Lunch With Ravenswood Founder Joel Peterson


We live in a world where strong adjectives are thrown around loosely both by media types and everyday folks. The trouble with that is it can lessen the impact of those words when they’re used quite seriously and literally. I say this because I had the chance to have lunch with Joel Peterson recently; for me, as well as many other wine lovers, he’s a legend. As you may know he founded Ravsenswood Winery in Sonoma, and for all intents and purposes he’s the single most influential maker of Zinfandel, not to mention the most prolific.  What’s amazed me over the years is his ability to craft delicious, well made and consistently stylistic wines at a vast array of price points aimed at different audiences.
I happily accepted the invite to dine with him and taste some current Ravsenswood releases. I had no idea what we were specifically going to taste and was pleased to learn it was a range of his single vineyard Zinfandels and two of his proprietary blends. More than anything else it’s the single vineyard, designated wines that Joel’s reputation and his winery have been built on. The wines are routinely high scorers and he could have let them speak for themselves if he wanted. But Joel is an engaging and gregarious host and speaker so he regaled us at length about the history of the Ravenswood as well as his family’s personal wine history dating back to his mom’s induction into wine drinking when he was around 4 years old.

More than anything though Joel spoke about history and how it tied into many of the parcels of land he has sourced from for many years. One of the vineyards dates back to a civil war era planting and is the oldest planted in the state. In some cases such as with Dickerson he told us about the personal deals that were worked into the earliest versions of the contracts. With Dickerson in addition to the Ravenswood wines he bottled they required him to make some wine for them as well. As Joel told it the wines were identical in every way except name. However they never once got identical scores.

The most impressive two things about these wines, particularly the Zinfandels is the duality of how distinct they are from one to the other, coupled with the similarity in winemaking style and intent that ties them together. When it comes to this set of wines I believe Joel’s genius is also two-fold; he picked amazing vineyard sites, forging long term relationships with growers and then he stays out of the way, letting the fruit speak. So when you sip a wine like Ravenswood Big River, one of two that are 100% Zinfandel, you’re getting a pure expression of Alexander Valley Fruit. Similarly the Teldeschi from Dry Creek Valley has the elements one expects from what is the single best region for Zinfandel. Not surprisingly Petite Sirah and Carignane are part of the mix with the Teldeschi which is a classic example of a Zinfandel vineyard planted by Italian immigrants.  

30 some odd years into the history of Ravenswood it’s quite impressive to see the zeal and passion that Joel brings to his winemaking. For approximately 3 hours at The Modern in NYC Joel sat with a handful of us and not only gave his thoughts but listened to our questions and ideas. Doing it is one thing, bringing the enthusiasm to it that he does considering the many times he’s done this in the past, is notable to say the least.

For a winery and winemaker to be truly great consistency is a key. I find this true in any artistic pursuit. Ravsenswood has that consistency in spades over the long haul. Year after year the vineyard designate wines are well made and have the ability to age. Tastes vary and I have my favorites, but each of the wines we tasted was delicious in its own right. That said I’d imagine every one of them will benefit from several years of additional bottle age. The full flavored yet natural and classic style these wines are made in makes them, without exception food friendly. The folks I dined with ate everything from beef and pork to seafood and vegetable dishes. There are many Zinfandels out there that have a hard time marrying up with food because they’re either too big, too hot or in many cases, both. The Ravsenswood wines are the antithesis of that overblown style. There are in every way proportionate.

A veritable sea of wine awaits us all on shelves and in tasting rooms to sample. It’s impossible to try everything hard as one might try. I know for me I sometimes get caught up trying so many new things that I occasionally overlook circling back with a long term and reliable producer. When it comes to Ravenswood, and the wines of Joel Peterson, that would be a huge mistake. If you haven’t had one of his wines in awhile this is a great time to go back. Considering the reputation, they’re quite reasonably priced. If on the other hand you’ve never had one of the vineyard designate Ravenswood wines, you’re in for a real treat. Make a point of reaching for one. You can thank me later.

Gabe Sasso

Founder of Gabe’s View

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: atonalprime
    Hand of Snooth
    157790 1,415

    What a great experience this must have been -- I've always been a huge fan of Ravenswood and it was probably the first label to really hook me into appreciating wine. Its very interesting to hear a little more history behind this magnificent winery.

    Oct 06, 2009 at 4:35 PM

  • Snooth User: maud130
    228715 51

    We visited Ravenswood in 1990 during the crush and I was very impressed by the large, benign fruit fly population. Their presence signaled an unsterile atmosphere and their demeanor... well, they seemed happy.
    It was probably the best winery visit we did. We tasted from barrels and were allowed to get an impression.

    Oct 07, 2009 at 12:19 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 6,198

    Thanks for the insights into Peterson and Ravenswood. Any tasting notes you'd care to share with us?

    Oct 07, 2009 at 2:09 PM

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