The Zin Masters: Ravenswood

Tapping Sonoma's treasures
May 24, 2004

From the stainless steel fermentation tanks at Ravenswood, Zinfandel is made in a variety of styles.
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The Ravenswood story is really a tale of two wineries, one a maker of handcrafted old-vine Zinfandels, the other a mass-production powerhouse of good value wines. Both Ravenswoods reside under one roof in Sonoma Valley, and winemaker Joel Peterson navigates between the two.

The dual nature of Ravenswood is in many ways reflected in Peterson, 57, a man who seems to be as comfortable with cowboy hats and Hawaiian shirts as he is with spreadsheets and board meetings.

With its motto of "No Wimpy Wines," Ravenswood has forged a devoted following for its Zinfandels, particularly the single-vineyard wines, many of which are produced from vines planted in the late 1800s.

A key Zinfandel in the Ravenswood portfolio is Dickerson, harvested from a 10-acre vineyard on the Napa Valley floor near St. Helena. It is a plot that was planted in 1930 and produces about 2 tons an acre.

Old Hill is perhaps Ravenswood's preeminent Zin, taken from a 14-acre site in Sonoma Valley that was planted in the 1870s. The plot encompasses a spice rack of other hearty red grapes (Carignane and Grenache, to name two), which gives the wine a unique personality. Peterson is lucky to get 1 ton of grapes per acre from Old Hill.

"They're all wines about place," says Peterson. "I feel my wines respect the vintage and they respect the vineyard."

Ravenswood got its start in the mid-1970s when Peterson began working with Joseph Swan, a pioneer with Zinfandel and Pinot Noir in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. It was an apprenticeship, really, with Peterson working weekends and commuting back and forth from San Francisco. "Joe was my mentor," Peterson says. Peterson and Reed Foster, who is now semiretired, made their first wines under the Ravenswood label in 1976.

After struggling in the early years, Ravenswood developed a cultish following for its Zins. The winery's production grew rapidly in the 1980s and '90s with the expansion of the workhorse Vintners Blend label, which encompasses Zinfandel as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, today priced about $10 a bottle.

"We were growing 20 percent a year, but it was all under the radar," Peterson says. That changed in 1999 when Ravenswood went public in an unusual and high-profile move, and two years later the winery was purchased for $148 million by Canandaigua, now known as Constellation Brands. It was Ravenswood's marriage of cult Zins and cash-flow production that appealed to the beverage giant.

Today, Ravenswood has an annual production of 600,000 cases, up from about 200,000 in 1999, and continues to grow. The single-vineyard Zinfandels now account for less than 2 percent of the output. Production for many years was scattered at facilities around Sonoma Valley (the winery also buys a great deal of bulk wine for the Vintners Blend program), but in 1999, with a boost of cash from the public offering, Ravenswood consolidated its winemaking at a large new winery south of the city of Sonoma. Gone are the redwood fermentors and the by-the-seat-of-your-pants winemaking of the early days.

Peterson is unapologetic about Ravenswood's growth. "I couldn't have survived on high-end Zinfandel," he says. Except for fermenting the wines in small stainless steel tanks, he says, the single-vineyard wines are made in almost the same way they were prior to the winery's expansion.

"In truth, I haven't changed things a lot," Peterson says. "I'd say my wines are crafted much better than they were. They're much less rustic." Yet the wines do seem to have lost some of their character. Peterson explains that he has increasingly sought structure and ageability in his Zinfandels, which perhaps leaves him out of step with riper styles aimed at more immediate drinking pleasure.

Peterson sees himself at Ravenswood for the long run, even though he made millions in the sale to Constellation. "Never equate what you love doing with how much you make," Peterson says. "I'll never leave unless someone drags me out."

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