Joel Peterson took his first steps in his wine life in 1973, at that time as a wine writer and consultant with a weekend job at Joseph Swan Winery in Russian River. Although Joseph Swan was (or were soon to be) famous for his pinots, he told the young Joel no to grow Pinot Noir because it was too demanding and difficult. Instead Zinfandel caught Joels interest. “At that time, there were a lot of old vineyards with Zinfandel in Sonoma, but few winemakers seemed to be interested to buy them, therefore I travelled around Sonoma to look at the vineyards, and later on to buy some grapes. In 1981 he and Reed Foster (a business man) founded Ravenswood.
Over the years, Joel Peterson and Ravenswood have been the leading forces behind the great success of Zinfandel. Or, the transition from being a booring grape destined for sweet pink colored White Zinfandel into something deliscious and serious. Today Zinfandel is, with its 20 383 hectares in production, the third most widely planted grape variety in California. Only Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are more important.
On the entry level, Ravenswood makes a quite average but acceptable Zinfandel Vintners Blend that reflects the grape variety without being distinct. I much more prefer the not particular more expensive appellation series, with an elegant and fruit forward Mendocino County Zinfandel, a more ripe and intense Sonoma County Zinfandel, a well structured Napa Valley Zinfandel and the Lodi Zinfandel, a wine with a lush body and a slightly more sweet scented fruit. But it is in the vineyard designated wines the true gems are to be found. These wines show that Zinfandel also can be transparent, that its wines can reflect terroir.
All the vineyard designated wines are made in more or less the same way. Some stems may be included in the vat, but most often all bunches are destemmed. Fermentation takes place in open top fermenters of old redwood and it’s always carried out with the indigenous yeast. Like for Pinot Noir, pigeage is utilized for extraction. The malolactic fermentation in the zinfandels is slow, very slow – sometimes the wines needs up to one year to complete it! The wines are then matured in small oak casks, for this quality most of them are French, 30 percent to brand new, for up to 18 months.
“I always make more wines than I need from each single vineyard, that allows me to make a strict selection of which barrels I’d like to use to the vineyard designated wines – the barrels that doesn’t make the cut, are blended into my regular Vintners Blend”, Joel says.
2002 Zinfandel Old Hill / 92 p
The Old Hill vineyard is probably one the oldest in Sonoma County. It was planted already in 1854, but was replanted in the 1870s and 1880s by William Hill. Joel Peterson once told me, this vineyard probably served as a nursery in the past. “Side by side to the Zinfandel vines, you’ll find other grape varieties, at least 20 of them, such as Alicante Bouschet, Malbec, Touriga Nacional and Petite Sirah”, he said. Not enough to make a descent volume of wine from each grape, but highly interesting to add to the blend. This is also how Joel Peterson uses these grapes in this wine. “As a spice”, he says. Since the vines are very old, the yields are extremely low, barely a half bottle of wine per vines.
Some wine critics claims that zinfandels should be drunk within five to ten years, and that may be true in many cases, but even after eight years this wine still shows its sweet scented primary fruit qualities, yet with a slight touch of secondary complexity. And that’s just fine, that’s the way it should be. Tannins are fine and silkier than in the Monte Rosso selection, but still the structure is there to hold up body. In the lingering aftertaste, there are notes of sweet tobacco and dried fruits, but less of that alcohol warmth (alcohol is only 14.2 percent in this wine) you find in the Monte Rosso wine. Production this year was 395 cases.
Drink it 2010-2016.
2002 Zinfandel Monte Rosso / 92 p
The southwest facing Monte Rosso Vineyard is one of the finest for red wines in Sonoma Valley, or actually at 250 to 360 meters of altitude above the valley floor, where the soil is rocky and dominated of a red volcanic soil (hence the name). It was planted with Zinfandel already in the 1880s, and of a total of 102 hectares, there’s as much as 16.20 hectares with vines from that time! The history says the cuttings came directly from Croatia, and therefore it’s likely that these clones are the oldest and most close to Creljenak Castelanski, the most ancient and original type of Zinfandel that was brought into United States in the 1830s. This vineyard was once owned by Louis M Martini, but when they sold their company to the Gallo family in 2002, they also sold this unique vineyard.
The wine is made in the same way as the one from quite nearby Old Hill, but the structure is much more firm due to the slightly cooler site, and the poor volcanic soil. The nose is just lovely, the still youthful dark and sweet fruit play around with the first signs of more complex secondary flavors, there’s actually a kind of stony mineral note that’s very attractive. Even though the tannins still are firm – in a way they hold back the fruit a bit – there’s enough fruit to make the taste, and the lingering aftertaste, very interesting. The 15.4 percent of alcohol stated on the label is very well integrated. Compared to the Old Hill selection, this wine offers fine notes of dried fruit such as prunes and raisins, which is quite common in ripe zinfandels. Still this wine hasn’t reached its perfect maturity yet. There was 3 075 cases made of this wine.
Drink it 2012-2018.