Ravenswood's founder Joel Peterson is quite the raconteur, a vital man with a story or three at
his fingertips at any given time. We met recently at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan for a
tasting of his Ravenswood Single Vineyard Designate line. “I still do the wines I
brought to the dance,” Peterson tells me. “I started out with terroir
wines back in 1983, nearly went broke, switched gears a bit, came out with 1500 cases of
Zinfandel, thought I wouldn't even sell those, and the rest is history.” Ravenswood
Vintners Blend leads the Zin category today, but Peterson keeps looking to do more. With the
Single Vineyard Designate line he returns to terroir: old vines, family vineyards, and,
yes, no shortage of stimulating anecdotes. “Terroir is not just place,”
Peterson insists, “but history, the mix of grapes (including the lesser-known field
blends), and especially the people involved.”
“The three sins of zin,” Peterson is quick to explain before we pour,
“are too much sugar, too much alcohol, and too much oak. The 13.5% to 15% alcohol
level is our window for quality zin. Any higher level of alcohol and you get too much
unfermentable residual sugar in the wine. We aim for less than two grams RS per liter. We
reach that goal through extremely careful harvesting and grape selection. We make these
wines in open top fermenters, using only native yeasts. We age in French oak, an average of
40% new, usually about eighteen months.
The 2007 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel, $35, is the only Napa offering in the group,
100% Zin, “grown,” according to Peterson, “in a very small vineyard
next to a eucalyptus tree.” Peterson has an aside, of course: “Bill Dickerson is
a psychiatrist. He's the only person I have ever seen prune vines while on the phone
prescribing Prozac for a patient.” I enjoyed a nose of brambly blackberry, licorice and
mocha. The wine has got some quality grip and insistent tannin, with flavor components of
raspberry and tangy pomegranate, rose essence, cinnamon, vanilla and more of the licorice
and mocha. The mid-palate is patient, the finish soft, long and ripe.
The 2007 Ravenswood Big River Zinfandel, $35, is 100% Zin, Alexander Valley appellation,
“but,” Peterson added excitedly, “from a rare pure planting of Zin
dating back to 1900 in the area of the Alexander Valley situated along the Russian River just
east of Healdsburg.” The wine has black fruit, good spice and a mineral aspect on the
nose. Mouthfeel is soft. Fruit leads the palate with berry and plum jam, mocha and a hint of
vanilla. The finish is soft, fruity, graceful, and elegantly ripe.
The 2007 Ravenswood Belloni Zinfandel, $35, Russian River appellation, includes 28%
mixed blacks, including Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouchet, a field-blend
co-ferment. “The late Ricardo Belloni used to reserve some of these grapes to make
his own wine,” Peterson tells me, “until one day he admitted he liked the wine
I made better than his own. These are low old vines on sandy soils, still maintained by the
Belloni family.” I enjoy the nose of black cherry and baking spice. The wine has
lasting acidity, good tannic grip and structure. Fruit is generous and juicy, including blueberry
and blackberry, with further spice, chocolate and vanilla on the finish.
The 2007 Ravenswood Barricia Zinfandel, $35, Sonoma Valley appellation, includes 24%
Petite Sirah. “This is my favorite vineyard,” Peterson says, “once
owned by Civil War general Joe Hooker and now by two women, Barbara and Patricia, hence
the combination Barricia.” These are old vines with extremely low yields. I get deep
red brambly fruit on the nose, with nose tickling nutmeg and floral elements of rose and
violet. This is a full-bodied, mouth-engaging wine which Peterson likens to a claret, despite
its dark color. It is indeed very nicely balanced, with “finesse and elegance,”
according to Peterson, a “civilized wine,” according to me. Plenty of good
direct berry and cherry fruit here.
The 2007 Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel, $60, Sonoma Valley appellation, includes 24%
mixed blacks, fourteen varieties of them to be precise, all from a certified organic vineyard.
“The Zin is picked first,” Peterson says, “with the others coming in
two weeks later. The wines are vinified separately, then we blend.” This nose is floral
and perfumed with spicy red fruit and licorice, roasted walnut and smoke. The feel of the
wine comes first to the mouth, good mixed acidity and tannin, with black cherry leading the
fruit and the fine concentration of candied fruit on the finish.
The 2007 Ravenswood Teldeschi Zinfandel, $35, Dry Creek Valley appellation, is 22% Petite
Sirah and 2% Carignane, fermented separately and blended. “These are vines planted
between 1900 and 1955, most pre-prohibition,” Peterson says, “and in the
same family since 1910.” The family's name is a variant of tedeschi, which
means “German” in Italian. Peterson relates how the family came to Italy from
Germany in the 14th century and the name stuck. This wine has a pronounced nose of pepper
and black fruit, a palate of cherry, chocolate and vanilla, all mouthfilling and very ripe.
The 2007 Ravenswood Icon Mixed Blacks, $75 is an old-vines mixture of 36% Carignane,
27% Petite Sirah, 25% Zinfandel and several others, vinified separately and blended.
Appellation is Sonoma County. Peterson is extremely proud of this wine: “These are
the grapes characteristic of the old, pre-prohibition California. We strive for a California
identity here, not Bordeaux or Burgundy.” The inky wine is indeed bold, with candied
cherry, violet, pepper, licorice, vanilla and red fruit on the nose, mixed berries, nutmeg and
clove on the palate. You can taste some of the brambly effect of the Zin, in this case the
minority variety. Good bittersweet chocolate graces the finish with its usual partner vanilla.
This is full-bodied wine with structure and a real personality.
The 2006 Ravenswood Pickberry, $50, is Sonoma Mountain appellation, a blend of
separately-fermented Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It's not what you
expect and in fact fits in well with its seven other partners in terms of concept, style, and the
effective communication of terroir. The nose gives an unusual mix of citrus
fruits, apricot, floral notes and orange blossom. In the mouth the wine shows a mix of red
and black fruits and toasted walnut, with cocoa, vanilla and clove on a lengthy finish. Tannins
are supple but well integrated with a respectable level of acidity. I don't give scores, but
others have given this wine some impressive numbers. In this case I concur, but wish to add
that, despite the seemingly classic Bordeaux nature of the blend, this wine reflects, in
decreasing concentric circles, California, Sonoma, the lovingly tended family vineyard that
provided the fruit and, ultimately, the hand of the winemaker.