In the past. I have joined the onslaught of wine writers who come up with something cutesy, silly and obvious to recommend for Halloween—something like Poizon (a wine to ‘die for’), EVIL (upside down label—either that or you’re supposed to store it like ketchup) or Vampire Merlot. It’s de rigueur to refer to such wines as ‘hauntingly delicious’ or ‘spookily scrumptious’ and in general assumes—not incorrectly—that we’re more interested in appropriate Halloween puns than appropriate Halloween wine. Hence, Re:Source Media’s recommendation of pairing Witches Falls riesling with dark chocolate, one of the worst match-ups in the history of humanity.
Anyway, in my household—at least when the kids were young enough to require adult supervision on their neighborhood rounds—it was much more apropos to fill a thermos with Jim Beam than to carry around a wine bottle—although I stopped the thermos trick when the seven-year-old next door said to me, ‘You smell like Daddy does right before he gets in a fight.’
So, if my gonads were to be held to the embers by overzealous Army reservists in a Baghdad prison and I was forced to name a wine for Halloween, I would, between Janet Leigh screams, give a shout-out to Joel Peterson’s California classic Ravenswood—and not just because Abu Ghraib translates to ‘Place of Ravens’.
I’ve interviewed Peterson in the past, and he is a clever cookie, no question. I’d love to share the fact that he was raised by bats or wolves, but in fact, he was raised by braniacs who could easily have slipped over to the dark side and performed bizarre experiments in castle laboratories. Instead, his father worked with high-temperature lubricants and his mother worked on Big Bang theoretics via the Manhattan Project while Joel himself has a degree in microbiology from Oregon State.
I know, I know: With all this scientific sapience in the genes, Peterson could have been reanimating corpses instead of taking the path of lesser resistance: Winemaking. But, just as fellow chemist Victor Frankenstein dreamed of becoming the Modern Prometheus as a boy, the Joel Peterson dreamed of becoming the Modern Pierre Pérignon, in part thanks to his father’s wine club—which he joined at the age of ten.
Shut Up And Spit!
According to legend, Joel’s pre-teen education was in the chemistry of wine: The phenolic acids, stilbenoids, flavonols, dihydroflavonols and anthocyanins that make up flavor perception. His father, despite his obsession with lubricants, was not interested in a lubricated son and uttered the infamous invective, ‘Shut up and spit!’ when the young whizbang decided to be heard and not seen.
The silent phase did not last long, and his bio suggests that by his mid-teens, he not only had a ‘working knowledge of European vineyards and vintages’, but, to the ‘delight and consternation of everyone who has met him since, he talks about it’.
I interviewed him last year and found him to be delightfully urbane, frightfully bright, and yes, talkative. I’d say that the chemistry was perfect if I wanted to pull another stint in Ravensville, Iraq and have my funny bone tossed to the rottweilers.
Now, the thing about chemists is that they specialize. For Peterson’s father, it was grease, for his mother, U-235. In his day job, Joel pursued immunology, and when it came to vinology, he settled on a most un-European grape, at least in popular parlance: Zinfandel.
Of zin he claims: “There are three sins: 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.”
Well, I’d be able to comment intelligently on all the wood talk if in high school I had taken chemistry more seriously—and later in the day. Unfortunately, instead of paying attention, I fantasized my way through 1st hour Introduction to Chemical Engineering since I sat behind Lisa Di Alberto, whose visible bra strap caused what scientists call, in their popular parlance, ‘auroral tumescence’, and what we called in our popular parlance (and still do), ‘morning wood’.
I took shop 2nd hour, but it turns out that even if there was a carry-over effect, the wood was still useless.
So, I will wait until the 31st and sample some Joelwood: I picked up a pair of samples, Sonoma Old Vine and Napa Old Vine. They are—as fits the season—brooding, mysterious, swarthy and big.
But even without the wine, the name ‘Ravenswood’ chills me to the evening bone: Is this not a name suited for Halloween? Does it not conjure up everything that ever went bump in the night—moldering crypts of the Stygian undead; the great wastes of Dartmoor where the howls of the wolves seize in your throat like the mists; the house standing against the hills for eighty years, not sane, holding darkness within…
Oh, and that goddamned Place of Ravens fright factory in downtown Baghdad—but you can hardly blame Joel Peterson for that.
* (Note on Notes: Ravenswood covers many strata of zinfandel: Those reviewed below at the lower end and others climbing price-wise, up into the upper levels of the zinfosphere; the $75 Icon… but I never get sent samples of those.
You don’t suppose it has anything to do with me mentioning my teenage membrum virīle and military human rights atrocities in Iraq in the same breath as their product, do you?)
Ravenswood Zinfandel, Sonoma County, 2009, about $16: Beautiful ruby color with a touch of burnt orange at the rim; this wine remains bright with cherry and cranberry notes on the nose with a distinct floral background. The mouthfeel is silken and smooth; flavors include cedar, graphite, cassis and raspberry with an edge of sweet spice—cinnamon and brown sugar especially.
Ravenswood Zinfandel, Napa Valley, 2010, around $16: Full-bodied and colored a deep garnet, the 2010 Napa shows unadulterated loyalty to the varietal It’s balanced and softly rounded with cool blackberry, brambly wild raspberry, cocoa and coffee swirling through a lissome texture. A lovely accompaniment to an upscale Halloween barbecue.