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

Xmas and Opus One

For Christmas this year, my family and I were treated to a couple of very special wines brought by a couple of very special family friends.  The first was a 1994 Opus One. Opus One is the joint venture begun by the late, great Robert Mondavi, and the also now deceased Baron Philippe de Rothschild.  The first vintages released were the 1979 and 1980, both released in 1984, making Opus One California’s first ultra premium wine.  Now, I’ve heard a lot of people say that Opus One is over-rated and too expensive for what it is.  Yes, it is very expensive and not a wine that I will likely drink on a regular basis, but I will say that I really liked it!  The 1994 is drinking really well right now and still has enough stuff in it to last a few more years.

The 1994 vintage was a long and cool one.  The spring was warm and sunny and budburst was early.  The summer was cooler than normal allowing for an extended growing season.  The blend for this vintage is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Merlot, and 1% Malbec and it was aged for 18 months in new French oak.  The wine is an opaque ruby colour with a slight garnet rim and some sediment.  There are intense aromas of leather, earth, cassis, dark fruit and black olives.  It has an incredibly silky texture with soft and well-integrated tannins.  Dark fruit, leather and earth flavours dominate and it has a long lingering finish.

The other wine brought was also a 1994, but this time from the huge Gallo wine company, also from California.  This wine was a Gallo Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma.  I wasn’t sure if this wine would have much life left but it was surprisingly good and I really liked it.  It’s drinking really well right now, but probably won’t last much longer.

After a search of the internet I couldn’t find anything about this wine so I have no background to give.  I do know that it was purchased by our friends in the late 1990s at the winery.  It has an opaque garnet colour with lots of sediment.  Aromas of leather and chocolate dominate with dried fig and earth in a supporting role.  It’s a very full-bodied and dark wine.  There are mature tannins and a good length with a pleasing finish.  Consensus was that this was the favourite of the evening, with Opus One as a close second.

My contribution to the lot was a 1995 Chateau Camensac, a 5th growth Bordeaux from the Haut-Medoc.  Wine writer, Stephen Brook, who wrote the encyclopedic “The Complete Bordeaux”, claims that “almost without exception they are disappointing on numerous accounts, being either green or dilute or short”  (I wish I’d read that before I bought the bottle!)  It is drinkable but a bit disappointing with its very short length.  The finish disappeared almost immediately.

This wine was a lighter garnet colour than the two mentioned above and there was virtually no sediment.  The aromas were subtle with leather, herbs, and tobacco.  Not a lot of fruit was evident.  The texture was smooth and the tannins were mature but there was little concentration of flavour and the finish was almost non-exsistent.

Leave a comment on this wine blog and tell us about any good (or maybe not so good) wines you had over the holidays.

1997 Napa Cabernet Tasting

This week I attended the Winetasters Society of Toronto’s monthly tasting held at the North York Civic Centre.  (I have a link to their website in my Blogroll.)  I’ve been a member of this group for a few years now, and I enjoy these tastings as they usually feature wines from older vintages that I would probably not have the opportunity to try otherwise.  I particularly enjoy their annual Christmas Party which is held at Casa Loma.  That’s when they bring out all the really big guns.  At these events I’ve had the opportunity to taste top quality wines from as far back as the 50s and 60s.  The last two years have even featured 100 year old Madeiras.  Now that is a real treat.  But, I digress.

The tasting this month was 1997 Napa Valley Cabernets.  1997 was a stellar year in Napa Valley.  The season started off with a warm spring that followed through into the summer.  Although it was warm, it was not stifling.  There was great ripeness in the grapes which were harvested in September and into October.  Because the weather was so perfect, there was a relatively large crop that year. 

The 1997 Cabernets we tasted were all what you would call some of the “GrandCrus” of Napa.  All of the wines were well over $50 a bottle, and that was when they were acquired by the Winetasters Society of Toronto  in 2001 or 2002.  I’m sure they’re worth much more now. I don’t want to think about what they would cost in a restaurant. All the wines were drinking well and I enjoyed all of them, but there were a couple that I was not as impressed with as the others.  Read my tasting notes below for more details.

All the wines were tasted blind.  We were given a list of the wines to be tasted but we didn’t know the order they were in.

1. Staglin Family Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon:  Staglin was established in 1985. This particular wine spent 27 months in new French oak.  It is an opaque ruby with a slight garnet tinge on the rim.  It has aromas of leather and chocolate with hints of dried figs and raisins.  Delicate scents of violets and roses are also present.  The palate confirms the nose with the dried fruit following through. It has mature, medium tannins and a bit of an animal character.  It has a long finish.  I really like this wine.  It was one of my favourites of the tasting. (Acquired in 2001 for $99.95)

2. Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag’s Leap (unfiltered):  Founded in 1966 by the late great Robert Mondavi.  The winery was purchased in 2004 by Constellation.  It is a dark garnet colour, but the nose seems to be a bit closed right now.  There are aromas of leather and plums, but I think I was expecting a bit more from it.  It opens up a bit more in the mouth with flavours of vanilla and more dark fruit.   (Acquired in 2001 for $69.95)

3.  Markham Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon:Founded in 1977.  This wine is a medium-dark garnet colour and reveals aromas of dried strawberries and other dried fruit. It is very earthy and animally on the nose.  The palate shows more fruit with red and black berries.  It has fine tannins with a medium to long finish. (Acquired in 2001 for $75)

4.  Guenoc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bella Vista Vineyard: Not quite as garnet in colour as the Markham or Mondavi wines.  It exhibits aromas of green pepper, pencil shaving, mint and some cherry.  It is a bit tart on the palate with red fruit and smooth tannins.  This was one of my least favourite wines of the tasting as I tend to not like the under-ripe green pepper flavours and aromas that cabernets can sometimes have. (Acquired in 2004 for $75)

5.  Clos Du Val, Cabernet Sauvignon, Georges III:  The winery was established in 1972 and the Georges III is one of the original Napa vineyards.  The colour of the wine is a dark garnet and it shows aromas of dried flowers, raspberry, cassis, and something dusty.  (Could it be that famous “Rutherford dust”?)  On the palate the tannins seem to stand out more than in the others wines and the dried flowers  and fruit flavours follow through.  The length isn’t as long as I would like but this was still one of my favourite wines of the evening. (Acquired in 2001 for $69.99)

6.  Chappellet, Cabernet Sauvignon: Founded in 1967.  This wine has pronounced aromas of red fruit along with hints of flowers.  A bit of a leather characteristic is showing due to the age of the wine.  There is lots of fruit on the palate.  This is a very elegant wine with a smooth texture and fine tannins and a good, long finish.  This was one of my favourite wines of the tasting. (Acquired in 2001 for $59.90)

7. Cain Vineyards, Cain Five:  in 1997, the Cain Five blend was 87% Cabernet Sauvignon which is why it was allowed in this tasting.  Typically, Cain Five is a blend of all five Bordeaux varieties (Cab. Sauv., Cab. Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot).  On the nose there is quite a bit of animal, verging on barnyard with some evidence of dried black fruit.  It is quite smooth in the mouth with the animal character and dark fruit following through. (Acquired in 2002 for $99.95)

8.  Caymus Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon:  established in 1972.  I found distinct aromas of raisins and prunes on the suggesting that it may be slightly oxidized.  The same oxidized character follows through on the palate.  This was one of my least favourite wines of the tasting, although many of the other tasters in attendance really liked it.  (Acquired in 2001 for $99.95)

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