Growing up in Corcoran, David Gates liked to play in the dirt, especially at his grandparents' farm just west of Golden Valley.

Now he does that full-time, as vice president for vineyard operations at one of California's more esteemed wineries, Ridge Vineyard. There he tends to vineyards where the dirt is actually pliable 12 months a year. His modest manner might hint at his roots, but they now are planted firmly in Wine Country.

"I enjoyed growing up in Minnesota," he said, but "I wanted to get away from Minnesota winters. I brought my wife there a few winters ago, and she pretty much froze her toes off."

So after high school (Rockford, class of 1977), he headed to the University of California at San Diego "and drank a lot of cheap wine." When his wife was accepted at Stanford, they moved north and Gates found his calling in the wine biz, working for industry icon Paul Draper.

He now divides his time among Ridge properties in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties. Summer and fall are the most hectic times, but even during our visit in late November, Gates was tending to a ground-cover mix that included peas and fava beans. Turns out the soil needs nitrogen for the grapes to make the always outstanding Monte Bello wines.

"Here the big thing is erosion, so we try to keep a vigorous cover crop," he said. "We'll eventually till this into the ground. It keeps the soil sweet, and keeps the pH higher."

Gates showed a knack for turning a lengthy spiel on geology into fascinating stuff, as he pointed out the proximity of the San Andreas Fault and talked about "an old sea mound ... with greenstone rock and huge iron content ... back in the Fransiscan era, pre-dinosaur."

OK, maybe you had to be there, but it quickly was clear that this son of a contractor really knows his stuff. And Gates' contributions extend well beyond making sure the soil housing the vines is providing optimum growing conditions. He's heavily involved in the winemaking process and is in the room when the final blends are determined (quite a journey for someone whose family drank very little wine "except for Cold Duck at Thanksgiving," Gates said).

And those final blends are tasty. It's not a reach to call Ridge's Geyserville and Lytton Springs blends ($35 each) the most consistently stellar zin-based wines coming out of California over the past quarter-century. The York Creek zin ($30), from grapes grown in Napa by Anchor Steam beer founder Fritz Maytag (a college friend of Draper's), is seriously tasty, and the Three Valleys blend is a friendly, dandy bargain at $22.

The Monte Bello estate provides the grapes for two profound, spendier offerings: a gorgeous, clean and vibrant chardonnay ($60) and the large-and-in-charge but firm and focused Bordeaux blend ($145). For those who can afford them (sigh), these wines are great buys.

They also are seriously versatile at the dinner table, especially by California standards. "We push food with the Monte Bello cab because it's so different from most California cabs," Gates said, citing notes of sage and black olive.

As we sampled several vintages of this stellar wine -- the 1994 was pretty close to perfection in a glass -- Gates talked about Draper's role in crafting these beauties. "You can see the Paul Draper touch," Gates said, "but it's because you can't see him. You see the Monte Bello in all of them."

Actually, that's where Gates also comes in: By taking meticulous care of the ground in which the vines are grown, he's ensuring that the wines will reflect where they came from.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643