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A Study in Zinfandel

Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson sits down for a vertical tasting of single-vineyard wines

Tim Fish
Posted: October 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.

Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  October 12, 2010 12:36pm ET
It seems he is obviously upset with his ratings, which can drive his ability to sell them. I agree they are not the same wines as they were back in the 1990's and I rarely buy them anymore. In the old days you could never go wrong with buying zins from The "R" producers(Ridge, Ravenswood, Rosenblum, and Renwood), but I don't think that's the case anymore. Ridge seems to be the one constant force.
Thomas Cannon
Fairfax, VA, USA —  October 12, 2010 12:43pm ET

What a fun experience. Do you have any favorite zins from recent vintages that are made similar to the older Ravenswood zins of the 80's and 90's you refer to? Thanks.
Brady Daniels
London —  October 12, 2010 12:47pm ET
When I first fell for Zin in the mid-90's, it was Joel Peterson's wines that showed me that power Zin can still express terroir. I rejoiced in his SVD's more than any other winemaker's Zin, and particularly loved his Monte Rosso. I always blamed the sale for the change in style and am a little saddened for you to shatter my illusion.

The good news is that there are other folks making "No Wimpy Wines" that express themselves gloriously.

Like you, I still admire Peterson, and would thank him for introducing me to proper Zinfandel.
Peter J Gatti
Austin, —  October 12, 2010 1:34pm ET
I think that the most compelling fact is that customers just don't buy the wines in the volume that they used to. As has been said already, wines that once flew out the door, if retailers could even get them, now languish for months or years.

Whether the wines have changed or peoples' tastes have changed, the result is the same.

I'm in the camp that believes that the wines are not nearly as exciting or interesting as they used to be. And I've been ITB for 30 years and have been selling the wines for essentially that entire period in several markets.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 12, 2010 1:48pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone. Thomas, no favorites from Ravenswood, although I think they are solid wines. In the style you're looking for, think: Carlisle, Bedrock (which Peterson is involved with), Miraflores, and to some degree Biale and Seghesio.
Richard Lee
Napa —  October 12, 2010 3:51pm ET
Congrats Tim! This is the first article I have read from you where I felt you weren't kissing up to the winemaker. I didn't care for Peterson's attitude when I met him 20 years ago, so I quit buying his wines. From what I hear now, his wines today are just OK to Good. Too bad he doesn't get it!
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  October 12, 2010 4:57pm ET

nice piece of journalism! i like to see a spirited debate between people who respect each other. ravenswood was a favorite of me and my wife for several years, notably the early 2000s. our palates evolved and we don't drink as much zin, but it will always have a soft spot in our hearts.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 12, 2010 6:09pm ET
Chris, starting with Zin and evolving into other wines isn't unusual I've found. I think I'll always have a soft spot for Zin.

Richard, somehow I don't think most winemakers would agree with you, but thanks for reading.
Leo Mccloskey
Sonoma, CA —  October 12, 2010 6:44pm ET
What can makes fine Zinfandel better is the question? The difficulty for California Zinfandel winemakers is they do not have a standard or a competitor that they all accept is the volume, price and quality leader. I know the problem well, I started making wine at Ridge, where I met Joel Peterson for the first time. After 35-years, Zinfandel has not evolved the ways of Cabernet Sauvignon. Competitors simply enter the market, year after year, without regard to a given company’s wines. That is not the case with Cabernet Sauvignon after Robert Mondavi entered the game. Business to business, no company is to Zinfandel today what Insignia, Mondavi, Opus, et al are to Cabernet Sauvignon. Companies cannot enter the Cabernet Sauvignon market and get away with selling lower quality wines for higher prices than Insignia et al. There is a communitarian feel to this kind of Cabernet Sauvignon market. I like it very much. Winemakers may drink their favorites, but they make wines to standards nonetheless. I would love to help Zinfandel winemakers, "[W]ith scores in the 80-89 range", ask what is the way forward if it is not scaling Zinfandel. What is the way to make fine Zinfandels modern? My best wishes to Joel Peterson.
David Snyder
Il —  October 13, 2010 9:16pm ET

