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Zin, Zap & Zen: Talking with Joel Peterson
By Norm Roby
Jun 1, 2022
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Most people who build a brand from scratch and after, say, 25 years sell it for mega-millions would take the money and quietly ride off into the sunset.  Well, in my years of following the wine biz, I’ve encountered one glaring exception: Joel Peterson.  After surprising everyone by selling Ravenswood, he took the money, but worked hard with the new corporate owners, bought the 150-acre Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma, and started over in 2014 by founding his Once & Future Winery.

While “nevermore” may now be the ironic theme for the Ravenswood brand, Peterson is once again at it.  His mantra could be “been there, done that.  And now doing it again.”  He is definitely not retired.  His son, Morgan Twain-Peterson operates Bedrock Vineyards.  Each small batch Once and Future wine comes with a fascinating, detailed history that you can enjoy reading at the website.
With limited experience and finances, Joel Peterson created Ravenswood in 1976 when he made 375 cases of old vine Zinfandel using a corner in the Joseph Swan Winery.  Through dedication and hard work, the annual output grew to 400,000 cases.  In 2001 Constellation purchased Ravenswood for $148 million and Joel remained on board and guided its growth until 2015.  Gallo now owns the brand.

In 1976, when he entered the field, the odds were not good for old vine Sonoma Zinfandel.  By all accounts, 1976 was a watershed year for California wine thanks to the Judgment of Paris.  That event, recreated many times and etched in the minds of every student of wine, certainly upgraded California’s image and helped put Chardonnay and Cabernet on the wine map.  

During the harvest of 1976, with every wine drinker talking about Napa Cabernet and Montelena’s Chardonnay, Peterson, the apprentice winemaker at Joseph Swan Vineyards, went with Zinfandel.  Although Ravenswood would eventually produce Merlot, Chardonnay and an outstanding Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon blend, the brand became synonymous with Zinfandel.  In most feature articles and serious conversations about Zinfandel, Ravenswood was part of the famous “R” group which included Ridge, Rafanelli and Rosenblum Cellars.  

But while the three other “Rs” remained relatively low keyed in the 1980s, Ravenswood was out fighting for market share and financial stability.  So, in 1985, Peterson added his Vintners Blend Zin that became an amazing success.  Within a few years, Ravenswood was turning out 100,000 cases of Vintners Blend.  Retailing for $10 a bottle, it was the needed “cash cow.”

At one point, about 20% of All Zinfandel made and sold sported the Ravenswood name.  Now that’s a victory from a longshot that deserves a chapter in wine history.  So, I asked Joel a few questions about the early years and his takeaways from the experience.  

I first met Joel at the Vintners Club in San Francisco.  Formed in 1973, this club held blind tastings every Thursday and its members included many wine collecting doctors, lawyers and other prominent wine drinkers, as well as winery personal such as Warren Winiarski and Joseph Swan.  Recently I learned that Joel’s father founded the club.  Reed Foster presided over these well-organized tastings, and he later moved on as a partner and marketing guy for Ravenswood.

Q (Norm Roby):  The Vintners Club was a great opportunity for me to taste wines with truly knowledgeable people.  What was that experience for you as a future winemaker?

JP (Joel Peterson):  The Vintners Club was an important part of my development.  My father and Jerry Draper (they were friends, in a tasting group together, and Jerry was a member of my father’s Club) conceptualized the Vintners Club.  It was, in part, based on my father’s San Francisco Wine Sampling Club.  My father died of a coronary just before the Club was to open.  Jerry kindly gave me a membership in the club to honor my father.  

I wasn’t making much money then, and the initiation fee was far beyond my means, but I did know a fair amount about wine so I could contribute positively.  The Vintners Club was a good place to hone my tasting skills and ultimately changed the course of my life when I met Joe Swan at one of those tastings.

Q:  Why was Zinfandel your focus back in the late 70s?  Or was it Old Vines?  Wasn't Swan making Pinot Noir as well?

JP:  Swan was very interested in making Pinot Noir.  In fact, he had a selection that he had hidden away at his place in Mineral King.  But he had not yet planted or had a harvest of Pinot when he started Joseph Swan Vineyards.  Essentially, he practiced Burgundian wine making, as he understood it, using other grapes.  Napa Gamay and Zinfandel for instance.  His 1968 Zin from old vines on his Trenton property was particularly memorable.  There weren’t many people using small, open top fermenters and French oak on Zinfandel in those days.  

