9 Questions for The “Godfather”

Joel Peterson, "Godfather of Zin"

By a strange set of twitter circumstances (specifically @Ciaramilk and some folks at Enterprise Canada), I found myself booked into a meeting with the “Godfather of Zin”, Joel Peterson, from Ravenswood wines. He was on a whirlwind tour (traveling 4 weeks out of the last 5), and had most of the week in Ontario with an Ottawa stop on the 13th of July. And yes, sometimes I will write about something other than Ontario wines.

What follows is my attempt to record the engaging chat we had.

Shawn: How Big a Market is Ontario for Ravenswood?
Joel: Ontario is a significant market. Not only does Vintages carry the Vintners Blend as an “Essential”, but they also purchase between 1000 and 2500 cases of single vineyard wines each year, about 100 cases at a time.

Shawn: You’re a scientist by training. How much do you think your science background has affected your winemaking?
Joel: Science gives you the basics. It allows you to achieve the result you want…art is knowing what you want to achieve.

Shawn: What drove you to initially get into wine-making?
Joel: My father worked as a scientist, and he died in 1971 unhappy. That has an affect on me and I didn’t want to end up unhappy like that. I had been working with some winemakers for several years and just decided I was going to do it.

Shawn: What are your views on Organic and Bio-Dynamic wine-making?
Joel: Organic is fine. We try to practice organic where we can. If something shows up I will go in and nuke it because I can’t afford to lose crop. Bio-D is a different story. While the time spent in the vineyard makes for good practice, I don’t buy into the spiritual side of things.

Shawn: At one point you claimed that you picked the grapes by taste, But with 100+ vineyards contributing grapes to your wines, you obviously can’t still exercise that same level of control. How do you do it?
Joel: Yes we are big. We do 800,000 cases a year, about 600,000 cases of Vintners Blend. We’re a global product, shipping around the world. We now have 3 other winemakers that work with me – all have been there between 7 and 15 years (2 from UC Davis, 1 self-taught). Between the four of us we cover all of the vineyards. I still make the call on all the core vineyards – about 60 out of 130. And all of us spend a lot of time working with the vineyard owners to improve their quality. We’ll actually take a vineyard’s wine with 2 other (better) vineyard’s wines and do a tasting to see which one the owner likes the best. Once he realizes that he liked his own wine the least, they seem willing to work on improving it because they all want to make great product.

Shawn: I see some discussion about wild ferments associated with you. What are your thoughts on native yeasts, etc?
Joel: We’ve been doing wild ferments for years – in fact most of our ferments are wild. We’ve found we have fewer stuck ferments that others using cultured yeasts. We use lots of different techniques to restart them if we get a stuck ferment but rarely do we need to resort to anything other than native yeasts.

Shawn: When you were first starting out, why did you pick Zinfandel?
Joel: I looked at Bordeaux and the key characteristics of their wines. I wanted to do something as local to my area as their wines were to their region. I looked at what they were doing with dry-farmed grapes, old vines, and their trellis structures and wanted to reproduce it with plants that did well in this region. Zinfandel was an old grape already, many vineyards were using dry-farmed methods, and similar trellising, so it was the only grape that made sense for me. Many of our vines date back to 1885-1900, and even Vintners Blend vines average 45 years old. They aren’t your typical wines – we tend towards lower alcohol, low sugar, and light oak, using all French barrels.

Shawn: 2010 was a bad year in many ways for California wines. How did it affect you?
Joel: Well the low humidity and high heat burned some vineyards. The worst hit vineyards lost 50-100% of the crop. Yet others were not affected at all. It depended on a lot of factors.

The Ninth Question? I never got to ask the ninth question as we had wandered off in several other directions (did I mention Joel is a great story-teller?) and I forgot to ask it. Either that or I was subconsciously intimidated by the whole “Godfather” thing. I had wanted to know what his views were on the California Wine Industry potentially suing the Ontario Government under NAFTA rules if they allowed local (VQA) wine stores. I’ll follow up and see if I can get an answer.
[UPDATE July 22] Joel himself responded to the question, admitting that he’s “pretty far down the food chain on this issue”. Key to his point was this: “My general feeling about such things is that I am in favor of any outcome that creates free, open and fair competition were all parties have a chance to thrive based on their merits and where consumers have unrestricted access to choice.” Couldn’t agree more, and really appreciated his candid & personal reply!

The Wines:

Ravenswood Lodi Old Vines Zinfandel:
With vines averaging 85 years old, this wine is blended form 14 different vineyards. Nose of jammy raspberry. Big fruit mouth of blueberries and black raspberry with nice spice and oak on the secondary. Although I find this much nicer than the Vintner’s Blend, it is still a little too jammy for me.

Ravenswood Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel (Napa Valley): This one is bright red raspberry on the nose and palate, with a hint of menthol (eucalyptus). It has lots of acidity and tannins in perfect balance (the pH was 3.25 vs 3.4 to 3.5 in most others). It is not at all what I was expecting, as the acidity is rare in Zins we normally see from California.

Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel (Russian River Valley): This cool fermented field blend just fills your mouth with boysenberry and cassis. The field blend includes some black fruit (Petite Syrah, Carignane, and Alicante Bouchet) The cooler climate lends just enough acidity to keep this from being sweet, and the meatier tannins add up to make this one a monster wine.

Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel (Sonoma Valley): Old Hill Vineyard has a diverse mixture of vines (including Petite Syrah, Syrah, Grenache, Tempranillo, and even Touriga Nacional), but the final blend ends up 75% Zinfandel. This is the most smoky of the Zins, picking up the spice, structure, and tannins from the Grenache and other European varietals. The nose is an incredible array of fruit, pepper, spice, and that underlying smokiness. There are huge tannins here, but huge fruit to go with it – this would age nicely for years and years.

Ravenswood Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley): The Teldeschi family still cross-plow farms this vineyards like they did back in 1910. With a High percentage (~20%) of Petite Syrah and a few % Carignane, this one maintains 75% Zinfandel. The nose is huge cherry and vanilla – surprising for a Zin. On the palate, red and black fruit just explodes on top of the vanilla background, with earthy, tobacco undertones. Great finish.

Ravenswood Pickberry Vineyards Meritage (Sonoma Mountain):
This startlingly crisp red resembles a great Bordeaux in many ways. This vintage is mostly Merlot (74%) with the balance Cabernet Sauvignon. It has an understated elegance to it much like the high-end Cabernets coming from California now, where the fruit, spice, tannins, and acidity are all hanging in a cohesive balance. Although not a Zinfandel (sorry Joel), I think it was my favourite of the night.

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