Ravenswood: Better Living Through Joel Peterson’s Chemistry—Particularly C2H5OH

What Ravenswood should look like

First off, I love how Ravenswood rolls off the tongue; it conjures up Gothic images—remote, crumbling castles on windswept moors filled with persecuted virgins and hereditary curses.

The Ravenswood label, a cryptic crest displaying a trio of stylized ravens with claws interlocked plays right into this sinister medieval mindscape.

So what if the actual vineyard is in sunny Sonoma and run by a laid-back microchemist whose disposition is even sunnier that the blinding California cosmos?  As a tale-spinner, Joel Peterson is decidedly non-Goth—he’s far more ironic than Byronic, more into terroir than terror and his hereditary curse is not werewolvery, but test tubes and cyclotrons—both his parents were chemists, too.   In fact, by light of either a full moon or a full noon, Joel Peterson is such a downright engaging fellow that my first-time interview with him was more like a nosh with a dear old bud I hadn’t seen in years—that’s how comfortable he makes me feel.

What Ravenswood does look like

And when I say ‘old’, well, let’s say Peterson didn’t get his commission as the Godfather of Zin overnight, and certainly not due to a penchant for Ecto-Coolers and Juice Boxes. In fact, he harvested his first vintage of Ravenswood zinfandel before this particular curmudgeonly scribe was even old enough to drink.  As such, you can, without fear of reprisal, credit Joel Peterson as being one of the front-runners of today’s zinfandel revolution—and you can be sure that he will instantly reprise you anyway, reminding you that Sonoma winemakers were revolutionizing zin before he was old enough to drink; before, in fact, he was old enough to be born:  1935 Simi, 1937 Fountaingrove, 1941 Louis Martini were standout zins that first tapped into the long-term cellaring potential of this mysterious but long-established California grape.

Father may I?

By the time he was old enough to drink, legally anyway, Peterson already had a solid working knowledge of fine wine.  He explains: “My Dad was a student of the grape and an avid learner as well as a teacher—he used to organize meetings at our house for the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club, creating (like a good chemist) 18 primary flavors that the club would look for in wines.  From the age of ten on, I would join in.  Of course, there was always a spittoon handy, and afterwards, Dad would meticulously measure the contents of my glass and then, the contents of the spittoon, looking for the precise correlation.”

So there’s your family curse: a savvy dad whose day job (physical chemist in a lubricant lab) is measuring stuff.

1925 d'Yquem available online for a modest $5000

Joel’s mother (a nuclear chemist who worked on the Manhattan project) likewise became entranced with wine after having the unfathomable good fortune to drink a ‘45 Châteauneuf-du-Pape—a vintage that would have turned Carrie Nation into a raging wino.  Now, If any reader suggests that mom got bombed, I’m gonna take my corkscrew and go home.  Peterson also tells of a random case of assorted wines his folks picked up in ’51 that happened to include a 1947 Cheval Blanc and a ’25 d’Yquem.  Clearly, this was a kid destined for the wine world no matter how many Nobel prizes in immunology beckoned.  (In fact, he continued to microbiologize until 1992, when the winery finally became profitable and Robert Parker Jr. began to drool.)

Photos of Joel in the Sixties depict a potent-looking turk with long blonde hair who could have moonlighted as an Allman brother.  Gone full circle, today he looks like he could be Pete Seeger’s stand-in.

Separated at birth?

It was during this wild era—the late, great, section-eight Sixties and the squirrely, early Seventies—that he began his love affair with Sonoma zinfandel via such legendary bottlings as ’66 Mondavi, ’68 Corti and most especially, ’68 Swan.   Back then, Zinfandel was still very much a boutique wine, not extremely well known nor widely appreciated outside a tight circle of believers.  For example, in 1966,  Sonoma zinfandel grapes sold for under a hundred dollars a ton.  In 2010, that same ton will probably set you back three thousand dollars.  Peterson drank, thunk, and continued to work his career in medical research, nagged with a sense that his might be missing the lodestar of destiny.

A few years later he had his eureka moment, and it had nothing to do with finding a cure for hiccups or afflictions more dire; he realized that with his background in wine appreciation, strong opinions and obsessive focus on details, he might just have the stuff to become a winemaker himself.

