It was a dark and stormy night when Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson flew into Vancouver bearing some of his vineyard-designated zinfandels. He’d invited about 30 or so media and industry members to the Flying Pig in Yaletown for a tasting of his wines paired with some extraordinary comfort food, none of which disappointed. And to complete the package, Peterson provided entertainment by telling stories about the Sonoma County vineyards. It was one part history lesson and one part standup comedy.
Most people know Ravenswood from the Vintner’s Blend Zinfandel, a hearty blend of zinfandel made from grapes grown throughout California. It is the wine that has made this “Godfather of Zin” quite rich. In 2001 Constellations Brands bought Ravenswood and now distributes a half million cases of Vintner’s Blend, making it the “most consumed” zinfandel in the world. But, Peterson is still in control.
“I’m the last voice on everything,” he told me. “There’s not one blend that goes out of the winery without my blessing.”
But what most people don’t know is that Ravenswood doesn’t actually own its own vineyards. The winery was built by sourcing grapes from some of the best vineyards in Northern California and keeping those relationships tight, as we were soon to realize.
After appetizers with the Vintner’s Blend Zinfandel and Chardonnay, we got pours of the 2010 Chardonnay from Sangiacomo Vineyard in the windy Carneros region in southernmost Sonoma County. The rich, lightly-buttered wine tasted perfect with the Quadra Island honey mussels with tomzito corn and speck broth.
Then, as the servers poured two glasses of zinfandel, Peterson announced:
“We’ve moved to real wine, we’ve had enough of that nasty white stuff and into red stuff.”
Lodi and Sonoma County Old Vines
“On your left,” he said,” the 2009 Lodi Old Vines have an average age of 85 years. Lodi is a very warm region, with sandy soils and some petite syrah. Wines end up softer, more forward, and rounder as a result of that.
“The 2009 Sonoma County Old Vines average age is 90 years. They’re closer to the ocean, where it’s much cooler and soils are much more severe. The vines make smaller berries, so you get more aromatics and what we call baking spice characteristics.”
With those zins we were served Bromme Lake duck duo, braised leg, sweet pea garganelli, crispy duck breast cases and red wine reduction
I found the Sonoma County Zin to have bright black, candied fruit on the nose and palate with good acidity and a round body and flavors.
The Lodi is indeed blueberry forward with big spices, pepper and tannins, but much softer than the Sonoma County.
Both are excellent with the duck and pasta, so it was win-win there.
Barricia and Old Hill Vineyards
Next up was the Barricia 2008 Zinfandel and the 2008 Old Hill Zinfandel
Peterson warned, “I want you to know that you have two of the oldest vine plantings in California. They’re about six miles apart, both in the Sonoma Valley, so they both have baking spice flavor associated with them.”
He explained how the Baricia was originally planted in 1858 by General Joseph Hooker, from whom the term ‘hooker’ is derived. Baricia, is the contraction of two names: Barbara and Patricia.
“Hooker sold the vineyard to George Washington Whitaker who sold it to Samuel Shepard, who sold the vineyard to George Hearst, William Randolph Hearst’s father. The vines that you have in your glass were planted by Hearst in 1884-86. All old vineyards had other grapes, so it’s 85% zin, the rest is petite sirah and a little carignan.”
The Baricia had a strange nose of dirty socks but the body was giant and deep, with spicy notes and ripe fruit and a touch of acidity.
“Old hill ranch was planted in 1860 by a guy name William Mcpherson Hill,” he continued. “In 1860 nobody had a clue what to plant in California so they tried everything. The vineyard is 51% zin, and 49% other varieties. It’s an amazing historic vineyard and in my opinion the best vineyard in California, currently farmed by Phil Cuturri, an amazing organic farmer.”
The Old Hill Zin was chewy and dense with toffee, fig, chocolate and black fruit and a long dry finish.
“These wines are made the same way: open top fermenters, pushed down by hand, 35% new oak, 18 months in barrel – really classic winemaking. But the wines speak of the vineyard of the place and the character of the grapes.”
With those wines we enjoyed a duo of vension, bacon wrapped venison striploin, skillet roasted chop, parsnip puree with wild cherries.
The Baracia was good with the dish, but I found that the Old Hill set off the bacon-wrapped venison striploin like a string to a kite. Something about the bacon and the wild cherries married so well with the toffee notes in the zin, it made me declare the Old Hill the winner of this pairing.
The Teldeschi zinfandel was bulging with black cherries and berries, but despite its density, it is the most elegant of the bunch. The finish seems never ending. It pairs amazingly with the beef, which I can not finish, being completely stuffed and heated with wine.
During that course, Peterson told his longest story yet about how he came to buy grapes from the Teldeschi family, who are one of the oldest continuing grape growers in California.
“The vines were planted in 1900 and still farmed by same family that planted them – cross cultivated and effectively organically farmed except they won’t designate it organic because they don’t want any rules. Like, ‘don’t tell me what to do even if its what I do anyway.’
“This wine was made the same as the other two wines,” he said. “It’s from Dry Creek bench land, tuscan red hill sort of soils with a little petite sirah and carignan. And it tastes pretty darn good. Lots of black cherry, vanilla and lots of really cool stuff. So, enjoy!”
We did and when dessert came around – a plate of Chevrot cheese brulee, candied pecans and fresh fruit with the Ravenswood Late Harvest Gewurztraminer – I could barely look at them I felt so sated.
So we said our goodbyes to our generous and amiable host and set out into the wet night, feeling a little like pigs, but pigs who would fly like ravens if we could.