Speaking with Joel Peterson Founding Winemaker at Ravenswood about Zinfandel

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Recently, I was invited to meet Joel Peterson, founding winemaker of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma. I knew Mr. Peterson by reputation and was looking forward to speaking with him and of course tasting his wines which are primarily zinfandels.  I had lost interest in Zinfandel over the past few years. I found them to be too high in alcohol with too much extraction and so concentrated that I could not drink them. Most of the top rated Zinfandels seemed over the top.

Joel Peterson and a Vine

Joel Peterson and a Vine

We spoke about a number of different topics including: Phylloxera- problems past and present, St. George rootstock, UC Davis, how zinfandel came to California, zinfandel’s relationship to primitivo, experimental primitive plantings in California today, and how his winery got its name.

I asked him what style of zinfandel he made. His reply was an interesting one. He said that he had a European sensibility when it came to making wine and he felt that his wine fell somewhere between Chianti and Barolo. He uses Old World winemaking techniques such as native yeasts, open-top fermenters, punching down by hand, and French oak aging. Mr. Peterson feels that each one of his vineyards is unique.  The elevation of the vineyards is anywhere from sea level to 700 feet.  The terroir varies so much that he trains the vines in different ways. For example, one vineyard might call for the Guyot, while another for Bush vines. Since most of his zinfandel vineyards are old they all have St. George root stock.  All this from a winemaker who has been making zinfandel at the same winery in California for over 30 years.

All the wines we tasted were labeled “Single Vineyard Designate” and I asked what made them special. He said that the vineyard must be in a precise location and ideally suited for the variety planted there. It must have its own flavor characteristics and profile and the vines must be old with very low yields. The vineyard must be farmed by meticulous and experienced growers.

All of his zinfandels spend 20 months in 100% French oak with a slight difference between new and one year old barrels. Mr Peterson did a very good job of integrating the wood with the wine. All of them were very well balanced and are very good food wines. His zinfandels were closer in style to European wines then to most California wines.

Ravenswood Zinfandel

Ravenswood Zinfandel

The first wine we tasted was the Dickerson, Zinfandel 2007.  The grapes come from vines grown in St Helena in the Napa Valley that date back to 1930.  Made from 100% zinfandel grapes grown at sea level.  ($35)

Big River Zinfandel 2007 -from the Alexander Valley from 100% zinfandel grown at 500 feet  ($35)

Belloni Zinfandel 2007 – Made from 78% zinfandel and 22% blend of carignane, alicante bouschet, and petite sirah.  Some of the vines are over 90 years old Russian River grapes grown at sea level. ($35)

Barricia Zinfandel 2007 –  The vineyard was first planted in 1892, Sonoma Valley. Made from 76% zinfandel and 24% petite sirah grown at sea level ($35) This was one of my favorites: very well balanced, with hints of blackberries and raspberries, this is a wine to be drunk with food.

Teldeschi  Zinfandel 2007 Zinfandel 2007. Old mixed vineyard.  The wine is made from 76% zinfandel, 22% petite sirah, and 2% carignane. Dry Creek. grown at sea level.

Vineyard dates from 1913-197 This was my other favorite:  It tasted like an Old World Wine with cherry aromas and flavors and undertones of black pepper, tar and smoke it is a great food wine ($35)

Old Hill Zinfandel 2007   Ravenswood (Sonoma) 76% Zinfandel and 24% mixed blacks. This is the oldest vineyard of the Ravenswood vineyards and dates from around 1880. The soil is clay loam and the climate is what Joel Peterson of Ravenswood called “the banana belt of Sonoma Country”. The vineyard is at sea level with a slightly eastern exposure. They use native yeasts, open-top fermentation and punch down by hand. Skin contact is 10 to15 days, French oak aging for 20 months in new and one year old barrels. There were flavors and aromas of blackberry, blueberry, coffee and a touch of smoke with a long finish and aftertaste.($60).

Peterson also makes the Icon Mixed Blacks 2007 36% carignane, 27% petite sirah, 25% zinfandel and 12% mixed blacks (some alicante bouschet) ( $75 )

And the Pickberry 2006. Made from 74% merlot and 26% cabernet sauvignon.grown at 700ft.  ($50)

If anyone could make me change my mind about zinfandel, it would be Joel Peterson of Ravenswood.

Michele and I will be teaching a class on Italian food and wine for the holiday season at De Gustibus at Macy’s on Thursday Dec 3 2009.Information & tickets 212-239-1652 or www.degustibus.com

2 Comments

Filed under Joel Peterson, Ravenswood winery, Zinfandel

2 responses to “Speaking with Joel Peterson Founding Winemaker at Ravenswood about Zinfandel

  1. Thanks for the great post Mr. Scicolone. Hearing about Zinfandel and Petite Sirah blends makes me incredibly jealous here in Puglia.

    If you have a moment, I’m wondering in what way Joel Peterson’s wines demonstrate European characteristics. In particular, would you say they share some of the characteristics of Italian-made Primitivo? Or are they really like Barolo meets Chianti?

    Ahhh… to home again in sweet San Francisco.

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