A Study in Zinfandel

Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson sits down for a vertical tasting of single-vineyard wines
Oct 12, 2010

Joel Peterson knows more about Zinfandel than just about anyone. Good luck finding a winemaker with a better understanding and wider range of experience with this unique grape. Since making his first Zin under the Ravenswood label back in 1976, he has worked with hundreds of vineyards throughout the state. His knowledge is deep with details and dates, like what the weather was like in September 1997 and who planted what vineyard in 1885.

I’ve been talking Zinfandel with Peterson for more than 15 years, mostly agreeing but not always. In the 1980s and ’90s Ravenswood Zinfandels such as Old Hill Ranch, Cooke and Dickerson vineyards were benchmarks for me: richly fruited and generous wines with power and finesse, plus a keen sense of place.

Some time around the 2000 vintage, however, the single-vineyard Zins started a stylistic shift. To me, they seem to lack that core of bold and fleshy fruit that once surrounded the potent and often rustic tannins, too often leaving the wines hard and angular. They simply aren’t as compelling as they used to be and they certainly aren’t the collector’s items they once were; they are now readily found on retail shelves and discounted online.

Some Zin lovers attribute the changes to rapid expansion after the winery went public in 1999 and then was sold to Constellation in 2001, although if you check the numbers for the single-vineyard wines production remained fairly consistent over the years.

Peterson is adamant that those changes in ownership or production are not an issue. And more important, he believes he’s producing some of his best Zins ever, that he is finally making the wines he always wanted to, wines that are as distinctive as the best in the world, wines with structure, balance and built to improve with age. In his view, too many Zinfandel producers forfeit vineyard and vintage distinction by dressing up their wines with showy new oak, ultraripe fruit and gobs of sweet flavors.

Recently, I reviewed six of Ravenswood’s single-vineyard 2007 Zinfandels in my regular blind tastings. All earned scores in the good to very good range, and I gave them fairly short drink windows because I was unsure if the fruit would outlast the tannins. That’s not what Peterson felt they deserved, so he asked me to come to the winery in Sonoma to talk things over. While we were there, we tasted through some older vintages to see how they’re developing.

Peterson opened an impressive spread of wine. There were seven vintages, 1999 to 2005, from four vineyards: Barricia and Old Hill from Sonoma Valley, Belloni from Russian River Valley and Teldeschi from Dry Creek Valley. He also opened several older wines, including one of his last remaining bottles of his first wine, the 1976 Sonoma County Vogensen Vineyard.

The ’76 was a revelation. The color was pale red, almost like a rose, and while the fruit was delicate it was still floral and the texture was amazingly supple. I gave it a 93-point rating (all ratings in this column are non-blind). A 1990 Old Hill was also splendid and still lively, with delicate tannins and good acidity (92 points, non-blind) and the 1992 Belloni was vibrant and earthy like an old Italian wine. All of those wines are ready to drink now.

The 1999 to 2005 wines were more mixed. About a third had improved since I tasted them blind as new releases, with no particular pattern in vintage or vineyard. Old Hill 2002 and 2003 were showing more depth and flesh (91 points for both, non-blind), and the 2004 Barricia was still dark and brooding with balanced ripeness and good acidity (90 points, non-blind). Teldeschi 1999 was floral and beautifully focused (91 points, non-blind).

My reactions to the rest of the ‘99s to ‘05s were largely similar to my original blind tastings (with scores in the 80-89 range). Ripeness and alcohol are often an issue when people debate Zinfandel but that wasn’t a factor here. The wines averaged between 14.5 and 15 percent alcohol, typical for Zinfandel, and riper vintages such as 2003 and 2004 didn’t fare better or worse than cooler years like 1999.

As Peterson and I discussed the tasting afterward, he was passionate about the wines I found least exciting. A good example was the 2001 Teldeschi. He thought it was well-structured, balanced and claret-like, but to me it was tannic and closed. To be sure, there was plenty of agreement on the best wines.

I doubt either succeeded in changing the other’s opinion after all was said and done. Both of us are obviously attached to Zinfandel. The tasting reconfirmed that Peterson’s single-vineyard Zins are able to improve with age, but I remain unpersuaded that the latter-day releases are in the same league as the older wines.

Zinfandel is a second-class citizen in the eyes of many in the wine world and Peterson wants to make it into a world-class wine. You have to admire that. But there’s a pendulum range for Zinfandel style, and winemakers seek their own “soul” spot, between overripe and underripe, between structure and flabby fruit, between naked terroir and toasty oak bombs.

Plenty of winemakers are still making monster Zins with 16 percent of alcohol or higher, and many of those are clearly unbalanced, clumsy wines. But perhaps Peterson has gone too far to the other side of the pendulum, and in the process has taken some of the pleasure out of drinking Zinfandel. To my palate, Zinfandel with a dense structure, brisk acidity and restrained fruit might as well be Cabernet or Merlot, and I think a lot Zin fanatics would agree.

That doesn’t change my admiration for Peterson. He’s still the best mind in California Zin for my money and I enjoy debating wine with him. I’ll wait and keep tasting his newer wines as they mature, and I’m sure he’ll keep giving me a hard time if I don’t like them as much as he does.

United States California Red Wines Zinfandel Opinion

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