The Godfather of Zin: Tasting Zinfandel with Ravenswood Wines with Joel Peterson

Canada’s top wine writers and sommeliers gathered in the nation’s capital recently for a terrific tasting of Ravenswood wines with winemaker and founder Joel Peterson.

Click on the arrow of the video above to hear Joel’s story about how the winery got its name.

Heather Wall 2

Heather Wall
Wine Columnist, Huffington Post Canada

Ravenswood Tasting

One definition of Godfather is as follows: noun “a man who is influential in a movement or organization, through providing support for it or through playing a leading or innovatory part in it.”

On November 18, I was lucky enough to be part of an intimate group of Ottawa wine writers and sommeliers to meet the Godfather of Zin himself,  Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson. Joel is a born and bred Californian with a leaning towards science with a degree in microbiology and chemist parents.


He only dabbled in wine as a side hobby – until 1976. Joel’s lessons in winemaking began at the tender age of 10 when he was permitted to sit in on his wine loving father’s (Walter Peterson) tasting sessions. “Shut up and spit!” he was instructed after his first sip and the rest, as they say, is history.

Joel Peterson on learning about winemaking.

In 1976, Ravenswood was founded by the long haired science nerd with a Zinfandel focus of 427 cases and two single vineyards.

Though owning a winery sounds romantic, the company had yet to turn a profit and by 1979 was seeing red ink. Joel took on a partnership with fellow wine lover and Harvard MBA grad, Reed Foster. Reed handled the business side of the winery allowing Joel to focus on the grapes.

The early 1980s saw the success of White Zinfandel coming out of California and the suggestion was that Ravenswood should produce some of this jug wine to bump up their bottom line.

“No wimpy wines!” Joel decreed.

Heather Wall 1

He stood by his word and created wines with bold flavours, skill, complexity and aging potential. It’s the iconic Vintners Blend, a Vintages Essentials, that put the company into black ink.

Heather Wall 3I came away with an understanding that each bottle will embody Joel’s vision of embracing the bold, banishing the bland, and leaving me with interesting tasting notes for my book.Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2013

Coming to Vintages December 12, 2015 is Ravenswood Lodi County Series Zinfandel 2013- $19.95
This is a “buy a case wine” in my opinion.

Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2013
Lodi, California, United States

It’s juicy, earthy and charming with lots of red fruit, plums, chocolate and a long silky, satisfying finish. This wine will reward over the next 10 years. A superb deal for this much complexity.

On November 18th I met an innovator and leader in the California wine industry. I met a real-life Godfather.


The evolution of Ravenswood Zinfandel

Monique Ippolito


Monique Ippolito
Wine Columnist, Ottawa Living Magazine

Joel Peterson is truly a fascinating man. Meeting the ‘Godfather of Zin’ himself, was one of the most incredible experiences I have had so far in my professional wine journey.

Joel’s unparalleled wisdom for wine captivated our intimate group of wine writers as we tasted through a superb flight of Ravenswood Zinfandels from different vintages and select vineyards.

As we worked our way through the Zins, starting with a preview of the 2014 Besieged – a mega blend of bold red grape varietals – I kept a keen ear for Joel’s analysis of each of the wines.

Joel’s entertaining and innovative ideology on crafting world class Zinfandels was equally memorable. His stern focus against the “no wimpy wines” ordeal created a distinct world renown style of Zinfandel coming from Northern California.

When Joel took his big plunge into winemaking back in 1976, he gathered all the resources he could scrounge, which was hardly any at the time, and all the knowledge he could possibly obtain to set his sights on making a style of Zinfandel like never before.

8 glasses of red MI

The interesting thing about Zins is that you can vinify them in several different styles.  Where they are grown, how they are grown, yields, canopy management, sugar levels at the time of harvest and even the time of harvest itself,  all contribute to its varying style.

For instance, high yielding vines in hot climates will most often produce a very fruit forward style which is pleasing to some but lacks immense complexity overall.

Go down even further down that rabbit hole and you will end up with white Zinfandel.  Joel would have none it!

