This week I had the opportunity to interview one of the most interesting and thought provoking winemakers around. On February 21st, Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker at Ravenswood Winery, will be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in Napa Valley. There, he will take his place beside many of the great American vintners including one of Joel’s early mentors, Andre Tchelistcheff. While Joel seemed genuinely surprised by the honor, many who know him are more surprised it had not happened sooner.
Ravenswood is a Zinfandel specialist, though they do produce a few other varietals in their County Series and Vintners Blend line ups. While these “go to” wines are exceedingly popular, it was Joel’s seven Single Vineyard Zinfandels that got my attention after reviewing the offerings from Big River and Barricia Vineyards. (Read Reviews) Both are exceptional yet individualistic Zinfandels and a very good value ($35) for artisanal wines. The wines, Joel says, “should be a reflection of the place” and not winemaker manipulations.
As you will see, Joel gives much of the credit for his desire to make wine to his father and the other men in his father’s wine club. Joel is also very proud that his son, Morgan Twain-Peterson is a successful winemaker with his own operation, Bedrock Wine Co.
While I could go on, you should really hear from this iconic pioneer of California’s heritage grape, Zinfandel, himself.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: How did your interest in wine begin?
Joel Peterson: My interest in wine began at home. My first memory of the taste of wine was a bottle of what I believe was Louis Martini Muscato Amabile that my parents allowed me to have a small taste of on Thanksgiving, when I was 8 or so years old. The explosive quality of the bubbles combined with the sweet honeysuckle taste was impossible to resist. I must have shown some interest because my father would frequently let me smell and taste his wine if he thought it was worthy. My father started a wine club in the late 1950 called the San Francisco Wine sampling club. He and his friends would taste many bottles of a particular genre of wine (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhinegau, et al), evaluate them and then he would write up the results and send them to other club members with a bottle of selected wine. At first I was allowed to help open bottles and later to sniff, sip and spit. My father was very early in attempts to define wine language. Whenever we discovered what he considered an elemental flavor, like apples for example, he would be sure we tried as many different types of apples as he could find to determine the range of flavor of apples so that these could be related back to the scents and flavors of wine. So I guess for me it was the love of flavor and the opportunity to do something with my father (he was not one to play baseball) that engendered my interest in wine.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: Did you have a formal viticulture education?
Joel Peterson: Virtually none, unless you count tasting innumerable bottles of wine from every corner of the wine producing planet. I also worked all my weekend and vacations with Joseph Swan from late 1972 to 1977 helping him build his winery, prune vines, and transform grapes to wine in the bottle. From Joe I learned not just the process of winemaking, but the ethic of winemaking, the meticulous care required and the necessity of leaving a little of yourself in each wine that you produce. While rather reserved Joe was, almost paradoxically, a very social man who taught me a good deal about wine as a social beverage that brought people together to share good food, fine conversation and occasional personal revelation. So, I guess you would say I had the viticultural and enological education of a working acolyte.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog:: Who has been you biggest wine influence?
Joel Peterson: From the winemaking standpoint it would have to be Joe Swan followed by Andre Tchelistcheff who was Joe’s friend and consultant. As luck would have it, Andre, who was the winemaker at Beaulieu for many years, was also the most important and influential wine master of his time. Time with Joe meant time with Andre. This was not necessarily a bad thing. ;-).
On the wine experience side of things, it was people who had been in my father’s wine group that shared their love of wine and opened their extensive, well stocked and beautifully mature cellars to a rather nomadic young man who had none and was unlikely to obtain one any time soon. These are people, who most in the wine world is unaware of today, who played a significant role in making the California wine business what it is today. Dr. Stan and Ruth Burton, Dr. Robert Knudson, Dr. William Dickerson, Dr. Dennis and Josephine Zeitlin, Karl Petrowsky and a number of others shared a compendium of exceptional and rare vintages of some of the most amazing wines that have ever been made. It was an experience and a generosity that would be hard to match today.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: How would you generally describe your wine making style?
Joel Peterson: Elemental. I use simple winemaking techniques to translate the flavor of the grape and the place to the bottle. I realize that some might quibble about that when it comes to my Vintners Blend wines, but the same ethic inspires those wines.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: What do you strive for in your wine making?
Joel Peterson: I strive to produce a wine that tastes good, is representative of the vintage, grapes and of the place where it is grown, and, especially with the single vineyard bottlings, will mature into something that is enchanting when it is well cellared.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: Single Vineyard Zinfandels, which is your personal favorite and which two are the most different?