In the parlance of the time, he tuned in, turned on, but did not drop out:  While continuing in the lab nights and weekends, he spend his days apprenticing with Joe Swan, the near-mythical Sonoma vintner who was in the vanguard of zinvocation, due in the main to his purchase of Russian River property that contained thirteen acres of what was, in 1967, already old-vine zinfandel.  Swan, in his turn, had been mentored by André Tchelistcheff, and the choppy vintage photo of Allman Brother Joel shows all three in the vineyard together.

Joe Swan’s last vintage was 1987; he passed away in ’89, aged and matured for sure, but too young for the final decant.

Says Joel: “From Joe I learned to pick grapes by taste and to farm for less fruit, not more.  That using wild yeast may be tricky, but makes for more interesting wine.  To ferment long and warm and age in French oak, techniques that Ravenswood still uses today.”

'Do ravens have... talons?'

Speaking of today…

In the intervening years, Peterson has blended lessons learned with the methodology that his science background demands, applying them alongside his gifted palate and partnering with Harvard MBA Reed Foster (wine made by smart guys—there’s the ticket), gradually rising to the top of the zinfandel drink chain.  There are numerous incarnations Ravenswood zinfandel,  a flock (Joel’s cutesy ornithological term, no doubt in keeping with the raven motif) of expressive Sonoma varietals of which only a talon-full are non-red.

As the Ravenswood’s rallying cry goes, Joel’s wines are unadulterated, unapologetic, unfussy, and above all, unwimpy.

“There are three sins of zin,” shares the Raven maven.  “Too much sugar, too much alcohol and too much wood.  With some of the earlier missteps, bogged down by enough oak to built a house, I’ve learned that with a grape this big, you use some restraint.  Ultimately, I make wine that please me.”

With Foster’s bean counting accountability, he’s placed his money where our mouths are.  These wines are as true to expressing the finesse and complexity of the zinfandel grape as any ever made, though Peterson, with his near schizoid blend of staggering confidence and refreshing humbleness, will say that the best is yet to come.  I hope that includes future interviews; for this one, I had half an hour and used four of those in succession.  His wit, wisdom and warmth drew me in as inexorably as a black hole or, for that matter, a black blend; in this case, the carignane, petite sirah and zinfandel that make up his iconic blend called, with the predictability of a high school science experiment, Icon.

So that why, above all, if you get a chance to rub shoulders with Peterson, that’s what you want to do.

Take my word for it, with this cat, the chemistry is always good.


Tasting notes:

Silly disclaimer:  It’s totally unfair and borderline unprofessional of me to group these Ravenswood collections in a lump note since it’s the characteristics of the individual vineyards and growing regions that make these wines unique unto themselves.   But here I go anyway—space constraints (the hereditary curse of columnists) forces me to, based on how long I droned on (and on) about Joel.

Ravenswood County Series, Sonoma, Napa and San Joaquin Counties, 2006/2007, about $17:  Paying homage to California counties rather than vineyards, this interesting agglomeration wanders through Sonoma County, on to Amador, Lodi and Mendocino where various expressions of chardonnay, carignane, merlot, cab franc and natch, zinfandel each put on a slightly different costume.  The wines are all balanced and fruit-friendly, displaying quality and consistency in technique if endless variation in profile.

Ravenswood Limited Series, California, 2007/2009, around $17 – $20:  Is ‘judiciously organized hodgepodge’ an oxymoron?  So be it—these wines break the Ravenswood mold and are available only to club members and occasionally, in the Ravenswood Shop.  They include some pet interests of winemaker Joel, two styles of gewürztraminer—Alsace dry and late harvest sweet—a zinfandel rosé  (he stamps it with the Italian ‘rosato’) and a moscato.

Ravenswood Single Vineyard Designates, Various Appellations, 2006/2007, about $ 35:  From vineyards whose names, like the vines, seem immortal—Teledeschi, Barricia, Belloni (reflecting zinfandel’s origins in Croatia and Italy?)—this bevy of beauties each reflect specific terroirs and subtleties too numerous to mention, much as I’d love to.  As a whole they are intensely fragrant, silky-

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