Zinfandel Maker Stood Fast against Wimpy Wines

By DeSimone, Dave | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

Zinfandel Maker Stood Fast against Wimpy Wines


DeSimone, Dave, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


The smoky aroma of grilling meats and vegetables invites wine drinkers to break out the quintessential American red wine: full- flavored red zinfandels, our nation's gift to the wine drinking world.

The best red zinfandels reflect the character of California's greatest grape-growing terroirs and the passionate personal stories of the winemakers.

Among the many outstanding zinfandel producers in California, Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma County stands as a master. His wines are at once intense and full-flavored, while balancing the good structure and refreshing acidity necessary for superb food wines.

While growing up in northern California, Paterson learned about the world's wines at Friday night tastings with his parents -- both chemists -- and developed an appreciation for intense, but well- balanced, red wines with food.

"My father was fond of saying that gin is a whole lot faster and cheaper if you want to get drunk," Peterson says. "Wine, on the other hand, is all about flavor, taste and history."

After graduating from college, Peterson imagined himself making wines to rival the best of the Old World even as he pursued a career in biomedical research.

"I didn't get my first real paycheck from Ravenswood until 1987," he says, so he kept his "day job" well into the 1990s. "From the beginning, it was a labor of love focused around red wine."

During his first harvest, Peterson picked 4 tons of grapes himself, filling 50-pound boxes, as the autumn rains loomed and cackling cries of ravens harassed him. In native American lore, he says, the raven is a devilish trickster god as well as a savior who gives humans fire and light.

The harvest proved a success as the first wines laid the foundation for Peterson's reputation for red wines of uncompromising quality. Shortly thereafter, Peterson named the winery for the ravens and for the tragic figure of Edgardo Ravenswood in Gaetano Donizetti's opera, "Lucia di Lammermoor."

"The name fit into what I was doing and with what was happening in my life," Peterson says. "It just felt right."

He also developed his trademark "No Wimpy Wines" motto early in his career, when consumers had just begun clamoring for so-called "white zinfandels," off-dry, pink-colored soft wines. While pleasant enough in an easy quaffing sort of way, these bland and undistinguished bottles were the antithesis of Peterson's idea of what wines should be. …

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