In my opinion Storybook Mountain makes very exciting well balanced Zinfandels that will age nicely. Also, Richard Arrowood is making a great Monte Rosso vineyard Zinfandel under his Amapola Creek label and Green and Red is another great producer of interesting wines that are also food friendly, which can be a problem with Zinfandel. The "R" days are long gone, with the exception of Ridge to some extent. However, I think that Ridge's Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay is the best wine they make these days.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 13, 2010 10:39pm ET

I've been liking the recent Green & Reds and Arrowwood's Amapola Creek. Both are balanced yet have a full range of flavors and regional character. Sadly I agree about the "R" days. Rosenblum went over the top, and the Ridge Zins faltered a vintage or two but they may be back on track. Laube would also agree with you about the Chardonnays. Thanks for reading.
Larry Senner
Seymour, CT —  October 14, 2010 7:59am ET
Frequently bottles get overlooked and when discovered in the cellar all you can do is wince. Two weeks ago discovered a bottle of 1989 Ravenswood RRV Wood Road Belloni ... yes 21 year old zin. Put them in the Riedel Sommeliers Zin glasses to give it every chance possible. After tasting my wife and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, "Fruit Bomb"! This would never happen with todays vintages.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 14, 2010 11:10am ET
Great story Larry.
Joel Peterson
Sonoma, California, USA —  October 14, 2010 11:45am ET
Thank you for the kind words about my position in the hierarchy of Zinners.
It was a pleasure to taste my wines with you at the end of last month and as you know,
I count myself incredibly lucky to be engaged in a profession that I love.

The minutia of vintages and the history of wine just add to the richness and texture of my experience and, I trust, to the experience of the people with whom I share my wines. I certainly have enjoyed your advocacy for my chosen grape over the years. I,too, have enjoyed sharing consiliences and sparring over our divergences. This is part of what makes the wine culture interesting and engaging. I can still recall some of the spirited exchanges in Wine Magazine published in the UK that I read in the 1960’s. I think you would find many of the topics familiar and timely. Certainly the topic of style and flavor preference was among them.

While I appreciate your thoughtful and carefully measured words on this topic where my wines are concerned, as you anticipated, I do not wholly agree with your conclusions!
I do agree that there is a pendulum range for Zinfandel style. But I feel that the pendulum has swung so far toward the overripe, flabby fruit, toasted oak bomb model that the flavor profile, formerly the solid classic mid-ground in which many of the world’s most delicious wines reside, now appears as the other extreme. It seems that the road I have always traveled is a road currently less traveled by many Zinfandel producers and less favored by some pundits.

Fortunately for me there are others in the Zin loving and wine scoring worlds who are persuaded that the wines I am making deserve to be placed among the very best. My recent releases of single vineyard Zinfandels from the 2006 and 2007 vintages have received more than 60 scores of 90 points or greater from a wide range of scoring publications. In my travels as an advocate of Zinfandel in the U.S.A., Europe and Asia, people are genuinely impressed and surprised when they taste the Ravenswood Zins. The usual comment is that if all Zinfandel tasted more like these Zins, people would be appreciating, and drinking, more Zinfandel. The interest of wine is derived in part FROM it’s diversity of style and flavor. The Ravenswood style is a style that many people appreciate. I would encourage your readers to purchase a bottle of one of my 2007 vineyard designates, if they can find one, and see what they think, and give me their feedback.

As an additional note, I don’t think my Zinfandel is tasting more like Cabernet, I think that today’s Cabernet with hang time to the point of raisining, ever increasing alcohol, frequent residual sugar, and saturating oak is making Cabernet taste more like over-the- top Zinfandel. But, perhaps this is a debate for another time. I’m sure we’d have fun tasting and talking.

I do my best to make wine that I believe in, wines that will provide pleasure and interest, wines that are worth cellaring, and wines that are worthy of discussion. I look forward to our ongoing discussion, debate, dissonances and harmonies as we create the history of our lucky, lucky wine lives.

