Ravenswood in Limbo

Founding winemaker Joel Peterson talks about the Zinfandel cult favorite's uncertain future
Ravenswood in Limbo
Winemaker Joel Peterson founded one of the biggest Zinfandel brands California has ever seen. (Melissa Barnes)
Jul 22, 2020

Wine labels come and go. Some have a long lifespan; others quickly disappear. It’s something you get used to after a few years in the business. But it’s disturbing to see a once-proud wine brand stuck in limbo.

That’s exactly what’s happening to Ravenswood. It’s not even clear whether the winery made wine in 2019, and harvest 2020 is fast approaching. That’s not something that is going unnoticed by California Zinfandel’s small but dedicated cadre of fans.

Sonoma-based Ravenswood, you remember, is the home of “No Wimpy Wines.” It has been revered as one of the "Three Rs" of California Zinfandel, along with Ridge and Rosenblum. Ridge still thrives, but the late and beloved Kent Rosenblum sold his winery in 2008 to Diageo, which drove the brand into the ground. It’s now owned now by Fred Franzia at Bronco.

Ravenswood’s story is more complicated and remains open-ended. Joel Peterson started it all back in 1976, and by the late 1980s Ravenswood was thriving. The value-priced Vintners Blend Zinfandel provided the cash, and the single-vineyard, old-vine Zins like Teldeschi, Old Hill and Dickerson provided the prestige.

By the late 1990s, Peterson’s aging investors asked to cash out, so Peterson first tried taking Ravenswood public. When that failed to raise enough money, the partners voted to sell. “Dad was the only person on the board who voted against the sale," Peterson's son Morgan Twain-Peterson, who makes the excellent Bedrock wines, told me last year. In 2001, Constellation bought Ravenswood for $148 million.

Peterson remained on board after the sale, keeping a hand in winemaking and promotions for several years, but production grew and quality was inconsistent. Peterson had all-but transitioned out when in April 2019 Constellation agreed to sell Ravenswood, along with 29 other wine and spirits brands, to E. & J. Gallo for $1.7 billion.

Since then, the sale has stalled. Constellation is publicly traded and requires approval from the Federal Trade Commission for the sale to move forward; the FTC has challenged many of the details. Gallo, for the record, is the largest wine company in the United States, and Constellation is third.

“So, Ravenswood is in Limbo, or on the River Styx, if you prefer, somewhere between Constellation and Gallo,” Peterson told me recently.

When I queried Constellation and Gallo about the state of Ravenswood, each company told me to talk to the other. Neither seemed to know whether grapes were harvested or wines made in 2019. Ultimately, both declined comment, citing FTC rules that prohibit it until the sale is finalized.

Ravenswood wines seem to get little to no push from distributors, and even the value wines are increasingly scarce on retail shelves and online. Ravenswood’s website offers a scarce selection, mostly older vintages and few single-vineyard bottlings. The Ravenswood tasting room in Sonoma closed soon after the pending sale.

Peterson told me what he could find out. Grapes were harvested in 2019 from Bedrock Vineyard, which he owns with his son Morgan, as well as the nearby Old Hill Ranch. The grapes were delivered to Ravenswood’s Quarry facility, under lease to Constellation.

“Most of the single-vineyard contracts for Ravenswood were multiyear, and many of them expire after this harvest,” Peterson said. Constellation exercised the option to let those contracts expire in anticipation of the sale, he said.

How this all ends is anyone’s guess. How important will Ravenswood be to Gallo’s large portfolio? Can it regain its former glory? Or is the brand played out?

Follow Tim Fish on Instagram at @tim_fish1, and on Twitter at @TimFishWine.

Winery Intel Red Wines Winery Purchases and Sales Zinfandel California

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