Ravenswood: Joel Peterson and his Powerful Elixirs

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,

Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;

Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking

Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore –

What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore

Meant in croaking `Nevermore.’

In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” a bird comes out of the night and leaves an indelible mark… In 1976, Joel Peterson paid $4000 for four tons of Dry Creek valley grapes. As he raced around the four-acre vineyard at harvesttime, hurling 50 lb wooden crates of fruit into the back of a truck, storm clouds rolled toward the vineyard, threatening to drown Peterson’s plans to become a winemaker. All the while two ghastly grim and ancient ravens perched and sat, nothing more, while night fell on the vineyard and Peterson struggled to insure it didn’t also fall on his future. In the end, almost by some sort of magic, Peterson dodged the rain and got the grapes to Joseph Swan’s winery, where the fruit was pressed into 327 cases, and Peterson called his company Ravenswood. Perhaps just as miraculous, this European-style red wine took home prestigious awards at a time when most of the country associated Zinfandel with something sweet and pink and Sutter Home-ly. Success continued to materialize from there. Perhaps it shouldn’t seem so miraculous that Peterson created something extraordinary out of bleak circumstances – after all, as the son of two chemists and he, himself, a clinical laboratory scientist, he was always within close range of a certain sort of alchemy. His father, Walter Peterson, a physical chemist by day, was the one who first introduced Joel to the magic of C2H5OH. When Joel was ten years old, his father had him record tasting notes at the elder Peterson’s twice-weekly group, San Francisco Wine Sampling Club (now the San Francisco Vintner’s Club). The younger Peterson was told to taste, “shut up and spit.” His spittoon was carefully measured afterward, but Joel clearly swallowed a great deal of knowledge from those sessions. Early in his career as a medical researcher, he helped make ends meet by consulting and writing about wine. Peterson’s mother, Frances, spent the first part of her career as a nuclear chemist, and later transformed her science experience into a celebrated knowledge of cooking – even testing recipes and helping Alice Waters edit her first cookbook. Her son turned his own experiences into the realization that he wanted to become a winemaker, and then parlayed that desire into an apprenticeship with Joe Swan. Swan taught Peterson a type of magic, as well. At a time when irrigation systems have nearly gone space-age, Ravenswood single-vineyard wines are dry-farmed. Fermentation is spontaneous, using ambient yeasts. Although most commercial enterprises rely on additives and extras, Peterson puts his faith in nature: “[When using native yeasts], stuck fermentations are a function of year. Commercial yeast has more stuck fermentations;” he avoids sulphur; and he keeps the bottlings pure, whereas “most Old Vine Zin is adulterated with other things.” He also still head prunes his vines. These are the old ways, based on the best wine-producing regions in Europe – the regions that produce the wines Peterson grew up with. These are the methods Ravenswood has used from the beginning, and they are the lessons Peterson learned from Joe Swan. Certainly there many in the industry who saw Peterson’s methods (including the growing of Zinfandel, itself, at a time when Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were all the rage), and thought – like the chorus in Lucia di Lammermore, as the ill-fated Edgardo Ravenswood takes his own life – “Ritorna in te, ritorna in te!” (Come to your senses, come to your senses!). But Peterson did not commit [career] suicide; instead, he became one of the most important forces in the elevation of Zinfandel to a world-class grape variety. He put California Zinfandel on the map, and he has also served as consultant to hundreds of winegrowers and winemakers in California. In 2001, two years after Ravenswood went public, the company was purchased by Constellation Brands for $148 million. Peterson became a senior vice president at Constellation while continuing to be head winemaker at Ravenswood. His magic clearly works.

The wine brand with the three ghastly grim and ancient ravens on the label, has three hierarchical levels of quality. The first level comprises the value-priced juggernaut of Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend wines. At around $10/bottle, these are big, bold, badass and represent the Ravenswood motto, “No wimpy wines.” The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Old Vine Zinfandel, Shiraz and Chardonnay are all made from grapes grown all over California and make up about

800,000 of the company’s 1 million cases of year produced. The middle tier are the Ravenswood County Series wines, with names like Napa Valley Old Vine Zinfandel and Mendocino Zinfandel, and average about $15 each. As the name suggests, these are appellation-specific, and represent a fairly significant jump in quality from the Vintner’s Blend wines. These are also often found in restaurants, although it is likely shoppers will find at least one or two on wine shop shelves as a bridge between the familiar, lesser-priced Ravenswood wines they see at the grocery store, and the third, most esteemed tier, which are the Single Vineyard designates. Barricia, Belloni, Big River, Dickerson, Pickberry, Teldeschi and Old Hill. These are the shining jewels in Ravenswood’s crown – the Single Designation wines. The vineyards were all planted pre-Prohibition, they’re dry-farmed, and they represent the epitome of what Peterson is most passionate about as a winemaker. And they’re bewitching. All but the Old Hill will set a shopper back $35 a bottle (the Old Hill is $60). What they get for that kind of investment is juice from vines up to nearly 130 years old. The Barricia Vineyard is in Sonoma and the 2008 has a nose of pure red fruit overlying a base of forest floor, with some slight notes of baking spice. On the palate, this wine is big and assertive with a spicy center, without being too heavy or jammy. Nice, fine, even tannins with excellent aging potential. 1000 cases produced. The Ravenswood 2008 Belloni Vineyard is more austere, more Burgundian – if you can use that phrase to describe a big California Zin/Petite Sirah/Carignane/Alicante Bouschet blend. It’s lighter, a little more feminine. Dark fruit, tobacco, espresso, with a soft finish. It’s from Russian River, and only 535 cases were made. Big River Vineyard is in Alexander Valley. There were 975 cases made of Ravenswood’s 2008 Big River Zinfandel 100% Zin – and it’s all licorice and black berries and oak. Ravenswood’s Dickerson Vineyard is also 100% Zinfandel. The vineyard is in Napa, but Peterson says the vines think they’re in Sonoma, producing fruit with low acid and high pH. In 2008, this resulted in a wine that smells of red raspberry and a bit of mint, and bathes the palate in sweet fruit and a little mineral. 755 cases made, and can age for up to ten years. The 2007 Ravenswood Pickberry Vineyard hails from Sonoma Mountain and doesn’t contain any Zinfandel at all. It’s a blend of 58% Merlot and 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s all dense and chewy red fruit and spice box and pretty solid tannin. There were 1,045 cases produced and these wines have aging potential of up to fifteen years. The 2008 Ravenswood Teldeschi Vineyard is another Zinfandel blend that contains 20% Petite Sirah, 3% Carignane and 2% Alicante Bouschet to round out the cuvee. Planted in approximately 1883, Teldeschi Vineyard is in Dry Creek, and the fruit is packed with power and black cherry, chocolate and espresso, with additional notes of vanilla and cigar. This wine is heady and lush, with a long finish. 2800 cases produced.

 Old Hill Ranch Vineyard is probably Sonoma’s oldest, and the 2008 Ravenswood Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel is a field blend containing Zin plus 25% [???]. They could be any of an assortment of grapes; the only certainty is, the grapes are all black. There were 1000 cases produced of this orange pekoe/dark-chocolate/cherry-scented show-stopper. On the palate, the wine is rich and juicy and packed with vanilla and red and black fruit and baking spice. It’s been almost 40 years, but Joel Peterson’s raven is still beguiling sad souls into smiling, even today. There are reasons to try Ravenswood wines from any of the tiers. Whichever you choose, you’ll be drinking in a bit of California wine history – history spun by Joel Peterson. Because of his wines, California Zinfandel will be weak and weary…nevermore.

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wines from the Grocery Store

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