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 14, 2010 12:15pm ET

Thanks for joining the conversation and as always I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

Sadly, we have this conversation during harvest 2010 when so many Zin vineyards are struggling to make the long ride home.

Joel Peterson
Sonoma, California, USA —  October 14, 2010 5:24pm ET
Yes Tim, we have lost much of the crop in a number of vineyards. We will be able to pick only 1% to 5% in some vineyards. Russian River and Dry Creek felt the worst effects of the September furnace day, but all of the North Coast was effected to some degree. The quality of what remains ranges between mediocre and exceptional.

Larry's story about finding the 89 Belloni is a good one, except for the awkward fact that I was not making Belloni in 89. Perhaps he misremembered 99.

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 14, 2010 6:39pm ET

That is scary. Not a great year to be a Zin specialist. Good luck and thanks for the comments.

Henry Bronson
Manchester, VT, USA —  October 15, 2010 9:16pm ET
Chris Kleeman here, Wine Director at Bistro Henry.

Zinfandel is, and may forever be an enigma. "Angel's Visits", as described by the title of David Darlington's book is so appropriate for the times older Zins approach perfection. Years ago, I took a bottle of 1976 August Sebastiani Proprietor's Reserve Zinfandel to London with me. It was tasted at dinner with our British hosts and friends in the company of Continental wines like a 1975 Chateau Cantemerle and other very good Clarets of varying early and mid-70's vintages. This was in 1988. The wine was absolute perfection, it still tasted like Zinfandel, it had the old briar and bramble that were the descriptors of the day for Zin, but it had a velvet mouth-feel that was Claret-like, and it absolutely bowled everyone over. No one had ever had an American wine like that in that little corner of London. And these folks tasted a lot of wine! Now I know that bottle was only 12 years old, but no one at the time thought that Zinfandel could age like that. It was, simply, sumptuous.

I gave a bottle of to Joel Peterson through his friend (now his wife) Madeleine, and got a similar report back through Maddy. I've been a fan of Joel's wines, as well as Paul Draper from Ridge, and many other producers for decades now. My tastes in Zinfandel go all over the place, depending on what I want to serve it with. What I do object to is the over-oaked and over-extracted Zins that go so far over the top. But, if I'm eating barbecue, there is definitely a place for a spicy fruit-bomb, close to over-extracted style of Zinfandel that isn't dosed with too much oak.

Some of Joel's wines have stood the test of time, some have not. The same can be said of Ridge Zinfandels. But, I've had wines from both Ravenswood and Ridge from the early and mid-90's that have been absolutely spellbinding. And still tasted like Zinfandel.

Some wines are meant for ageing, some are not. With most Zins, I've found the window of peak enjoyability to be between 3 and 6 years from vintage date. But, that is because I do like the vibrant fruit in Zinfandel (Not residual sugar!!!) That being said, I applaud Joel for his continuing quest in the perfection of his vision of wine making, and wish he and all the other wine makers all the best as Zinfandel continues to be a personal favorite.

And I'm so jealous I wasn't there for that tasting Tim!

And Joel, your report on the 2010 Vintage is indeed scary. I can only hope for all the best for all wineries involved.

Joel Peterson
Sonoma, California, USA —  October 16, 2010 12:48pm ET
Chris, I remember that bottle of Sebastiani well. It was lovely, and unexpected. 1976 was a drought year. It was also the year I made my first Zinfandel under the Ravenswood label. My wine is still charming in the way old wine are when they started out their existence well. Based on his notes it seems that Tim thought so as well.

Thanks for your perspective. Sounds like you have seen a lot of Zin pass under the bridge.

The vintage has indeed difficult. It has been more difficult in some regions than others, especially in term of lost fruit. Regions like Lodi were largely unaffected. In fact they had what I would call a north coast year. Longer, cooler, thought nearly perfect for growing quality Zin. Amador, too, seem very good. The grapes that survived the heat on the north coast seems to be producing dark, intense, well structured wine.

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