11/10/2010 10:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Joel Peterson & Ravenswood: Using the Past to Shape California's Wine Present & Future

Joel Peterson is a man who recognizes his good fortune. He is a spiritual man, with a love of the arts, a sense of humor, a sense of history, and an appreciation of beauty. He is humble, and recognizes when he started, back in 1976, that along with his wit, and the $4,000 he started with, he might not have ever have had a first vintage if he had not pulled in four tons of grapes before an imminent thunderstorm let loose.

Here is how Joel tells the story.

I had prepaid for the grapes, so they were mine. I waited until the last possible date to pick them in an attempt to optimize the flavor potential. The approach of the first storm of the season finally forced me to harvest. Zinfandel does not hold up well to moisture. It is a notorious rotter. It was my first and, if I failed, my only opportunity to make wine. I arranged with the grower, Joe Vogensen, to have the grapes picked and to load them on a truck, which I was to pick up that evening( that coincided with the arrival of the storm) and drive them to Swan winery to crush them. What could go wrong?

I arrived to find the grapes picked, but not loaded onto the truck. Four tons, in 50lb wooden lug boxes, spread over four acres of old head pruned vineyard. There was no one around to load the truck, dark clouds were looming overhead, the rain was beginning to fall in the hills around the Dry Creek valley, and I felt the darkness of failure closing in on me. I had no choice but to try to load the truck myself in the gathering dusk and storm. While I was doing this two large Ravens (huge in my mind now) landed in a tree near where I was working. They spent the entire time I was loading the truck, which was well after dark, regaling me with their throaty raven calls. It rained around me, but never on me. My first thought about the Ravens was Poe-ish. "Nevermore". As I drove to Swans with the grapes, which Joe Swan and I proceeded to crush just before the rain fell, I remembered that Raven was the shape shifting, trickster of Northwest Indian legend. Living in Berkeley, reading Carlos Castinada, and being drawn to Native American Mythology meant the it was only a short mental leap for me to adopt Raven as my totem bird.

It wasn't until later when I went to see Joan Sutherland sing "Lucia de Lammermoor" and learned of the ill fated Edgardo Ravenswood, did the winery have it's name. At the time the possibility of actually consummating the wine work I had started was looking particularly bleak. The name had the Ravens and the angst, it seemed perfect. As a post script, the first place that Zinfandel landed in the New World, in Queens, New York is also named Ravenswood. A wonderful coincidence and irony that I learned many years later.

So, good fortune was with Joel, and he explained his decision to make red Zinfandel the base grape varietal of his wines, at a time period when French Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were far more popular in California.

Zinfandel had been made well, and was the most planted grape in California well before prohibition. I had tasted several spectacular wines from the early post prohibition. Joe Swan, my mentor, made a wonderful Zinfandel. Equally important in my mind, at the time, was the fact that the way Zinfandel was grown in California most resembled the way Vinifera was grown in the great growing regions of Europe. It was dry farmed, head pruned (hence and open canopy for sun and air circulation), low production ( 1 to 3 tons/acre because the vines were old), and was planted in the location that perfectly matched the vines to their growth requirements. It is also likely that over the years the least successful quality wine producing vineyards were removed thereby selecting for the best. I felt if I did Zinfandel well I could actually accomplish something important in the newly re-emerging California wine scene.

As time unfolded, the Ravenswood wines stood out in a crowding field of California wine, for having both youthful appeal, and a great ability to age. The three 'R's" Ravenswood, Ridge, and Rosenblum, became the leading producers of a grape varietal whose origins have been something of a debate; but seems to be originally a Croatian varietal Crljenak Kastelanski, and the Primitivo of Italy's Apulia region.

Joel's ability to finding great sources for the grapes was certainly a key element for his success. I asked Joel, what unique characteristics he looked for in choosing a vineyard site?

There are several ingredients that frequently lead to a good choice. Micro climate, soil type, vine age, and viticulture practices are primary among them. A vineyard like Teldeschi is on dry creek Benchland (long a high quality Zinfandel site), planted in Tuscan Red hills series soils (volcanic gravelly loam that is among the best growing soils in Sonoma County), vines planted in 1900, Crop level of around 3 tons/acre, dry farmed, sustainable vineyard practices. Pretty much textbook for great old vine Zinfandel. Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley is another. the Site has a long history of growing high quality grapes, Tuscan Red Hills soils, low crops (1 to 2 tons/acre), Interesting mix of grapes to augment Zinfandel, Dry Farmed, Certified Organic farming. These are the kinds of locations that have a high likelihood of producing great wine.

One part of the equation of making great wine is finding the location you want grapes from. Joel works with an extremely eclectic group of grape growers on his single vineyards. What is the common ground Joel finds to work with them?

What the growers have in common is a love for their vineyard, a commitment to growing the best grapes in the most natural way possible for their site, and ability to work with me to improve based on wine quality. Ultimately, though, it tends to work because we have a mutual admiration society.

Ravenswood's sale to Constellation Brands in 2001 was a cause of concern at the time. Many wineries do not seem able to keep their identity with their consumer base when the winery takes on new ownership. Ravenswood seems to have maintained the best of both worlds. While there is no doubt that Vintner's Blend, the every day workhorse of the label has crept up to 500,000 cases of production; the fact is these wines are still a terrific value at or around $10. The next tier, The County Series, shows off a different set of skills. While the Vintner's Blend satisfies the every day niche, The County Series might be the best value deal of the whole winery. Joel is a master blender, and his ability to find harmony in different vineyards sites within the counties of Sonoma, Napa, and Lodi and blend them, is a showcase of his ability to balance nuanced flavors. Joel has the ability to make very identifiable wines that express the coolness of Sonoma, the slightly warmer Napa, and the very warm region of Lodi and have a profound taste profile for each one that speaks of where it is from.

Lastly, his single vineyard wines; Barricia, Belloni, Big River, Dickerson, Old Hill, and Pickberry; all have character and substance; something that is individual within the character of the vineyard, that Joel and his winemaking team is able to coax into the bottle. There is clearly a reason to bottle these wines separately. These wines are agers. They show great personality now, but if Joel's history gives a precedence, they will mellow, and develop nuanced flavors that few producers can get from Zinfandel.

When I asked Joel what the sale of the winery meant in terms of his commitment, and his role at the winery, he responded;

The sale to Constellation has not changed my commitment to Ravenswood in any way. I am as dedicated to Ravenswood, the wine and the people, as ever. I have a respected voice within Constellation. My role has been expanded to include some responsibilities within the larger organization, but in the main, my role with Ravenswood has not changed radically. The scope of Constellation worldwide has given me more opportunities to travel and spread the gospel of Zinfandel to other parts of the world. I have a larger more diverse group of talent people with whom I work. I am not as involved in the day to day business decisions like HR and Finance, but my roles in Winemaking, PR, and Marketing have not changed much. I am very dedicated to keeping Ravenswood authentic to its roots and to producing wine which meets my standards and that I, personally, am pleased to drink.

Today, Joel is considered one of the finest living historians of California winemaking. He has seen the growth period of the 1970s when California wines grew up on the international scene. He has studied his craft. Much as one might hope our politicians might consider doing, Joel has used the past to shape his decisions. He believes that some of the most historic vineyards in Sonoma County are mixed black fruit field blends; a willy nilly planting of throwback varietals of Zinfandel, Mourvedre, Carignan, Petite Sirah, and countless others that date back to the beginning of grape growing in California. Be sure these are delicious wines, and to be sure, one more reason to "Be like a Raven."