August 2008                               

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An Afternoon with Mr. Ravenswood

by Paul DeRose

After closely following and admiring his wines for a number of years, I had the pleasure of meeting Joel Peterson at a small media luncheon in Washington, DC. As chief winemaker/master of operations at Ravenswood, he has made a variety of top-notch wines there since co-founding the Sonoma-based winery in 1976, but it's his single-vineyard Zinfandels that are most famous and have become legendary among fans of the grape.

He had a number of stories to tell ranging from how his wine-loving parents (both chemists) encouraged him to train his palette and write tasting notes for their tasting group from a young age, to his stint as a lab biologist during his early winemaking days, to the origins of the name Ravenswood and its famous logo. Recounting the last of these, he referred to Raven being the trickster god of the north-western American Indians and also Ravenswood, the male protagonist in Donizetti's opera Lucia di Lammermoor, who drowns in quicksand. Obviously, he had some initial trepidation about starting his own winery. The circle of three Ravens logo was designed by David Lance Goines, a since prominent graphic artist, who borrowed the circle of birds idea from a circa 1947 Penguin books logo.

Joseph Swan, a California wine pioneer whom he credits for giving him the Zinfandel bug, trained him as a winemaker in the early '70s, while still working as a scientist. He was a full-time winemaker by 1977, but confided that the winery had no profits to show for their efforts until 1987. They went public in 1999 and sold to Constellation Brands in 2001, making him a rich man. Not typical for someone in this position, and to our good fortune, Joel stayed on as master of operations and became a Constellation senior V.P. in the process.

Joel flaunted his love for Zinfandel right from his earliest winemaking days with single-vineyard Zins being the first he produced under the Ravenswood name. He has a non-interference approach, believing that great wines are made in, and should reflect the unique character of, the vineyard. His Zins capture the wild fruit and spice for which the grape is known, but also possess ageworthy structure that he views as a "pre-requisite" of serious wine. Hence, their motto "No Wimpy Wines".

All of the single vineyard wines are produced in relatively small quantities (1000-2000 cases) with the Vintner's blend line bringing in the big profits and paying the bills. The latter are being made by the 100,000s of cases, but still deliver good value. They also produce a regional line of varietals from Sonoma County, Napa Valley, etc. that take the middle ground in their quality line up.

With Ravenswood's jump to big-time production and big-business ownership, many CA wine devotees, who follow such things, have lost interest in this Zinfandel pioneer, resulting in the loss of their chic-boutique winery image. At the same time, Ravenswood has become more of a household name among more casual wine drinkers. There is certainly a long laundry list of famous California wineries that sold-out on quality somewhere along the way for profit, but I'm happy to say that Ravenswood is not one of them. Please don't change! I have confidence that they won't as long as a '70s long-haired rebel turned corporate exec is calling the shots.


The Wines
Their six single vineyard Zinfandels for national release from the 2006 vintage were served along with their 2005 Bordeaux blend from the Pickberry vineyard. Joel gave us some background information on each in the suggested tasting order, listed here. Dickerson and Big River are 100 % Zin, while the other Zins are field blends, that is, Rhone varietals are in the mix. All of them exhibited concentrated fruit with ageworthy structure. Given that all of these single vineyard Zins can be found for under $30 a bottle, except the Old Hill, I consider them to be bargains for their high level of quality. General impressions of each are given below with suggested retail price.

2006 Dickerson, Napa Valley $35

A burst of dry, red raspberry with a laser beam of tart acidity. The most lean of the bunch, but still shows attractive fruit.

2006 Belloni, Russian River Valley $35
Lush Zinberry fruit, elegantly styled, with a silky mouthfeel and interesting secondary nuances.

2006 Big River, Alexander Valley $35
Somewhere in between the lush Belloni and the full-throttle Teldeschi in style. Centered around forward berry and cherry fruit.

2006 Teldeschi, Dry Creek Valley $35
Full fruit and big structure with spice. Classic, no-holds-barred DCV Zin.

2006 Barricia, Sonoma Valley $35
Similar to the Big River in style with a lot of forward fruit, but a little more secondary nuances.

2006 Old Hill, Sonoma Valley $60
Built for aging, this shows the most structure and loads of herb garden complexity with plenty of fruit to meet.

2005 Pickberry, Sonoma Mountain $60
Highly structured Bordeaux blend that reflects the herbal side of Merlot. Needs 5-10 years. 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon.