A little over a couple of months ago now, I received an invitation from a PR firm to meet with the winemaker from Ravenswood Winery. Even though I am far from a Zinfandel fanatic, I have popped countless bottles of Ravenswood Zin and I have always been impressed. And while I have never visited the winery, in the town of Sonoma, it remains near the top of my “wineries-to-visit” for another reason: I have read several stories about Ravenswood’s legendary founder and winemaker, Joel Peterson, and I have always wanted to meet him.
[I am aware that the word “legendary” is oft considered a cliché, and that most “good” writers should certainly avoid it, but one who is referred to as “the Godfather of Zin” has to be considered a “legend.”]
Thus, without perusing the email invitation with any sort of precision, I answered quickly and succinctly: “Sure! I would love to have lunch with Joel and taste through the wines!”
A moment or two later, I received another email from the PR firm:
Ha! Unfortunately no surprise appearance by Joel 😊
I then returned to the original email, confused and panicked as to why I received both a “Ha!” and a smiley face. I needed to look no further than the email’s subject line:
Meeting with Ravenswood’s Winemaker, Gary Sitton
Gary Sitton had worked at Ravenswood early in his winemaking career, starting as a cellar worker in 1999, steadily making his way up to winemaker under Joel Peterson during his nearly 8-year long stint at the winery. Constellation Brands, who acquired Ravenswood in 2001, recognized Gary’s talent and potential and offered him a job as head winemaker at another of their holdings, Blackstone in 2008.
After three years at Blackstone, Gary moved on to another, and much larger, Constellation winery, Clos du Bois, where he was the head winemaker for five years. When Joel decided to “wind things down a bit” at Ravenswood, it was easy for Gary to accept the dual position of Head Winemaker and General Manager at the winery that he had long considered his home.
Gary, who is originally from Bakersfield where his parents still grow pistachios and Clementines, had little interest in changing the direction of Ravenswood, which since 1976 has been known by its slogan: “No wimpy wines.” Instead, he has continued the focus on terroir driven wines and showcasing California Zinfandel; a grape that was “born” in Croatia “and travelled the world until it found its home in California.”
Although Ravenswood is perhaps best known for the ubiquitous workhorse, the Vintner’s Blend, Gary brought with him his Single Vineyard Zinfandels, a series of six wines whose fruit is all sourced from other growers, where at least part of the goal is to promote Sonoma’s old vine vineyards to ensure their longevity. He uses indigenous yeast to ferment the wines in open top fermenters, aging the wines in 100% French oak barrels, 30% of which are new. Each wine is under 1,000 cases in production and retail for $42 (except the Old Hill, which is $60).
2015 Ravenswood Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel Napa Valley: 100% Zinfandel. On Zinfandel Lane. Planted in 1930. Most elegant of the Zins since there is a bit of virus in the vineyard which keeps the acidity high and prevents the big jamminess. This wine has blackberry, raspberry, and good earth notes on the nose. Very nice on the palate with good, but not boisterous fruit. Good earthiness and nice acid. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2015 Ravenswood Big River Vineyard Zinfandel Alexander Valley: 100% Zinfandel. Along the Russian River in Alexander Valley. Planted in 1893. Grafted to St. George rootstock. Dark red fruit with black pepper. Juicy and full but plenty going on the midpalate. Finishes with really nice fruit and acidity. Lovely. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel Russian River Valley: 75% Zinfandel and 25% “Mixed Blacks.” Vineyard planted in 1900. Co-fermented field blend consisting of Carignane, Petite Sirah, and about 10% Alicante Bouschet. Blue fruit and a touch of earth. A good pairing with the roasted boar papardelle. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma Valley: Retail $60. 96.8% Zinfandel, 3.2% “Mixed Blacks.” Planted 1885. 40 different varieties planted in the vineyard. Co-fermented field blend. A luscious nose, of red and black fruit, really inviting. Lean and structured at the outset, this clearly has the best aging potential. Just a baby, but this is big without being aggressive. Bold without being obnoxious. Whoa. This will be a killer in a couple of years. Outstanding to Outstanding Plus. 93-95 Points. Can easily go 20-25 years, but starting in about ten would hit a sweet spot. Fantastic.
2015 Ravenswood Barricia Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma Valley: 81.3% Zinfandel, 18.7% Petite Sirah. Red clay loam soil, planted in 1892. Earthy, spicy, and dusty. The Petite Sirah, which is vinified separately, is usually between 15-20% of the blend and helps to shore up the Zin from this vineyard, which tends to be a bit thin mid palate. Riper and bigger. The PS really makes this a bigger, brawnier wine. Not my style, but very nice. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Ravenswood Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley: 78.2% Zinfandel, 15.8% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane, 1% Alicante Bouschet. Planted in 1913-1915 by one of the famed families of Dry Creek Valley. Black and blue fruit from the warmest vineyard of the six vineyards. Tends to be the most popular in the tasting room. Jammy but far from over the top. Great acidity. I see why this is more popular. A really fun wine that is balanced and really wonderful. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
So I have still not met Joel Peterson, but after chatting with Gary and tasting his wines, I now have a new reason to finally make it to Ravenswood in Sonoma.