Ravenswood Vineyard Designate Wines
wine pixies

Ravenswood Vineyard Designate Wines

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.

Verdict: Impressive.

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California Zinfandel seems to have numberless permutations, and keeps getting better.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Joel Peterson Ravenswood Winery

Ravenswood Founder Joel Peterson is Vintage 1947.

Ravenswood Winery Vineyard Designate

Map indicating Ravenswood Vineyard Designate sites.

Ravenswood Winery

An interesting warning sign at the Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma.

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