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Meeting Joel Peterson of Ravenswood

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Want to be a winemaker? It sounds like a lot of fun, and of course, it can be. And to hear the rags to riches (well, not quite rags) story of how Joel Peterson, founding winemaker of Ravenswood, created an internationally famous brand is mesmerizing.

Joel was born in 1947 the son of a highly credentialed scientist parents. When Joel was four years old, his mother discovered food writer Elizabeth David, who wrote about the importance of drinking French wine with food (note the emphasis on the word French). From that point on, the Peterson family sent abroad for French wine, and by the age of ten, Joel was a member of the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club (organized and operated by his father).

After graduating from Oregon State University, Joel became a wine writer and consultant, then learned the skills of traditional winemaking from the late Joseph Swan, an outstanding craftsman of old California Zinfandel.

So if I tell you that Joel started Ravenswood with $4,000 – would you believe me? At the time, he had very little expectations of becoming famous or wealthy from his winery. He simply wanted to make a good wine from California’s “signature” varietal, Zinfandel. And to this day (his mother would approve) he prides himself on how European it is, compared to other American wines. By European I assume Joel to mean that the wine is elegant, well balanced, and no element (i.e. acid, tannin, alcohol) overwhelms any other.

Yet by its very definition, Zinfandel is a high alcohol wine. “Do you use reverse osmosis to lower the alcohol?” I ask, since this is a new common practice to lower the high alcohol of California wines. Joel is adamant against doing this, as to his mind, it destroys the integrity of the wine’s nature. And even though the alcohol is between 14 and 15 percent, it is in balance with the ripe fruit, acidity, and tannins.

Today in New York, I had the good fortune to taste through his wines, with grapes grown on many vineyards. Joel explains he likes to buy grapes rather than grow them because this is what the growers do best (and they also own the best land). First on the list was 2007 Dickerson Zinfandel, on the west side of the Napa Valley. This was one of Joel’s first vineyard contracts, and the fact they are doing business twenty years later says a great deal about Joe’s ethics. A very classic Zinfandel. Next is 2007 Big River Zinfandel, located between the Alexander and Russian River valleys. This Zinfandel is ripe and jammy with cassis, black olives, and raspberry. 2007 Belloni Zinfandel follows, and is a favorite with judges at the Orange County wine festival.

Barricia vineyard was created in 1888 and owned by several major historical figures in its colorful history dating to before the Mexican and Civil wars. The majority of Barricia is old vines, and the resulting wine is deeply perfumed with the characters of spice and cherry pie. Another single vineyard, Icon, is a blend of 36% Carignan, 27% Petite Sirah, 25% Zinfandel, and 12% mixed black grapes. The wine is dense and dark, aromatic with sweet scents of black cherries and plums tempered by hints of toast and vanilla. Teldeschi vineyard is made up of Zinfandel, Carignane, and Petite Sirah. The three varieties are fermented separately and blended to taste. The resulting wine is perfumed with scents of black raspberry, tobacco, and aromatic spices.

Old Hill is quite interesting from a taste and historical perspective. This Zinfandel has Rhone like intensity with aromas of blackberry, black pepper, vanilla, coffee, smoke, and mint. It had once been owned by the father of newspaper czar William Randolph Hearst, and in 1888 was the first vineyard to be planted with rootstocks in California. The last vineyard to taste is Pickberry, a Merlot Cab blend (74% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon) with a palate of fresh plum, red currant, mint, and cured tobacco. It got its curious name from the children of its owner, an orthopedic surgeon, as the children always referred to it as the place to pick wild berries in summer.

A fabulous opportunity to taste the nuances between the many vineyards that comprise Ravenswood wines, and a chance to meet an exceptional man with so many colorful examples of founding winemakers who lived in the Napa Valley a century before his birth.

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