National Zinfandel Day: An Interview With Ravenswood Founder Joel Peterson

15 11 2018

By Raymond Lamontagne

Happy National Zinfandel Day! Although we do not feature many interviews on Pop & Pour, we felt that the chance to publish a Q & A correspondence that I recently had with Joel Peterson of Ravenswood, commonly described as California’s “godfather of Zin”, would be a consummate way to celebrate, especially when paired with tasting notes for one of Ravenswood’s most iconic wines. To me, Zin embodies a key dialectic at play within wine appreciation: that between elegance, austerity and grace on the one hand, and sheer hedonism, richness and bold frivolity on the other. As an avowed disciple of Pinot Noir, you can deduce which pole of the dialectic I might ultimately prefer. However, wine is so immensely enjoyable precisely because there is ample diversity, so many different experiences to chase down and absorb. And I do like having my mind blown by huge flavours as much as the next bon vivant. If I am being honest with myself, a well-crafted Zinfandel may do a better job of resolving this particular dialectical dilemma than almost any other black grape:


There are some very specific cherry varieties listed here. I approve. (

The best Zins feature succulent, approachable berry fruit in lockstep with robust secondary flavours of smoke and spice, all festooned on a moderately formidable structure of fresh acidity and fine ripe tannins. They are fun and serious in equal measure: light yet dark, carefree yet intense, simple yet complex. Joel Peterson masterminds just this sort of Zin.

A microbiologist by education, Peterson worked full time in cancer immunology research before turning what was a passionate hobby into a new calling. He sat in on a wine tasting hosted by his father at the callow age of 10, (presumably) obeying his father’s strict instuctions to “shut up and spit!”. His knowledge base expanded quickly as a teenager, and by the time he was doing medical research he was also earning additional money as a wine writer and consultant. Joel made the jump to full-time winemaker by mentoring under Zinfandel guru Joseph Swan and then finally co-founding Ravenswood with fellow winemaker and MBA Reed Foster. Joel now works with more than a hundred northern California growers who provide the grapes for Ravenswood, consulting on irrigation, cropping, cultivation practices, and other vineyard issues, with all this hard work paying off in what has become one of America’s most consistent and best-known Zin brands. Let’s hear from the man himself, a known contrarian always ready with a strong  but well-supported opinion. The questions are mine, the answers are his.


Winemaker and founder Joel Peterson in the barrel room at Sonoma’s Ravenswood Winery. Photo credit: Courtesy of Ravenswood Winery

What would you say is Zinfandel’s “calling card”, or unique varietal signature?

JP:  Zinfandel is the only fine wine with an American reference point. There are no limitations when it comes to what can be made from this black-skinned wine grape, as its moderate tannin and adequate acidity make it bold in taste. Few other varieties have this diversity. In addition, few other varieties are as sensitive to the place that it is planted as Zinfandel.  The terroir characteristics for Zinfandel in Sonoma, Napa, Lodi, Amador, Mendocino and Paso Robles are distinctly different, but equally pleasing.

To what extent does Zin require an interventionist or highly technical winemaking approach? What winemaking techniques allow this grape to show its best?

JP:  Zinfandel is often praised for its ability to reflect both its terroir and its winemaker’s style and skill, though modern winemaking techniques have helped to make Zinfandel a more approachable grape. We stand by our love of old-vine varieties and our belief in traditional Old World winemaking as practiced in Bordeaux and Burgundy. As a founding California winery who put Zinfandel on the map, Ravenswood continues to set a standard for uncompromising wines that are true to the place where the grapes are grown – nothing less, nothing more. Ravenswood’s “No Wimpy Wines” credo says it all – embrace the bold, abhor the bland.

 The best Zinfandels are made with very little intervention.  Careful attention to ripeness associated with picking decisions are very important.  At Ravenswood we use indigenous yeast and small open to fermenters for our best wines to ensure character of place. The best wines reflect place and grape character and are not over manipulated.

Does soil type have an impact on Zin‘s aroma and flavour profile? 

JP:  Yes, soil profile does play a role.  The best Zinfandel vineyard in California are dry farmed (farmed with little or no irrigation).  The soils need to retain enough moisture to get the vines through the growing season, but not retain so much moisture as to give the vines “wet feet”.  California’s volcanic, or granitic, or sandy loam soils do this quite nicely. Farming in this manner keeps a rather vigorous vine in check.  It also keeps the crops production lower and the cluster smaller.  This leads to more intensely flavored complex wines.

Has the question of Zinfandel’s parentage, a rather contentious issue, been truly resolved?

JP:  In 2002, it was confirmed that Zin’s source is a Croatian grape, originally from the Dalmation coast, where it’s known as Tribidrag.  There are many references to this grape in the historical record.  The oldest is a commercial transaction in 1488. It was one of the primary grapes planted by Venetian nobility on the Dalmation Coast between 1200 and 1600.  There are many grapes around the Adriatic that are offspring of Zinfandel (e.g., Plavac Mali, Babic and even a white grape called GRK).  Zinfandel made its reputation known in California and is considered a heritage grape of the state. Many people do consider it an American varietal due to the long unknown ancestry of the grape and its prevalence in the region – truthfully our growing conditions are better suited than in Croatia.  As much as it can be resolved, it is. 