Joel grew up with an appreciation for Old World styles of wine from a very young age.  Joel craved wines with structure, boldness, length, and a complexity of aromas and flavours; and he has no doubt achieved such qualities in his Zins and Zin blends.

duck breast

Some of the key tidbits I enjoyed learning about the most from Joel’s tasting, were his insights into the management of his majestic decades old goblet vines; his respect for each vineyard by habitually vinifying them separately; and, particularly, his introduction of the concept of airroir to our group.

Airroir is something of supplementary definition to terroir where certain strong aromatic oils deposit itself around the vineyard and upon the waxy bloom of the ripening grape berries, thus influencing its style, aromas and flavours.

Heather Wall 4

In Ravenswood’s particular case, their wines from the Dickerson Vineyard in Napa Valley has shown a consistent character of eucalyptus. This note is due to the influence of the eucalyptus at the north of the vineyard.

This unique attribute is even more pronounced during hot and dry vintages like in 2006 which I had the glorious opportunity to taste.

Of course, learning about Joel’s upbringing was certainly memorable as well. I find it quite fun and compelling to learn about how folks were introduced to the wine world and their ultimate direction towards it.

As for Joel, I have learned that he has been exercising his palate for wine since age ten. With strict instructions to taste and spit, Joel’s first wine job involved tasting and describing wines for his dad.  He was tasked with this duty to assist his dad simplify his wine writing the way a ten year old child would in order to reach a wide relateable audience.

Joel’s parents both passionately appreciated Old World wines and that stuck with Joel so much that when he decided to make his own wines, he was adamant on crafting “the most European wine in California.”

Joel’s search for the right winery name.

Finally, Joel and I both share an immense fascination for ravens. I was patient throughout the tasting but had a burning inquiry into the basis of how ravens became so symbolic to Joel.

Seemingly, this story involved a direct encounter between Joel and two ravens on the day of his first harvest – a tedious job that Joel accomplished with very little help and a looming storm on his back.

A few years later, Joel encountered his third raven as he was struck with hard times trying to keep his wine business afloat.

He was invited to attend a dramatic and tragic Italian Opera called Lucia di Lammermoor. I have never attended that Italian tragedy myself, but I believe Joel when he described it as exponentially more depressing than Romeo & Juliet.

One of the key characters in the play is called Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood, and coincidentally, Joel’s symbolic third encounter with a raven.

After reflecting on the play and later inspired to turn some things around, Joel named his winery Ravenswood and succeeded in becoming the ‘Godfather of Zin’ in California.

Joel relating the history of his winery.

Tania Thomas

Tania Thomas
Wine Expert, Rogers Daytime Television

It was my great pleasure attending a private tasting of Ravenswood wines hosted by Joel Peterson, “Godfather of Zin” and arranged for by Constellation Brands at Ottawa’s Stella Osteria restaurant.

Joel Peterson TT

Joel, a pioneer of California’s Zinfandel harvested his first grapes in the fall of 1976, rushed by an approaching thunderstorm as ravens cheered on from the tree branches above.

Those wines later won 1st and 2nd place at the prestigious San Francisco tasting in 1979, allowing Joel to get a few investors on board.

Duck Breast & Red Wine TTUsing the Old World winemaking technique while keeping an eye on the new ideas, the wines are fermented with naturally present wild yeast in open-top fermentors, followed by long maturation in small French barrels. They are a true expression of the terroir from which they come.

2 Bottles TTJoel guided us through structured tasting of Ravenswood Besieged 2014, Ravenswood Lodi County Series 2013 Zinfandel and 1999, 2006 and 2012 vintages of both, Dickerson and Old Hill Zinfandel, to contract and compare.

Jane Staples 1

Jane Staples
Wine Columnist, Ottawa Wedding Magazine


It’s always good to keep an open mind and when it comes to wine, that can lead to delightful discoveries and an expanded palate.

I’m not a big fan of Zinfandel normally, but when an opportunity to attend a tasting with Ravenswood’s winemaker, Joel Peterson, recently came along, I decided to give Zinfandel another chance.  I’m glad I did.

The travels of Zinfandel from Croatia in the 1300s to California in 1824.

