Aug. 7 was a grand day to be in uptown Charlotte. Winding down from a four-week national tour, Joel Peterson, winemaker of Ravenswood Winery, was in town to show off his seven single-vineyard signature wines, the central prize and passion of this superb estate. A few lucky tasters imbibed this prestigious lineup—wines that are standard-bearers of a philosophy Peterson has been cultivating since 1976.
Many of you have seen and drunk Ravenswood "Vintner's Blend" California Zinfandel. At under $10, this perennial best value is a staple at grocery stores, Costco, World Market and even specialty wine shops. Such is the consistent quality and value of this Zinfandel, sourced from throughout California's vineyards, that the Ravenswood name has come to mean dependably rich, succulent, non-wimpy reds. ("No Wimpy Wines" is Peterson's credo.) Vintner's Reserve now produces close to a million cases per year and is the mainstay that allows for the single-vineyard bottlings.
Resilient and energetic, Peterson told the story behind these current releases, beginning with a personal history. He grew up in Richmond across the bay of San Francisco, the son of scientist parents (his mother was a chemist who worked on the atomic bomb). In the 1950s, his parents formed a wine club of 20 like-minded members. As a boy, Peterson was allowed to taste the wine, but had to spit; his dad measured the amount of wine that went into his mouth and out into the spittoon. With a European sensibility, the family and their wine club tasted all manner of French wines including, in one case, a 1951 Chateauneuf-du-Pape that left a lifelong impression on Peterson.
Peterson eventually followed in his parents' footsteps, becoming a laboratory scientist, while supplying that sensibility toward his growing love of wine. Applying a scientist's patience and insight, he scoped out some of California's oldest and greatest vineyard sites with a firm plan in mind. In an era when many growers pulled up century-old zinfandel vines to plant more cosmopolitan Chardonnay and Merlot, Peterson was instrumental in saving some of these old stands of vines, dating from the 1800s to 1920, and producing some of today's much sought after "old-vine" specialties. Peterson is ferocious in his belief about the quality of these old vineyards and their ability to produce memorable products. In contrast, the shortsightedness of many growers has come home to roost, as we now live in a social climate that admires the preservation of such antiquities.
For these top-tier wines, Peterson buys grapes only from old, well-established vineyards that are "found to work." He believes in total dry farming: History has shown that dry-farmed wines are ultimately the best, as the vines must struggle to find water and sustenance in the mineral-laden soils. To grow vines in non-irrigated sites, you had best know which ones can sustain them.
Peterson helped found Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), a 17-year-old organization promulgating the quality and history of Zinfandel in California. Zinfandel is the third-most widely planted grape in the state. A few years ago, ZAP proposed that Zinfandel should be named "California's Historic Wine." That idea was shot down by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006.
However, Zinfandel, along with Rhone varietals (Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Mourvedre) and the old Italian "field blend" grapes (Carignane, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet), may be among the red grapes of California's viticultural future. Peterson speculates that the great Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley may be gone in 15 or 20 years because of increasing global warming.
2006 Ravenswood Zinfandel, Dickerson, Napa Valley $35
My least favorite wine of the tasting. High-toned with that wild cherry, cough syrup quality that, for me, is a turn-off. Elegant, fragrant and fresh if a bit lean overall. Leathery notes with a long aftertaste. Balanced and rounds up nicely. 100 percent Zinfandel. Well made.
2006 Zinfandel, Belloni, Russian River Valley $35
Wonderful. Overtly ripe, rich, sensuous, round, fat and glorious. An undercurrent sensation of sweetness from balanced grapes. Ripe berry sensations gush on the nose and palate. Many 100-year-old vines contribute. Predominantly Zinfandel with 22 percent mixed black grapes included.
2006 Zinfandel, Big River, Alexander Valley $35
One hundred percent pure old-vine Zinfandel. Plummy yet lithe fruit. Raspberry and spice dominate throughout. Tart, bracing and a bit thin. A Bordeaux-like elegance with, again, gorgeous balance. Drink 2010-13.
2006 Zinfandel, Teldeschi, Dry Creek Valley $35
Deep and intense. A solid, broad-shouldered wine. Dense, tannic and fabulously perfumed. Here, the deep cherry bouquet and flavor avoids any reference to medicinality—just stout, overflowing fruit. Tremendous structure, this will age beautifully. Predominantly Zinfandel with Petite Sirah and Carignane. Drink 2009-18.
2006 Zinfandel, Barricia, Sonoma Valley $35
Nicely perfumed, expansive, large bodied but not heavy structure. Four squared and a bit tart, it has explosive intensity and highly extroverted character. Supremely spicy, which almost overwhelms the dark berry fruit. A terrific wine for the ultimate grilling experience. 77 percent Zinfandel with 23 percent Petite Sirah.
2006 Zinfandel, Old Hill, Sonoma Valley $60
Readers may remember my exultation over the Bucklin Old Hill Zinfandel in July 2006. At that time, it was my highest rated Zinfandel blend ever. Peterson's wine, made from this same ancient vineyard, first planted in 1862, continues that tradition. Glorious and reminiscent of a Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Incredible calm yet overflowing fruit essence complemented by legions of herbs, spice, pepper and smoke. So complex and quietly assured. Tongue-holding attention, long and fabulous. One can really go on and on. A classic.
2005 Pickberry, Sonoma Mountain $50
Here is Peterson's longtime odd man out. A blend of 80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, this Meritage blend is a huge, overt yet exquisite red. A big-boned wine. It reminds me of a "bright" Chateau Cantemerle in a great vintage—no small compliment. High-strung fruit, currant, plum plus cedar-tinged intensity. Interestingly, the most forward wine of the group. A smooth, elegant mouthful showing its stuff today.