Joel Peterson of Ravenswood is legendary in the Bay Area wine scene. We were recently invited to tour the winery and certain vineyards close the Ravenswood team’s heart. We also dined on the vast patio space that they just opened up near the barrel room and tasting room. We drank Zinfandel while eating BBQ, listening to stories from Joel and winemaker Gary Sitton as the twilight faded to stars. As the kids say, “It didn’t suck.”
Joel founded Ravenswood in 1976 (and is pictured above around that time). His origin story involves multiple larger than life wine-and-foodie Bay Area experiences.
Growing up in Point Richmond, his father put him through rigorous “wine-smelling” tests while hosting friends for blind tastings. When he asked his ten-year-old son what a wine smelled like, and Joel said apples, the next time he would go to the store, buy a variety of apples, cut them up and ask, now which kind of apple?
The iconic Ravenswood logo—a logo that so many people have tattooed on their bodies that tasting room visitors so branded win a prize—was created by David Goines, who was dating Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse fame) at the time.
The last bit of Ravenswood lore we heard that night was especially cool. Joel told the tale of two ravens singing him “a throaty song,” an accompaniment while he handpicked grapes for his first harvest, alone, in the moonlight, until it rained. He and the grapes never felt a drop.
One might say Joel’s stories are operatic in scale, and one would be right. Joel loves opera. He named the winery after the character Edgardo Ravenswood in the Donizetti/Salvadore opera Lucia di Lammermoor, as well as the throaty ravens’ song.
Joel was the original winemaker for the label. Today, Gary Sitton—who first worked in the cellar at Ravenswood in 1999 and then moved on to other wineries—has now returned and is the head winemaker. Joel calls him the prodigal son. That night at the table, Gary said, “I believe in the wines we make and the way we make them. That’s why I came back. I believe in your vision.” And I believed him.
We were very lucky to taste through a wide variety of what Ravenswood has to offer on the upper end of what they produce (price-wise). Here are the greatest hits as I saw them.
2014 Ravenswood Pickberry Vineyards Red Blend, Sonoma County – 39.4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33.9% Merlot, 14.6% Malbec, 12.1% Petit Verdot. Dark fruit and floral earth. A / $50
2016 Ravenswood Congresso White Blend, Sonoma County – A mix of half Semillion and half Sauvignon Blanc, soft white peach and citrus with a rounded mouthfeel. B+ / $24
2015 Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley – Red fruit and lavender with an ashy, saline minerality and fine tannins. A- / $60
2015 & 2016 Ravenswood Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley – Mostly Zinfandel blended with some Petite Sirah and Carignan; the wines from the Teldeschi vineyard are bolder, more fruit forward, and ready to drink now. A- / $42
1999 Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley (in magnum) – A remarkably well-aged zin, with fully integrated bright fruit, earth, and acid. A / $NA
The vineyards we toured were lovely, as vineyards always are. The two they took us to have storied pasts of their own.
Old Hill Ranch Vineyard is one the oldest vineyards in Sonoma Valley, founded in 1851. It’s planted with Zinfandel and multiple other grapes like Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouchet, and more. Ravenswood makes their Old Hill offerings by co-fermenting the field blend grapes, and fermenting the Zinfandel separately. They blend just the right amounts of each before bottling.
The second vineyard on the itinerary, Barricia Vineyard, was the brainchild of Barbara Olesen and Patricia Herron, who purchased the land together in 1978. The vineyard name is a combination of their own monikers. Prior to being a winegrower, Patricia was appointed as a Superior Court Judge by Governor Jerry Brown, and soon after elected as the presiding judge of the Seventh Circuit Court in Contra Costa County.
The wine world is full of stories, but the history of Ravenswood is particularly vibrant. As are their wines. The magnum of 1999 Old Hill Zinfandel was so fresh, one might have confused it for a 2012. They make many high-end wines that are only available at their tasting room or to mailing list subscribers, so when you’re ready for a premium flight of the ravens, we can recommend from experience that you should head on over to Ravenswood in Sonoma County. Enjoy!