Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson, Champion of Zinfandel

1 Oct

by Sharon Kapnick

Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker of Ravenswood Winery, knows a thing or two about Zinfandel. He’s been making it–and making it well–since 1976. At a prestigious San Francisco tasting in 1979, his first two Zins took first and second place–not a bad beginning for a winemaker. Although he didn’t own any vineyards and didn’t have a winery, he had a special talent and a love for the varietal.

Peterson also had an advantage other winemakers didn’t: When he was just 10, he attended his first wine tasting at the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club, founded by his father. He was a regular at the club, which his oenophile parents, both chemists, hosted twice a week. While other kids were watching Leave It to Beaver or The Adventures of Superman on TV, he was developing his palate. During his teenage years, when many of us were discovering Gallo Hearty Burgundy, Mateus and Blue Nun, he could discuss French Burgundy and Bordeaux intelligently and was knowledgeable about important European vineyards.

His career in wine, then, was a likely choice. From 1972 to 1976, Peterson apprenticed with Joseph Swan, a pioneer in the rediscovery of Zinfandel, the only wine grape varietal deemed unique to the U.S. by the federal government. Considered California’s heritage grape, Zinfandel was the most widely planted grape in the state before Prohibition. After Prohibition, however, many California winemakers were drawn to Europe’s prestigious Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Bucking convention, Peterson opted to try to revive interest in Zinfandel, to bring acceptance and esteem back to the grape.

He accomplished his goal and then some, with, of course, some bumps along the way. While building up his business, Peterson faced a problem: He needed cash flow, but he wanted terroir wines. Making white Zin, as so many others were quite profitably doing, didn’t appeal to him. He preferred to concentrate on fruity, spicy, robust, bold and full-flavored red Zinfandels. After all, he’s the guy who coined Ravenswood’s famed motto “No Wimpy Wines.” So instead of knocking out white Zins, he created the inexpensive red Vintners Blend. A great value (currently about $8 a bottle), it became a huge success. Peterson bought his own winery several years later. Today, with 360,000 cases produced last year, Ravenswood Vintners Blend is probably the most consumed Zin in the world.

Other things too make Ravenswood special. It’s had one winemaker for 36 years. The affable Peterson, who was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2011, has nurtured long-standing relationships with more than 100 independent grape growers. He helped preserve some of California’s oldest vineyards. A significant number of old Zinfandel vines–which produce high-quality grapes and concentrated and complex wines–are still around, and some used in Ravenswood wines date back to the 19th century.

Peterson took Ravenswood from a two-man winery (his partner Reed Foster focused on the business end) with an annual output of just 327 cases to one of the iconic Zinfandel producers in the U.S., last year making 557,000 cases of Zinfandel (and 268,000 cases of other varietals). Without a doubt, Peterson has earned his sobriquet, the Godfather of Zin.

I recently had the opportunity to try some of Ravenswood’s 2009 Single Vineyard wines–the vintage is regarded as outstanding–with Peterson and recommend the following:

Barricia Sonoma Valley (SRP*: $35; 80% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah): Very old, very historic vineyard. Because the crop level is low and the vine vigor lackluster, the wine is intense. Aromas and flavors of black raspberry, blackberry, cherry, black pepper and spice. Simply delicious.

Teldeschi Dry Creek Valley (SRP: $35): The vineyard was planted around 1900 and is still farmed as it was then. Organic but not certified. This Teldeschi is an Italian-Californian field blend of Zinfandel (77%), Petite Sirah (14%) and Carignane (9%). Aromas and flavors of black cherries and other dark fruits, coffee and vanilla. Powerful, full flavored.

Dickerson Napa Valley (SRP: $35; 100% Zinfandel): This vineyard, planted in 1930, is appropriately located on Zinfandel Lane. Aromas and flavors of black raspberry, mulberry, cedar and mint (which comes from the huge eucalyptus tree next to the vineyard). Bright, fresh, classic Zin, with good acidity.

Old Hill Sonoma Valley (SRP: $60): In 1862 William Hill made Sonoma’s first famous Zinfandel from berries grown in this vineyard. Today, Old Hill Vineyard comprises 14 different varieties, but this wine is blended to be 76% Zinfandel and 24% mixed black grapes. (Zinfandel has traditionally been planted with many other black grapes, such as Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet.) Aromas and flavors of bing cherries, black raspberries, spice and vanilla. Big, rich, refined and complex.

*Wines can usually be found for less–sometimes considerably less–than the SRP (suggested retail price).

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One Response to “Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson, Champion of Zinfandel”

  1. Debra October 1, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    Interesting! You tell good wine stories!

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