Joel Peterson JS

Joel told our tasting team about developing the Ravenswood winery and led us through tasting the Dickerson and Old Hill lines. Ravenswood Besieged 2014

We also tasted Besieged 2014 and an upcoming release, Lodi County Series Zinfandel 2013, available December 12, 2015 in LCBO Vintages.

Ravenswood Besieged 2014

What I discovered was an exciting array of robust, full-bodied red blends, full of lots of delicious blueberry, plum and mulberry flavours, along with spice and bright peppery touches.

My favourite was the aromatic and layered Besieged 2014, with its yummy cassis and dark chocolate notes.

Besieged JS

What I learned from this tasting is that it’s always a good idea to try something new in your wine glass and also to try a new wine on a couple of different occasions.

Our sense of taste can be so subjective and is variable depending on a lot of factors, from fatigue levels, to food that accompanies the wine, to the colour of the décor.

Ravenswood Old Vine Lodi JS

So I lift my glass of Old Vine Zin and say ”Here’s to Ravenswood, as they celebrate their 40th Anniversary!” And many more!

Ravenswood Poster JS

Matt Steeves

Matt Steeves
Wine Expert, CTV Morning Live

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with the founder of Ravenswood winery, the iconic Sonoma County fine Zin producer most often referred to as the “Godfather of Zin” for his four decades spent producing some of the finest and best known Zin around the world.
Mr. Joel Peterson, aka the Godfather, started off with a very modest beginning, like many winemakers do, making wine in a garage, and after several very challenging years his passion for producing complex California Zinfandel only grew and with that so did his business.
Today, Ravenswood is the No. 1 producer of Zinfandel in the world.
Joel was kind enough to pull some aged library wines from his personal cellar for us to enjoy, including a couple 1999 magnums of their Old Hill and Dickerson Zin.  I was thoroughly impressed with the elegance and complexity of their premium Zins.  Zin that certainly isn’t wimpy, but also isn’t a muscle head.
I found their wines displayed beautifully just how well structured and balanced premium Zin can be. Elegance, intensity, and balance. Harmony.  From their low cost value priced Vintners Series to their premium Single Vineyard Designates (such as the Dickerson and Old Hill labels), these wines each thoroughly impressed me on many levels.
Their structure, texture, balance, age worthiness, and their food friendliness (which by the way these Zins excel with fine meals, no BBQ’d ribs necessary to create Aha! moments, although nice ribs would be a great pairing!), Ravenswood wines are cellar worthy fine wines that should have some space reserved for them in your cellars and don’t be too eager to pull the corks on those fine wines as 10-15 years of cellar aging will do the Single Vineyard Designate wines justice.
Look out for the Dickerson 2012 that was just released in November 2015.  Highly recommended.  Given them a try this holiday season as I’m sure you’ll be happy you did.


The history behind the regrowth of the California winery after Prohibition


Mymi Myriam
Sommelier & Musician

One of the most fascinating books I have ever read was “ZIN” by David Darlington.

Zinfandel is a rather unconventional varietal. Perceived by some to be a Rosé and totally unfamiliar to others, it is truly something of an enigma. So when the opportunity to meet Joel Peterson a.k.a. “The “Grandfather of Zin” arose, I was elated! The event took place in a secluded dining room perched up on a balcony at a popular Yorkville restaurant called Sassafraz in Toronto.

Upon arriving, a tall unassuming man extended his hand to me and said “Hi, I am Joel Peterson and I used to have hair like yours!”

I was smitten and hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet. When everyone was seated, Joel the raconteur, revealed how he was first exposed to wine.

Ravenswood’s unusual marketing techniques.

He was born into a family of chemists and eventually became one himself. Shortly after his birth, his mother, a very determined lady, decided to teach herself how to cook.

She went on to become a brilliant chef but according to her French recipe books, in order to create the perfect meal, wine had to be served along with the food. She consulted a mail-order wine catalogue and purchased the family’s first case of wine which consisted mostly of French wines and included a 1945 Châteauneuf-Du-Pape. Total for this purchase was less than $20 US including postage.

He developed his sense of smell at a very young age. Assisted by his father, they would nose, analyze and even drink wines together although dad always carefully measured the wine in his glass and in his spittoon to make sure he hadn’t swallowed any!

