Being uniquely a California grape, although it is a near relative to Primativio in Puglia Italy and Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidr in Croatia, it has its own cult following with a yearly festival sponsored by Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP). When it comes to major producers of this unofficial grape of the state of California there are 3 BIG “R”s – Rosenblum Winery in Alameda, Ridge Vineyards in Cupertino and RAVENSWOOD Winery in Sonoma. In fact, some Zin Fanatics even go so far as to have the Ravenswood logo tattooed on their body!
Ravenswood Winery was founded by Joel Peterson who began his venture as a microbiologist by trade and a part-time winemaker. For the first 15 years of the winery, he earned his living working in the clinical laboratory at Sonoma Valley Hospital from 1977 through 1992. But, he has been into wine since he was 10 years old as his father had asked him to take tasting notes for his parents’ East Bay wine tasting group. Two decades later in 1976, at the age of 29, he and business partner Reed Foster, founded Ravenswood with $4,000, no vineyards or no winery and only voluntary help from friends for labor.
Though Zinfandel was not well regarded in 1976, Joel was interested in it from the beginning as he had worked with Joseph Swan to make five vintages of Zinfandel. Convinced that older vines planted in the right terroir are an important part of making great wines, the only grape that met the criteria at the time was Zinfandel.
In 1999 the winery went public and two years later Ravenswood was bought by Constellation Brands (who also purchased Robert Mondavi Winery) for $148 million. Peterson was the largest stockholder which resulted in him becoming a winemaker-turned-multimillionaire which is a rarity in the wine world as most large wineries are the result of multimillionaires-turned-winemakers. After the winery was sold, rather than retiring or starting over with a new small winery (as did the Mondavis after their family winery was bought by Constellation), Joel became a senior vice president what is now the world’s largest wine company and he continues to serve as Ravenswood’s head winemaker.
In five years, Constellation has more than doubled Ravenswood’s production and can now be found nationwide in supermarket. Although their slogan “no wimpy wines” still excludes White Zinfandel, they now produce a Chardonnay as well as a dry and sweet Gewürztraminer.
The Vintners Blend, which may include juice from anywhere in the state, makes up about 80% of the nearly 1 million cases of wine and has become a mass-market phenomenon that sell for around $11 per bottle and they are on the lowest level of Ravenswood’s three-tier system. The mid-level consists of county appellation wines such as the Ravenswood Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon. These cost $15 - $20 and are generally a high quality than the Vintners Blend wines. At the top-level are the single-vineyard wines, which range from $25 - $60 for the Old Hill Sonoma Valley Zinfandel.
While visiting the tasting room I sampled the following wines:
My first sample was the 2011 Earl Harvest Gewürztraminer. This displays aromas of pronounced SPICE, white pepper, apricots, melon, and Asian pear. On the palate it very dry, very spicy and crisp with high acidity. It is light boded and a prolonged finish with notes of grapefruit pith. Although the name Gewürztraminer means “Spice Traminer” and characteristically most have a certain amount of spiciness to them, I have never experienced one that was this pronounced. Tasted blind it could be mistaken for Grüner Veltliner. If you’re looking for a Gewürztraminer that isn’t super floral and fruity as more Californians tend to be, then this one is for you. This wine sells for $20 per bottle.
The second pour was the 2012 Sangiacomo Chardonnay - Carneros. This wine spent eight months in French oak with no Malolactic fermentation, and three months sur lie aging. This displays aromas of subtle pears, apples, white flowers and a hint of nuts. On the palate it is medium bodied and crisp with medium+ acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $25 per bottle.
The third wine was the 2012 Rosato, a rosé made from a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Zinfandel. It is light strawberry pink in color and displays aromas of tart strawberries, cranberries and watermelon rind. On the palate it is dry with high acidity and a long finish. This wine sells for $22 per bottle.
The fourth sample was the 2011 Barricia Zinfandel - Sonoma Valley. This wine is a blend of 76% Zinfandel and 24% Petite Sirah. It was aged 20 months in 100% French barrels, 33% new. This displays aromas of dusty raspberries, black pepper, bramble bush, leather, cinnamon stick and spice. On the palate it is full bodied with BIG chewy tannins, ample acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $35 per bottle.
The fifth pour was the 2011 Big River Zinfandel – Alexander Valley. It was aged 20 months in 100% French barrels, 35% new. This wine is clear and bright ruby red and stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it has medium intense aromas of raisins, plums, blackberry jam, and caramel with hints of vanilla and smoke. On the palate it has firm tannins, is full bodied and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $35 per bottle.
The sixth wine was the 2011 Cooke Zinfandel – Sonoma. This wine displays aromas of fresh cracked pepper, reduced berry juice, very dense and concentrated blackberries and raspberries, and notes of vanilla bean with a very distinct minerality in the background. On the palate it has a medium body, medium acidity wine and a medium length finish. Unfortunately the black pepper dominates the fruit on this wine on the palate. This wine sells for $35 per bottle.
The seventh pour was the 2011 Teldeschi Zinfandel – Dry Creek. This wine is a blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan. This wine is bright, clear ruby red and stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it displays aromas of dark plums, raisins, dry earth, vanilla bean and a hint of smoke. On the palate it is very dry with robust medium+ tannins, medium acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $35 per bottle.
The eighth and final pour was the 2010 Icon Zinfandel – Sonoma Valley. This wine is a blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet. On the nose this wine is uniquely floral with aromas of roses followed by raspberries, dried dark fruits and spice. On the palate it is dry with medium+ tannins, medium acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $75 per bottle.
To visit or for more information:
18701 Gehricke Road
Sonoma, CA 95476