By contributing writer Joe Roberts
Back in 1976, Joel Peterson – the opinionated, erudite son of a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project – made his first batch of Zinfandel that would carry the Ravenswood name. This was at a time when there were only a handful of fine wines being made in California, and he couldn’t have guessed that one day Zinfandel would be so popular that it would have its own annual festival (and he certainly didn’t know that his fledgling brand would be at the forefront of that popularity).
Of course, now California Zinfandel is as well-regarded as almost any red wine grape worldwide and is seeing a resurgence as areas such as Sonoma, Lodi, and Dry Creek Valley have come to the fore and are showing the heights to which well-made Zinfandel can soar. Peterson remains an iconic figure for California wine, and Zinfandel in particular. Today, we talk to Peterson about what has changed in the wine world since he started Ravenswood as a long-haired neophyte winemaker in the 1970s, why wine lovers should be more excited than ever about the wines of Sonoma, and what we still get wrong about Zinfandel.
You created the first batch of Ravenswood wine almost forty years ago. What has changed the most in the wine world since you got started as a winemaker?
Of course, there have been large changes in wine technology – the kind of equipment that is available to us now and our understanding of the various dynamics of wine chemistry has substantially improved over what it was when I started. There are rarely any unintentionally defective wines these days. While the changes in wine making technology have been significant, perhaps the most profound change since I started is the much broader consumer base for wine and a winery’s ability to have a direct interaction with those consumers. Fortunately, there are now a bunch of wine lovers and aficionados; 40 years ago there were only a few.
Today’s group of wine drinkers has ready access to information about wine from multiple sources. Certainly wineries create a great deal of content, but there are also web based wine sites that are consumer driven, a legion of wine writers and critics, bloggers, and glossy magazines like Decanter, Wine and Spirits, Wine Enthusiast, and the Wine Spectator. These kinds of things were almost non-existent 40 years ago. There were many distributors during that era, mostly making money on beer and spirits. Today there are two or three distributors that dominate the US market. The 3 tier system was alive and well. If you wanted to sell wine any place but California, direct to the consumer, it was close to impossible.
Today, thanks to fewer restrictions and the Internet, wineries can have a direct relationship with their consumer without going through multiple middle men. This vastly improves the winery’s ability to be profitable and to be able to match a consumer to their wine. It also allows for the growth and development of smaller specialty wineries that would be inconsequential to large multi-state distributors. This, in turn, has driven the possibility for much more interest and diversity in the product we call wine that is not subject to the whims and financial needs of a risk adverse third party whose only motive is their profitability.
A lot of success has befallen the Ravenswood brand. Are there one or two seminal moments in the brand’s history that particularly stand out as being most important in making it what it is today?
There are really three things. The first would be the decision to focus on California traditional varieties like Zinfandel as a core value of the winery from the beginning. Another of those moments had to be the decision to make Vintners Blend Zinfandel (a red wine) as a cash flow wine, as opposed to making White Zinfandel. It was the right choice in 1983 when others were making pink and sweet. Vintners Blend Zin continues to be one of the most consumed Zinfandels in the market, both in the US and internationally.
I suppose the other one would be the acquisition of Ravenswood by Constellation Brands in 2001. In 2001 Ravenswood was growing rapidly and had become a public company traded on the NASDAQ in 1999. That kind of growth requires a huge amount of capital. The acquisition by Constellation provided capital for that growth as well as providing a worldwide distribution network.
What are some of the wine regions that have you most excited right now?
At the risk of sounding provincial, Sonoma County is quite exciting right now. There are many small new wineries with young, dynamic winemakers and AVA regions within the county that are producing exciting wines. These include the usual Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, but other grape varieties as well. There are also other regions and places in the world that are revitalizing their wine business. Places like Greece and Spain are producing a number of interesting and flavorful wines as they upgrade their winemaking traditions. Who knew that Albarino and Assyrtiko could be so good?
Do you have any particular types of consumers in mind when making wine?
Yes, consumers who like wine. I know that sounds facetious, but it really isn’t. I make multiple levels of wine from inexpensive to expensive; from soft and approachable to more structured and intellectual. Ultimately, I make wines that I like which fall within the range of style that I feel is appropriate for particular vintage, grape, or location profiles. It seems to be a formula that has appealed to a broad base of vino-philics.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Zinfandel today?
Now that we have gotten past the notion that all zinfandel is pink and sweet, we seem to have replaced it with the notion that all Zinfandel is red, massive, alcoholic, oaky, and sweet. This, of course, is not true. It’s all too easy to stereotype a wine like Zinfandel. In truth, Zinfandel runs a gamut of wine from bright and fruity to big and intense, with the average falling somewhere in the flavorful red table wine category.
The other misconception is that Zinfandel makes a wine that will not age well. Actually it is winemakers who make Zinfandels that do not age well. There are plenty of Zins that are age worthy. Try an older Ridge, Ravenswood single vineyard, Carlisle, or a 1968 Swan (if you can get a bottle), for example.
What do you drink (or not drink!) to unwind?
Well, I’m a bit of a “bubble slut.” I generally have a glass of champagne every night before dinner before moving on to some other red or occasionally white. Bubbles always remind me to celebrate and appreciate my lucky, lucky life. I love the diversity of wine. The very act of opening and tasting an unexplored bottle focuses my thoughts and senses in much the same way that meditation does. The rest of the world vanishes for a few minutes.
Any thoughts on the Wine4.Me app?
This is one of the many sites that are changing consumer access to wine and comfort with wine. I have the app on my phone. It did a very good job of perceiving my taste preference profile. I think it would be a perfect app for a less sophisticated consumer than I.
Ravenswood Wines in the Wine4.Me App
- Vinters Blend Cabernet Sauvignon
- Vinters Blend Merlot
- Vinters Blend Old Vine Zinfandel
- Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel
If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Joe Roberts is a writer in the greater Philadelphia area. His work has appeared in Playboy.com, Answers.com, PalatePress.com, Publix Grape Magazine, The Guardian, and Parade. He holds the Level 2 and Level 3 Certificates in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in England, the Certified Specialist of Wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators. Roberts was included among the top fifteen entries in IntoWine.com’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry for 2013, and his website received the Wine Blog Awards honor for Best Wine Blog in 2010. Follow him on Twitter at @1winedude.