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Ravenswood's Old Vine Collection comes to dinner

March 3, 2009 |  3:39 pm


Joel Peterson was in town from Ravenswood Winery last week, and in his wine bag he carried five of its single vineyard designates -- Barricia, Old Hill, Teldeschi, Belloni and Big River -- five Zinfandel-based wines with stories to tell. Each of these wines is a field blend, drawn from some of the oldest vineyards in Sonoma County, with plantings that go back more than a century.

Since Ravenswood’s inception, Peterson has made old vine fruit its stock in trade, and while the winery now produces upward of a million cases, these wines, from vineyards that eke out relatively tiny amounts of fruit, clearly amount to the winery’s heart and soul.

Vineyards_3 All these properties are leased by Ravenswood; each bears lines of ownership that reach back to the  19th century, into rich veins of California’s history. Barricia for example, in the Sonoma Valley, was once part of the original Vallejo land grant, and was later owned by Deadwood mining mogul and California Sen. George Hearst; Belloni, in the Russian River Valley, is on land once owned by two Civil War generals -- Joe Hooker and William Tecumseh Sherman.

You might say these vineyards reflect a 19th century mind-set. They’re composed mostly of Zinfandel, which Italian and Spanish settlers early on decreed as the most reliable and best tasting. Each vineyard, however, bears small tantalizing quantities of Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and still more varieties that have fallen into disuse, which ripened at different times than the Zinfandel and provided unique additional shades and nuances to what must have been deep, dark satisfying wines in the vineyards’ early history.

Peterson remains fascinated by the “mixed blacks,” as they’re known. In fact, he recently was able to purchase a 120-acre property next to Barricia Vineyard that includes vines planted in 1904, which he’s calling Bedrock Vineyard. Peterson had a number of injudiciously planted blocks on the property, which he’s grafting over to the mixed blacks, in particular Alicante Bouschet –- these are by far the largest recent plantings of this grape in more than 100 years.

You may recall that Ravenswood is the source the phrase, “No Wimpy Wines,” which serves, somewhat justifiably, as almost an anthem of American winemaking. The phrase was coined to separate the winery’s early reds with the pinkened, notoriously wimpy white Zinfandels that erupted onto the market in the late '70s, when even the fruit from these venerable old vineyards was lightly pressed and rushed to market in a sweet and insipid state.

Nowadays, however, in this age of burly, alcoholic monster Zins, Peterson’s wines seem positively svelte; not wimpy, of course, but notably quieter and more elegant than the high octane wines that now crowd the market. These wines have a heritage, and taste like it. And they’re a lot of wine for the money; their prices hover around $30 a bottle.

-– Patrick Comiskey

Photos: Ravenswood