully chooses grapes from the vineyards in Lodi and Paso Robles and continually visits the vineyards, checking out the vines, tasting the grapes, and finally, carefully loading them for their final trip to Temecula.
Middle Ridge is part of The Wine Collective in Old Town, Temecula, where Johnston has developed more than 15 different wines in combinations of white, reds, dry, or sweet. All are of award-winning quality due to Chris’ careful analysis of grapes, content, and chemical timing, but the key is storing the bottles for at least two years before marketing.
The Johnstons both enjoy entering competitions two to three times a year where their super-premium, but medium-priced, products always take prizes. As grand prize winners, they are invited to the Long Beach Grand Cru Awards and Public Wine Tasting on Saturday, Aug. 20. Information about this event is available on the Middle Ridge website, www.middleridge.com.
For wine aficionados, Middle Ridge offers a wine club, which comes with free tastings and a newsletter from Chris and Melody. One can order these wines at Idyllwild’s elegant restaurants. While the Johnstons both have regular jobs, they’re passionate about making wine that combines casualness with sophistication.