Because Joe treated the Zin grape with respect that it rarely got, the resulting wine was outstanding.  It showed what was possible.  That wine was part of my fascination with Zinfandel, but there was more.

I was brought up to understand wine in the European tradition.  Most people in my father’s circle drank European.  We were influenced by all those British wine writers.  Andre Simon, Harry Waugh, Michael Broadbent, Eddy Penning-Rowsell and others.  What we were taught was that the marriage of Terroir and Grape was critically important to producing the best, the most representative wine of place.  It seemed as likely that the grape chose its place as much as humanity did.

It was pretty clear to me that Zinfandel had chosen California.  It arrived in around 1852 and very quickly established itself as the “Chosen One.”  There were lots of contenders, Including Cabernet Sauvignon, but none seemed to fare as well with the diverse climate and viticultural style found in California’s many climatic zones.  

By the time I came on the scene, what I saw were well established, old, dry farmed, low crop, mostly field blend vines that were planted in some of the best soils in California.  These were the survivors of California’s somewhat traumatic viticultural history.  They were for the most part making pretty mediocre wine, but that was the winemaking—not the grape.  It seemed like there was an opportunity to make an authentic, terroir-driven California wine from these grapes.  That and the ‘68 Swan were what drew me to Zinfandel.   

Q:  Was White Zinfandel good or bad for you in the 80s?  Was that what inspired the “No Wimpy Wines” motto?

JP:  In retrospect, it seems that White Zinfandel was both good and bad for me in the 1980s.  It did inspire the “No Wimpy Wines” motto, which was originally No Wimpy Wines Allowed, but got shortened by circumstance and button size.  We passed out many of those buttons in multiple languages.  Unfortunately, that motto got mis-interpreted to mean big, jammy, slightly sweet and high ethanol (not the profile of my wines by the way) and the motto was associated with Harley Davidson and NASCAR rather than Einstein and Baryshnikov as I would have preferred.  

For a while it seemed like the bigness of Zinfandel was some kind of arms race among winemakers.

White Zinfandel had the side benefit of keeping some old vine Zinfandel vineyards in the ground that might have other been replanted, until I was big enough to handle them.  The amount that was being paid for White Zin was fairly low, so it was not particularly hard to convince growers to work with me for a significant increase in price.  That was a good thing.  

The difficulty with the popularity of White Zinfandel was that many people thought that was the only kind of wine Zinfandel produced.  There were a number of instances when a bottle (or glass) of my wine was rejected because it was not what people expected Zinfandel to be.  This became a problem in restaurants in particular.  Certain accounts would not buy my Zinfandel because they had many rejections of red wine based on the expectation that the wine would be pink and sweet.  On the other hand, White Zinfandel was probably a gateway wine to better wine for some people (though I know of no hard data to support that contention).

I think that, in part, White Zinfandel was the reason that “ZAP” [Zinfandel Advocates and Producers] was started by Jerry Seps, myself, Don Reisen (Ridge), Kent Rosenblum, Tom Burgess and Jay Heminway.  Zinfandel was in danger of becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of wines.  We needed to raise its profile and provide people with a way to understand how special the red version (red is a redundancy when it comes to Zinfandel) of this wine could be.

Q:  I’ve heard you mention a French connection but has your style of winemaking evolved or changed with the market demands?

JP:  I did grow up tasting primarily French wine.  That certainly helped inform my preferences for carefully made, authentic wines of place.  If by “evolved” you mean more skilled in the art of winemaking, then the answer is yes, of course.  The French make many wines in many different styles.  Austere and fresh Muscadet, voluptuous Chenin Blanc, uber sweet Sauternes, rustic Burgundy, sophisticated Bordeaux, rambunctious Rhône…and the list goes on.  It is hard to pinpoint a universal something called “style.”  Each region has its own style and defining elements.  Having said that, I prefer French oak and simple wine making.  Most of the reds (and whites as well) I have made are individual vineyard ferments conducted with native yeasts.  

During the Constellation years, when we were growing rapidly and making everything from a sweet Muscat, to a single vineyard Bordeaux blend, to a high-volume inexpensive Vintners Blend series (Chard, Merlot, Cab and Zin), my very talented winemaking team and I felt that we could master any style that was appropriate for the wine we interested in making  and that was in keeping with what we called the Ravenswood character (No Wimpy Wines).  

