Winemaker Joel Peterson opens a bottle of Ravenswood wine at the Cooke Vineyard, a high elevation site featuring plantings of Heritage Zinfandel clones in Sonoma Valley.
To fine wine consumers across the nation, Zinfandel is a word with deep connotations of bold red wines loaded with spice and a great pairing with hearty cuisine, especially in wintertime. One person that knows this very well is Joel Peterson, the maverick winemaker and co-founder of Ravenswood, the important Sonoma Valley-based winery which celebrated its 30-year anniversary last year.
In short, it has been an amazing ride for Peterson, co-founder W. Reed Foster and the rest of the company since the beginning: from a humble beginning of producing just 327 cases in 1976; to gaining cult status for producing tasty old vine zinfandels in 1980s; and eventually establishing the grassroots marketing theme “No Wimpy Wines” in the 1990s.
Today, the striving for excellence theme continues but on a much larger scale that ever before. In 2007, the winery surpassed the pinnacle mark of one million cases produced, over 75 percent of which was Zinfandel. In layman’s terms, it means that nearly one out of every five bottles of Zinfandel opened in the United States priced over $4 has the symbolic Ravenswood label on it.
Yet despite this large volume, the winery only owns a small amount of estate vineyards. Instead, the majority of the fruit is sourced from long standing relationships with over 60 independent growers throughout California.
The classic Ravenswood label was designed by graphic artist David Lance Goines.
Ravenswood’s Unique Styles
It is from these sites that the winery makes three unique styles of wine. The first is the trustworthy Vintner’s Blend, a true negotiant’s cepage that is young, upfront, vibrant and juicy. The second is the County Series that is geared towards capturing the style of each region inside the bottle.
On the higher end of the spectrum is the Vineyard Designates Series, a wonderful selection of handcrafted wines designed to pay homage to the specific sites, terrain, and the marvelous flavor profiles of zinfandel-based fruit from vines that are primarily 50-years of age or older.
According to Peterson, each of the unique vines involved in the Ravenswood program has its own personality. “If you leaf them, you wouldn’t have anymore leafs. If you dropped fruit, then there wouldn’t be any fruit. They are senile enough that they only do one thing: to produce incredible flavors for as long as possible,” he says with a chuckle.
The most famous is Oak Hill, a vineyard planted in Sonoma Valley in the 1880s that features a one-of-a-kind field blend of Zinfandel, Mataro (Mourvedre), Carignane, Grenache, Alicante Bouschet, Petite Sirah, and 18 other grape varieties (three of which are still unidentified). When blended together, the selection of grapes produce a solid wine that features a substantial amount of depth, structure, and plenty of high-tone flavors to make it taste like a fine Claret as it ages.
Delicious glass of 1999 Old Hill Zinfandel, one of the many age-worthy wines that is now part of Ravenswood’s Vineyard Designate Series collection.
Phases of Development
From a historic standpoint, the success of Zinfandel and the Ravenswood brand have gone hand-in-hand. In 1976 when the winery first began, Zinfandel-based wines were moving through an interesting stage in their history: from the sturdy, well-structured wine made in the 1960s, to the hazy phases of the development of White Zinfandel in the early 1970s, and eventually the important group effort to make Zinfandels that fit into the fine wine category in the 1980s and on.
In retrospect, Peterson says he wouldn’t change a thing. “In the old days, Ravenswood wondered where its next dollar was coming from. Now, we’re moving ahead with much more clarity about what the future looks like. It is a change that benefits all of us.”
In 1991, along with Jerry Seps of Storybook Mountain Winery, Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, and a number of other spirited winemakers and growers, Peterson was one of the founding members of the Association of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), a non-profit organization focused on educating members of the trade and consumers about the beauty of wines made with Zinfandel grapes. The following has since exploded.
The upcoming 16th annual ZAP Festival, “Viva Zinfandel,” January 24-27th, will once again be all the rage in San Francisco. But despite already being the largest, single-varietal wine festival in the world, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“We’ve just barely touched the surface of what is the ultimate potential of spreading the word about Zinfandel. Education is a much needed thing,” said Rebecca Robinson, executive director of ZAP. “Hey, there are still people outside California that think all Zinfandels are colored pink!”
Peterson, who is currently the regional ZAP director for the Southern Sonoma County area, agrees. But in addition to appearing at education events and wine dinners around the nation on an annual basis, he also continues to promote the maintenance and care of old gnarly vines with traditional practices of headpruning and dryfarming and the use of budwood from heritage vines to start new vineyards. In short, the idea is to preserve the history of the unique grape variety for future generations.
And from a winemaking point of view, Peterson says the key to crafting a fine zinfandel is based on capturing the intensity of the grapes, layering the flavors, keeping the levels of alcohol in check, and balancing the general continuity of the final blend. “When consumers pick up a bottle of Ravenswood Zin, we want them to know what to expect!” he said.
For more information about Ravenswood, go to www.ravenswood-wine.com and to find out more about all the fun educational events happening at the 2007 ZAP Festival, go to www.zinfandel.org.
Classic old vine Zinfandel plant at the Bedrock Vineyard near Sonoma.