How does one handle Zin‘s tricky tendency to display different rates of ripening within the same bunch?

JP:  The grape is not difficult to grow. It tends to be vigorous and high production in its youth, but Zinfandel vines do self-regulate with age. Of course, its distinctive characteristic is its uneven ripening.  That is one of the things that makes the wines interesting. A winemaker needs to pay particular attention to the “gestalt” of the vineyard.  Enough slightly withered grapes are needed on each bunch to give the wine richness and ripe flavors, but not so many as to make the wine taste of raisins or over-ripe.  These slightly overripe grapes combined with the perfectly ripe berries and some slightly under-ripe grapes provide the wine with fresh berry flavors and perfect acidity.  If you miss the correct pick point the wines are either thin if picked too early, or overripe, alcoholic and awkward if picked too late. The nature of the grape makes it perfectly adapted to the California climate and allows it to thrive in a way that it hadn’t in other environments. In California, virtually all the rain falls in the winter. In the spring and summer, the humidity is low with hot to warm days and cool, marine-influenced nights. This is perfect for a grape that ripens relatively early and rots fairly easily if it gets wet at the wrong time.

What makes Zinfandel stand out in a world full of “classic” black grapes like Cabernet or Pinot Noir? Can Zin truly compete with these noble grapes?

JP:  Zinfandel has the potential to stand out in a world of “classic” black grapes like Cabernet and Pinot Noir because of its heritage in California. These are some of the oldest vines in California and among the oldest wine-producing vines in the world. It is a complex variety to grow but it can produce exceptional wines that meet if not surpass some examples of Californian Cabernet and Pinot Noir in complex flavor profile, tannin structure, and ageing potential.  Zinfandel is every bit as noble as any of the other grapes.  It is in fact one of the oldest grape varieties that is considered one of the popular varieties currently made into wine.  It is one of the 13 or so “founder varieties” from which all other grapes in Europe are derived.

Has the variety’s popularity increased? Decreased? Stayed the same? What do you see as Zin‘s future in the marketplace?

JP:  Zin’s popularity has waxed and waned, just as other grapes have had their moments.  Currently “red blends” (which frequently have a lot of Zin in them) and Pinot Noir are popular.  Zin has had an annual growth rate of about 3% over the years that I have made it.  Interestingly, in the US the average selling price for a bottle of Zinfandel is greater than that for Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir.  There are many smaller producers that are producing exquisite single vineyard designated old vine Zinfandels that are wine lovers’ delights (e.g. Bedrock Wine Co, Carlisle, Turley, Biale, and of course, Ravenswood). Zinfandel has always been a mainstay of the California wine business and will continue to be so.  Many of California’s oldest and most interesting vineyards are planted to Zinfandel.


[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

2015  Ravenswood Old Vines Zinfandel Vintner’s Blend (~$18)

Released under the broad “California” AVA designation, this wine includes carefully selected grapes from old vines across northern California, a blend intended to acheive an approachable, balanced, “drink now” style that can serve as gateway to Ravenwood’s impressive array of majestic site-specific offerings. Call it what you will, so long as its not “wimpy”, which appears to be the dirtiest word in the Ravenswood lexicon if its website content (and the interview responses above) are to be believed. Well, good news: this is wimp free.

There are some of those classic non-fruity notes on the nose that I adore about this varietal, notes suggestive of oak but also of a key interaction between the wood and this grape’s unique composition: subtle BBQ smoke,  fresh damp clay, singed cornstalks, black peppercorns, sandalwood incense, new rubber tires, old crumbling pumice stones from a rusty gas grill. Only Zin can do this. Of course there is a bounty of berries, some fresh and some jammy. I get big blossoms of boysenberry and sundry other members of the blackberry-raspberry complex. Ever have a loganberry? Me neither, but I bet they taste like this (I HAVE had boysenberries).


Cork Rating: 4/10 (Distressingly synthetic, but decent graphics.)

I get the emphasis on balance here. Some of the fruits are red and tart (cranberry, just a wisp), while others are veering into classic dark cherry and berry jam territory, and a third guard of flavours brings the seasoning: allspice, the aforementioned pepper, and thyme, much like Jamaican Jerk without the chili burn. Another idiosyncratic Zin note, black tea, emerges late, as though someone poured some tea into Jell-o before it went into the fridge to set. The structural components are ripe, sumptuous, and alluring, velvet ropes rather than a garrote. I’m plenty content to just lean back and enjoy rather than yearn for something more stark and challenging. Mental sleight of hand, or sound dialectical reasoning? Screw it, its tasty.

90 points



One response

19 11 2018
The Week in Zinfandel (11/12/18) | Zinfandel Chronicles

[…] Raymond Lamontagne writes National Zinfandel Day: An Interview with Ravenswood Founder Joel Peterson. […]


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