Ravenwood’s Joel Peterson – the “Godfather of Zin”

Ravenswood WineryRavenswood has a very simple motto: “No Wimpy Wines.”  Well, from the wines I tasted back in May at the Ravenswood Zinfandel tasting and summer BBQ (the food was prepared by celebrity Chef Rob Rainford) in Toronto, I can honestly say that these ripe, rich, full-bodied wines are definitely not wimpy.  They’re not your average simple Zinfandel fruit bombs either – these wines, especially the Single Vineyard Designate line, are flavourful and complex…dare I say even terroir-driven?

Joel Peterson, Winemaker

Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker of Ravenswood, started out as a clinical laboratory scientist and worked full-time as a cancer immunology researcher at a San Francisco hospital and dabbled in wine on the side.  Back in 1976, Joel brought in 4 tons of grapes to make two Sonoma County single-vineyard Zinfandels.  These were the first wines to bear the label of the winery that took its name from the ravens that taunted Joel as he toiled in the Joel Peterson of Ravenswoodvineyards.  In 1979, these same wines won first and second at a prestigious wine tasting in San Francisco, which helped Peterson recruit investors to get his fledgling winery going.  It wasn’t an easy ride, however, the winery moved around a lot in the early years, and it didn’t begin to make a profit until the late 80s.  In 1991, Ravenswood finally found its permanent home in Sonoma County.  It wasn’t until 1992 that Joel quit his job in the laboratory to concentrate exclusively on the winery and its wines.  Joel is now known as the “Godfather of Zin” for helping to turn the under-appreciated Zinfandel vine into a world-class grape.   He also makes Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay.

In fact, Joel didn’t know a lot about Zinfandel when he first started out.  He actually wanted his first wine to be a Bordeaux blend in honour of the French wines that he fell in love with as a young man.  Unfortunately, Bordeaux varieties were not easy to come by in California in 1976, except for Cabernet Sauvignon which was very expensive.  A colleague told him that Zinfandel is the “Bordeaux of California.”  So, Joel makes Zinfandel in a Bordeaux style.

In 2001, Ravenswood was purchased by Constellation for a cool $148 million – not bad for a guy who started with $4,000.  But, Joel did not ride quietly off into the sunset with his saddlebags full of cash, he became a senior vice-president at Constellation and he remains the winemaker at Ravenswood, where he continues to make “unadulterated, unapologetic, unfussy, unwimpy” wines.

Single Vineyard Designate Wines

Most of us are familiar with Ravenswood Vintners Blend Old Vine Zinfandel, but Ravenswood makes more than just this mass produced “Zinfandel with training wheels,” as Joel describes it.  Their top tier is the Single Vineyard Designate line.  The grapes for these big, bold wines are sourced from vineyards with old, low-yielding vines with soils that are ideally suited to the grapes that grow on it.  The wines have specific and consistently distinctive flavours that are unique to each site.

Ravenswood Chauvet Zinfandel 2008Ravenswood 2008 Chauvet Zinfandel: Not an official Single Vineyard Designate wine, but it does come from one small plot of land.  Aged 24 months in 100% French oak of which 30% was new.  14.5% abv.  Complex  aromas of blueberry, red currant, black cherry, spice, caramel, and chocolate, with a distinctive smoked meat character. Rich, thick, and lush with firm tannins and a long length.  The alcohol, while high, is balanced. ($59.95 – limited amounts) Paired with an assorted cheese plate.

Ravenswood 2008 Old Hill ZinfandelRavenswood 2008 Old Hill Zinfandel: 75% Zinfandel, 25% mixed blacks.  Aged 20 months in French oak, 34% new and 30% 1 year.  15% abv.  Intense aromas of ripe dark fruit – especially blueberries – vanilla, and chocolate.  Big and powerful on the palate with the very high alcohol resulting in a very warm finish.  The alcohol is quite noticeable. ($59.95) Paired with grilled beef and asparagus – a nice pairing.

Ravenswood 2008 Teldeschi ZinfandelRavenswood 2008 Teldeschi Zinfandel: 75% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah, 3% Carignane, 2% Alicante Bouchet.  Aged 20 months in French oak, 31% new and 30% 1 year old.  14.5% abv.  A powerful, yet very pretty nose of sweet, ripe, dark berries, black cherry, spice box, vanilla, and chocolate.  A very rich and generous mouthfeel with velvetty tannins and a very long length.  My favourite of the Zins! ($44.95 – not available until October 2012) Paired with fig with coffee infused mascarpone cheese – not in love with this pairing.

Ravenswood 2007 Pickberry Red Wine:  58% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon – a nod to Joel’s love for Bordeaux.  Aged 24 months in French oak, 40% new.  14.5% abv.  Overflowing with aromas of red plum, black currant, cedar, licorice and a touch of graphite pencil.  Full and dense with firm tannins and a long length.  Really good. ($44.95) Paired with charred beef tenderloin on crustini with coffee rub and Brie cheese – a good pairing.

Winemaker Joel Peterson and Chef Rob Rainford

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