Joel describes the flavours and structure of their Zinfandel.

Moving forward to 1976, now a chemist, Joel decided to put to use all of his organoleptic knowledge and start his own winery; Ravenswood was born.

The first few years were challenging but he had a “Zin” vision and his mother’s determination. In his own words, Joel admits having started with nothing; no winery, no equipment and no vineyards of his own.

Instead, right from those early days, he bought the best possible Zinfandel fruit from local growers and borrowed his friend, Joe Swan of Ridge winery, to produce his wines.

Joel tells us about the family involvement in the wine industry.

He made spectacular wines right from those humble beginnings, winning award after award for his exquisite, iconic Zinfandels and remains today a fervent supporter of what some consider to be California’s native grape.

The wines Joel chose to delight us with were: the 2013 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel County Series, the 2014 Sonoma County “Besieged”, the 2012, 2006 & 1999 Dickerson Zinfandel and the 2012, 2006 & 1999 Old Hill Zinfandel. And yes, they were impeccable!

Joel Peterson is a man who has truly demonstrated how the land of opportunity can bestow its best upon you, should you have enough passion, drive and determination.

Not only are his wines are iconic, so is he.

The importance of terrior and environment in successful winemaking.


The story behind the single vineyard designation and the steps taken to become an organic winery.


Zinfandel’s voyage from Croatia in the 1300s to California in 1824.

Joel speaks of the trials in the early years, of successful grapes brought into California


table tasting


Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2013


Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2013

Crafted with the fruit from many different vineyards throughout California’s Lodi region, all vinified separately before blending. Fruit forward and earthy with perfectly balanced, vibrant acidity, a delicious blend of 77% Zinfandel with 23% of Petit Sirah. Bursting with aromas and flavours of ripe black fruit, a touch of baking spice and soft velvety mouth-feel, leading to a vanilla-chocolate-toned, polished finish. Drink it now or age for up to 10 years.
LCBO: 942599, $ 19.95


Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2012



Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2012

A classic Napa Valley Zinfandel, vinified with the fruit sourced from the small, low-yielding Dickerson vineyard in the warm St. Helena climate, protected by the Mayacamas Mountains. Expertly crafted with 100% Zinfandel grapes, it’s bursting with ripe red cherries and raspberries. Well integrated tannins after 19 months of maturation in French oak barrels, finishes in a long lingering, cedar-box tinged finish. Great ageing potential between 7-10 years.
Vintages: 599183, $ 41.00


Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2012


Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2012

From the Old Hill Vineyards with one of the oldest vines in the heart of Sonoma Valley comes this complex and intense blend of 75% Zinfandel and Granache. Impressive black fruit density with a touch of spice. Powerful with plenty of weight. Well structured, with a solid backbone of firm tannins, leading to a smoky-toned finish. Fantastic ageing potential between 10-15 years.
Vintages: 684571, $ 61.00

RavensWood Dickerson Zinfandel 2009

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2009
Napa Valley, California, United States

RavensWood Old Hill Zinfandel 2012

RavensWood Old Hill Zinfandel 2012
Sonoma, United States

Ravenswood Besieged 2013

Ravenswood Besieged 2013
Sonoma County, California, United States

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 1999

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 1999
Napa Valley, California, United States

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2006

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2006
Napa Valley, California, United States

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2012

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2012
Napa Valley, California, United States

Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 1999

Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 1999
Sonoma, United States

Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2006

Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2006
Sonoma, United States

Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2012

Ravenswood Old Hill Zinfandel 2012
Sonoma, United States

Ravenswood Besieged 2014

Ravenswood Besieged 2014
Sonoma County, California, United States

Standard Final JPG-Ravenswood Harvest 2012 - Joel Peterson 6

Celebrating 40 Years with Ravenswood 1976 – 2016

To commemorate  four exception decades of winemaking, Joel Peterson, Winemaker and the ‘God Father of Zin’ will share vintages from the Dickerson and Old Hill Vineyards.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Stella Osteria
81B Clarence St., Ottawa, ON

Monday, November 16, 2015 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.
100 Cumberland St., Yorkville, Toronto, ON


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