Joel Peterson: I don’t have a personal favorite. All these vineyards have been chosen form all the vineyards that I work with over the years to be the most unique, high quality, and reliable. Dickerson Vineyard, a vineyard planted around 1920 in Napa Valley with it’s flavors of Raspberry, spice, mint and camphor is about as different from Old Hill Ranch, a vineyard planted about 1885 in Sonoma Valley to 14 different varieties intermingled among the Zinfandel with flavors of Blackberries, smoke, black pepper and dustiness, as you can get.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: Does your winemaking style / objectives change between vineyards or is it the same style making the only difference the grapes and terroir?
Joel Peterson: Winemaking style and objectives do not change much, nor have they changed much over the years. The changes and limits are defined by the vintage. Ultimately winemaking should be about the grapes and the terrior, not the manipulative ability of the winemaker.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: How much control do you have over the vineyard management & harvest? How do you exercise that control?
Joel Peterson: Quite a lot, and with the vineyards that make the Single Vineyard wines we have input into all activities that take place in the vineyard. We always choose harvest dates. Collaboration, communication, trust and working partnerships are the only controls that really work in this business.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: How long are your single vineyard contracts? How often do vineyards add or leave the line up?
Joel Peterson: They are multiple year, evergreen contracts that renew every year. I lost a vineyard, that would have been a long term vineyard designate, when Lou Preston bought it in 1982, and another couple in the late 1990’s when KJ co-opted the growers, but other than that there has been no turnover of what I consider my core vineyards.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: How have your day to day duties changed since the early days of Ravenswood?
Joel Peterson: There is less heavy physical work, which is probably a good thing given what happens to bodies over time, and there is more education and travel which is probably also advantageous because I am pretty good at one and enjoy the other.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: Do you ever wish you could put the “genie back in the bottle” and go back to the days of a small production winery?
Joel Peterson: I could go back to small winery production any time I wanted to, and who knows, I may some day. As you know, I have a son (Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co) who has started a small winery, so I get to live vicariously. But I must say that the life I lead and the things I am able to do in the wine world, while never envisioned by me, are endlessly engaging, fascinating, interesting and a bit of a wonder. So, no, I wouldn’t put the Genie back in the bottle, I have been given gifts that I wouldn’t even have known to ask for.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: What is the future of Zinfandel and the American wine consumer?
Joel Peterson: I believe the future is bright. There are many bright, talented winemakers, both young and older, working with this grape. The wines have improved markedly since I started. It is also California’s heritage wine. Like Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Chateauneuf du Pape it is the right grape in the right place, chosen by the people of the region, to make a special and unique wine. As a result, the popularity of Zinfandel, and the mixed blacks planted with it, has grown since I started making wine. and will continue to increase.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: What do you see as the biggest changes winemaking over the past 10-15 years?
Joel Peterson: The Changes in Technology and understanding of wine chemistry that have allowed large quantities of good inexpensive wine to be made from regions not traditionally associated with fine wine. This removed wine from the category of “esoteric drink” to the category of “Daily Beverage”.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: What are the biggest changes on the horizon?
Joel Peterson: Changes in the way wine is sold and a clear separation between Artisan wine and Beverage wine. Artisan wine will reflect the prejudices and abilities of an individual and Beverage wine will reflect the tastes of a consumer focus group. Both have their place.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: What is your favorite part of your job duties today…and least favorite part?
Joel Peterson: The favorite part would be interacting with people who consume my wine and sharing my other favorite part, time in the vineyards and with the wine. Least favorite part, as always, is paperwork.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: With so many wines available, how do you keep Ravenswood a consumer favorite?
Joel Peterson: By making the wines that I love and being true to my understanding of good wine. I always want the consumer to feel that when all else fails Ravenswood will be there for them and they will always get more than they expect at the price paid.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: How do you feel about your 2010 wines?
Joel Peterson: It was a complicated vintage, but on the whole quite good.
Bacchus and Beery Wine Blog: Any advice for an aspiring winemaker?
Joel Peterson:Taste as many wines as you can. Understand the possibilities. Travel and work in as many wine producing regions as you can while you are young. There is nothing like a good dose of Aussie optimism, Gallic pride, Kiwi reserve, and German efficiency to add to the complexity and skill that it takes to understand how to make good wine.