By Rick Riozza

California really has its mark on its own “native” red wine. The low-key arrival of the Zinfandel vine from the Croatia area back in the 1850s was cultivated up in Northern Cal, but there’s no question that everyone cherishes Zin to be our own state wine. Indeed—isn’t the Golden Bear on our state flag caught trouncing upon Zinfandel grapes?

And the wine can be a heavy hitter when it comes to its full-bodied character. It’s been known to take down the richest of barbequed ribs and the most garlicky slew of snails and sausages. But sometimes, we can experience its doppelgänger robed in elegance, with similar complexities of a Bordeaux and/or—dare we say, of a Red Burgundy.

The Lord looks kindly upon us “Zinners”—and even though we will continually complain about this style of Zin or that, this winemaking technique or that, the terroir on the eastern hills or that near the coast, through it all, we are blessed to enjoy the entire spectrum of what our beloved Zinfandel grape provides. And there’s a real following among us Californians and other worldly inhabitants who just go crazy over this stuff!


Joel Peterson was already a wine wise guy before he could legally buy a glass of wine at the only wine bar in the county. By the mid-1970s, he was learning to make wine with the best of them up in Napa.

Joel was the Founder and Winemaker of Ravenswood Winery since 1976 where in that first year he produced around 327 cases of Zinfandel. In 2001, two years after going public, Ravenswood was bought by Constellation Brands for million$! Fortunately, for us Zinners, Peterson remained. Thus Ravenswood is one of the few wineries that has had the philosophical and winemaking skill of one winemaker for over 30 years, contributing to a consistency and quality rarely found in California. We’re always hearing about multimillionaires becoming winemakers—but, this is an even better story where a winemaker became a multimillionaire.

Joel works with 100+ growers that provide grapes for Ravenswood annually, consulting on irrigation practices, cultivation practices, cropping levels and other vineyard management practices.  Definitely a wine pioneer, as a long time participant and observer of the California wine industry —he easily gets the moniker Godfather of Zin

Upon beginning my interview with Peterson, I mentioned that my son Paolo and I recently opened a 1975 Joseph Swan Zinfandel—it was delicious, silky, and elegant similar to a well-aged Pinot Noir. Peterson was pleasantly whisked back to that vintage: “You know—we made that very wine when I was part of the winemaking team headed by my mentor, Joe Swan—a lot of great stories back then.”

A lot of you Zinners and general wine enthusiasts know of Peterson by the mass-produced, California appellation Ravenswood Vintners Blend wines found in supermarkets across the country.  But do you know that he is still producing some of the most terroir-driven Zinfandels in California?

He’s known to make his single-vineyard Zinfandel to age. However, having the pleasure to sample three bottles of the latest 2011 releases, I found the wine to be—of course, fresh, but also quite quaffable and enjoyable with a meal. And thank God for the seamless tannins that were present along with a balance of classic red and black fruit, layers of complexities, and textbook acidity. The subtle richness of French oak was evident without being over the top. These wines are a real treat and I recommend them to all wine lovers.

Great to hear the Godfather simply speak about his wines:

The 2011 Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel—I tried to get Joel to admit that Belloni was the most Italian among the thre wines I tasted (Primitivo is genetically a southern Italian Zin—albeit Belloni was from Parma, further north!) but Belloni’s vineyard make-up has changed over the last hundred years. (Peterson says the “Barricia vineyard” bottling is more Italian) Belloni vineyard is located in the cool Russian River Valley and the production results are of a classic concentration and finesse. The wine owns alluring aromas of blackberry jam, boysenberry, wood smoke, and plum, with highlights of pine, tobacco, lavender, and licorice. The mouthwatering, velvety tannins combine perfectly with beautiful natural acidity and a lush, lingering finish.

The 2011 Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel—Farmed from 80+ year old vines on the west side of the Napa Valley. The 2011 Dickerson is an excellent example of Napa Valley Zin with heady aromas of fresh red raspberry, cedar, mint, baking spice, and eucalyptus. There is ripe, sweet fruit on the mid-palate with precise tannins and mouthwatering acidity. The long, juicy finish displays persistent flavors of mint and bright fruit. Cab and Merlot enthusiasts give praise to this lovely Zin.

The 2011 Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandelcomes from probably the oldest vineyard in Sonoma. It’s history in a bottle, a jewel patch of Zinfandel grapes and so many other Rhone-type vines that Peterson used to blend an incredibly rich and complex wine. An enticing aroma of black cherry, raspberry, violet and slate leads to similar flavors plus buzzy pepper, earth and mushrooms. The flavor keeps evolving through the long finish.

We desert dwellers are so fortunate to have an array of vintage and new releases of Ravenswood single-vineyard bottles available over at Costa Nichols’s Desert Wines and Spirits, Palm Springs 760.327.7701 Peterson was recently in town and enjoyed his older Zins from Costa’s shop. “They reach a nice balance of aged complexity with Zin-like character about six to eight years after harvest. Truly they start to resemble aged Bordeaux about 10 years after harvest.”

Hey Joel—thanks for your time—visit us again soon! Cheers!