IMBIBE: Ravenswood Soars at 40

By on September 6, 2016

Celebrating four decades of American Zin.

160907Imbibe_origJACKSON HOLE, WY – If you happen to be in the vicinity of Sonoma on Sunday, Sept. 11, you might want to swing by Ravenswood Winery on Gehricke Road. That’s the venue for Ravenswood Winery’s 40th anniversary party, where you can blend your own Ravenswood Icon wine, taste the newly released 2014 Zinfandels, enjoy a barbecue and groove to the sounds of Ten Foot Tone and The Cork Pullers. The price: $40, of course.

Thankfully, you don’t have to travel to Sonoma to taste Ravenswood’s iconic California Zins. At least some of the winery’s selections are readily available at many wine stores.

It is said that ravens circled overhead on the day in 1976 when Ravenswood founding winemaker Joel Peterson completed his first harvest—hence the winery’s name. In the four decades since, Ravenswood has become California’s leading producer of Zinfandel.

It’s interesting, and a little ironic, that Joel Peterson—who’s been dubbed “The Godfather of Zin”—has a background in microbiology and worked as a medical researcher. I say that this is ironic because he doesn’t make “modern science” wines. Rather, they’re old school, insofar as Peterson practices the art of traditional winemaking as found in Burgundy and Bordeaux. And, his best wines come from old, gnarly, pre-Prohibition, dry-farmed, low-production vineyards. He utilizes wild yeast fermentation in open-top fermenters, and the wines undergo long aging in small French oak barrels. They’re neither over-oaked, nor sugar-coated. As Joel Peterson once told me, “Our goal is to exalt the grape, not overwhelm it.”

In conjunction with their 40th anniversary, the winery is also having a sort of homecoming, as Gary Sitton, who began his wine industry career at Ravenswood in 1999, has returned to take over the position of director of winemaking. The two winemakers—Peterson and Sitton—have collaborated on a special commemorative, 40th anniversary bottling of Zinfandel blending grapes from Ravenwood’s world-class Old Hill, Teldeschi and Barricia vineyards. Unfortunately, the 40th Anniversary Ravenswood Zin is only available in gift boxes at the winery. However, you can, and should, treat yourself to the Ravenswood Single Vineyard Designate wines produced with grapes from the aforementioned vineyards.

Ravenswood’s Single Vineyard Designates is a wine series that’s all about terroir. These are vineyard locations that are ideally suited to the grapes grown there: old, low-yield vines which are site-specific. Two thousand and thirteen Ravenswood Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel Napa Valley ($33) is the most refined and elegant of the Single Vineyard Designate Zins, offering up notes of mint and eucalyptus, along with sweet mid-palate raspberry and currant fruit flavors that are well-balanced by the wine’s acidity.

I recently had the good fortune of tasting 2013 Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($58), made in part from Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel grapes that are thought to date back as far as 1855. This is a wine that will be terrific 10 years from now, but if you’re in a hurry and can’t wait a decade, be sure to decant it. It’s a muscular, assertive wine with well-balanced acidity and mineral undertones leading to a long, lovely finish.

For a weighty wine with lots of black fruit flavors, think in terms of 2013 Ravenswood Barricia Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($35). It’s a dense, rich wine which, according to Peterson, has a high percentage of petite sirah in it. Save it for a dark and stormy night.

For less cash, Ravenswood also produces very good everyday Zins like their 2013 Vintners Blend Old Vine Zinfandel ($13), 2013 Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel ($15), and 2014 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($15). Personally, I’m raising a glass to the next 40 years of ravishing Ravenswood wines. PJH

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