We were always looking for authenticity and interest in our wines.  We went where we wanted to go with our winemaking choices.  We generally choose which wines we wanted to make and what profile that wine would be.  White Zin and Sweet red blends never became a thing for us in spite of the market demand for such wines.  

With Zinfandel in particular we did not so much follow market demand as define it.  At its core, artful winemaking, much like painting, is one person’s preferences writ large.  With any luck, those preferences resonate with the larger audience.

Q:  When did you first feel successful with Ravenswood?  Was there a pivotal moment, high score?

JP:  That is easy to answer.  When we were making enough money so I could quit my second job and become a full-time, paid winemaker instead of a volunteer at my own winery.  That would have been in 1994, though I continued to work part time in the laboratory on the weekends at Sonoma Valley Hospital for a number of years after that.

Q:  On critics/wine writers…did anyone come out and champion Zin early on in your campaign or was it passed over?

JP:  There were a number of people who wrote articles about my wine and Zinfandel in general, but there were very few who were champions.  The exceptions would have been Charles Sullivan and David Darlington (Angels’ Visits).  Connoisseurs’ Guide always had an issue primarily devoted to Zin.  That was the newsletter written by Charlie Olken and Steve Elliot.

Q:  Was Parker devoting much attention to Zin?  And did his emphasis on ripeness work against your approach?

JP:  I wouldn’t say Parker was an avid Zin fan, though he did choose it as one of the varieties that he reviewed.  He seemed to like my wines well enough.  I got fairly good scores from him.  Though it is fair to point out that he loved the ‘94 Turley Hayne Vineyard that was nearly 16% alcohol and had some residual sugar.  That was probably the wine, and the review, that sent Zin down the massive, over-ripe path for a number of years.  

Q: How did ZAP happen?  Whose idea and what were the goals?

JP:  What other winemakers made it happen?  Jerry Seps at Storybook Mountain was the one who brought us all together for the first time for a brainstorming session about how we might improve the reputation and increase the profile of Zinfandel.  Zap, the organization, was an outgrowth of those brainstorming sessions.  The participants as I remember were Jerry, myself, Donn Reisen (Ridge), Kent Rosenblum, Tom Burgess, and Jay Heminway (Green and Red).  We hired Margaret Smith (from Sunset magazine) as our first executive director.  We established ourselves as a 501c3 rather than a trade organization, and encouraged people who loved Zin (yes there were Zinfanatics) to join the organization and become volunteers at our events.  Our first annual tasting was at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco.  It was not very well attended.  I think 50 people showed up, and half of them were from the wineries.  A few years later, that tasting became a raging success that took up two pavilions at Fort Mason with 300+ wineries and was attended by more than 3,000 people.  It was a little too successful and got labeled a drunk fest by the conservative wine press.  It has since been scaled back, but is still in San Francisco, and is a multiple-day event with dinners, educational programs, an auction, a trade tasting and—of course—the Grand Tasting.  I think we are in year 22.     

Q:  With your Once & Future winery, I noticed both you and Morgan make a Mataro.  Is it as intriguing today as Zinfandel?

JP:  I am, of course, making one now and am loving the character of the vineyard and the resulting wine.  Really, there is not that much Mataro planted in most of the old vineyards in Sonoma and Napa where I did most of my old vine grape sourcing.  It is one of the varieties that is fairly easily identified from its leaf shape, leaf color and upright nature so I did note it when it was in the old vine mix.  There were lots of other varieties that needed to wait for PCR to reveal their true identities.  There was never enough Mataro in any one vineyard to make a wine, so it always ended up as part of the Zinfandel field blend.  I suppose that there is some irony in the fact that Bedrock Vineyard (which I bought) has several acres of almost pure old vine Mataro.  Morgan uses most of it.

Q:  What, if anything, would you do differently, if starting out now?

JP:   As far as doing things differently, it is hard to say.  The Zen part of me says that things are the way they are because that is the way they are.  I made the best decisions I could along the way based on the milieu that I was in at any given time.  I have to say I don’t regret a lot.  Hindsight is always 20/20, as they say.  I try not to indulge in a lot of it.  Really, I have lived (and am living) a lucky, lucky life.

More by Norm:   Norm Roby
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