Californian Joel Peterson never thought he would be a winemaker. He was born into a family of scientists: his mother was a nuclear chemist, his father a physical chemist, and he became a clinical laboratory scientist.
Yet he has his parents and a special bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape to thank for his love of wine. Having discovered that bottle at a time when it was difficult to find French wine in California, his parents never looked back, and Joel Peterson tasted his first wine at the ripe age of ten (he was forced to spit, of course).
Something didn’t feel quite right about spending day after day in a laboratory, and Peterson found his way into the wine business on the side. He apprenticed with Joseph Swan (another fine maker of Californian Zinfandel) and before he knew it, he was starting his very own winery.
On one of his early days as a solo winemaker, the sky clouded over dramatically, and Peterson suddenly realized that to save his grapes, he was going to get them in – now. He didn’t have time to call for help, so he set out to do it by himself. The minute he finished, down came the rain. That’s when he saw the raven that gave the winery the first half of its name.
Peterson went on to become one of the early advocates of single vineyard Zinfandel, earning himself the nickname “Godfather of Zin.” He started Ravenswood in 1976 with only $4,000, which is pretty amazing when you consider that in 2001, the winery was sold to Constellation Brands for $148 million. He clearly did something right! It wasn’t an easy ride, though: Ravenswood didn’t start making a profit until the late 80s, and Peterson was only able to quit his clinical lab job in 1992.
Even after the big sale, Peterson stayed on as head winemaker, and also became a SVP at Constellation. Though the winery has obviously become much bigger and more commercial, Peterson prides himself on remaining faithful to quality. Yet, when he spoke of his son, Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co., it was with a wistful tone. His son is able to make wine the way he wants, keeping the operation very small and production low. He sells the majority of his wine online, and his entire inventory sells out very quickly. (While father may have tasted his first wine at age ten, son made his first wine at age five!)
One of the great pleasures of getting into the wine writing/blogging business is the opportunity to meet winemakers, especially winemakers who are as passionate and articulate as Joel Peterson, a great storyteller. I had the chance to meet him recently at a Ravenswood tasting on Newtown’s newly opened terrace, at an event organized by Vincor.
Ravenswood’s motto is “No Wimpy Wines,” and indeed, the wines are big and bold. Yet they have much more complexity than your average Californian fruit bomb. We began with the 2010 Vintners Blend Chardonnay ($18.30 at the SAQ), a bright, tropical-fruit-forward white with a full mouthfeel and a light vanilla oak (“just a kiss of oak,” as Joel Peterson described it).
Then we moved on to the stuff for which Ravenswood is known: Zinfandel. Ravenswood makes three tiers of Zinfandel: the entry-level Vintners Blend, the county appellations (i.e. Lodi, Sonoma Country, Napa Valley), and finally, the single vineyard designates. Peterson admits that the mass-produced Vintners Blend is a means to allow him to produce the higher-end single vineyard Zinfandel wines. It is produced in massive quantities, sure, but for the price, the 2010 Vintners Blend Old Vine Zinfandel ($18.95 at SAQ) is a pretty decent wine, if you like that style: big, a little rustic, and packing lots of concentrated dark fruit flavour. It also has nice structure, with solid tannins and some green notes.
However, if you’re going for Zin anyway, the 2009 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($21.45 at SAQ) is worth the few extra dollars for the added finesse. Somewhat riper and more on the jammy side is the 2010 Napa Valley Old Vine Zinfandel ($29.85 at SAQ).
Yet the cream of the crop was the 2008 Teldeschi Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel (unfortunately not available at the SAQ). Joel Peterson spoke with passion about this wine, one of the single vineyard designates, made of (mostly) old Zinfandel (75%), Petite Syrah (20%), and Carignane (3%) vines and fermented with native yeasts. The result is a lovely, more subtle nose with an underlying floral component, and a lush, full, and smooth palate of concentrated, very rich dark fruit.
Joel Peterson’s storytelling can only augment the pleasure derived from these bold yet complex Zinfandels. If you ever get the chance to try them in his company, I suggest you take it.