Zinfandel Crusader Joel Peterson, Ravenswood Founding Winemaker



Do you know the rich and royal history behind Zinfandel? How does the air in a vineyard affect the flavours you taste in its wine? Why did Zinfandel become such a sensation in North America? What does mythology have to do with Ravenswood wine?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with the Godfather of Zin, Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker of Ravenswood Winery.

You can find the wines we discussed here.



  • Why did Joel’s father involve him in wine tastings as a child?
  • What sort of colourful tasting notes would you read in Joel’s father’s wine club newsletters?
  • What’s the less-than-catchy name you’d use for the Zinfandel grape in it’s home country of Croatia?
  • When would you find the first historical reference to the Zinfandel grape?
  • How is Zinfandel connected to Old World royalty?
  • What makes Croatia a great grape-growing region?
  • What do you need to know about “founder grapes”?
  • How did Zinfandel come to the United States?
  • What history can you taste in Ravenswood Vinters Blend Zinfandel?
  • What unbelievable raven encounter led to Joel’s connection to them as a totem?
  • How did an opera inspire the name Ravenswood?
  • In which areas of mythology would you find references to ravens?
  • Why you will love a pairing of baby back ribs and Ravenswood Zinfandel blends?
  • Which climatic features make Lodi an ideal grape-growing area?
  • How does your tasting experience differ between Ravenswood Vintners Blend and Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel?
  • Why do you often find higher alcohol content in Zinfandels?
  • How do you find the “sweet spot” for wine which has the perfect balance?
  • What do you taste differently with wines made with the punch down versus pump over techniques?
  • How does “airroir” impact your experience with wine?
  • What makes a field blend different from single grape wines?
  • Which annual charity event will you find Joel at without fail?
  • What influence does growing up with two superstar chemists as your parents have on you?


Key Takeaways

  • The historical roots of Zinfandel and its links to Croatia when it was part of the Austria-Hungarian empire as well as Venetian courts is fascinating, as is the detective work to establish the grape’s true heritage and parentage.
  • Zinfandel’s history goes back to 1488, and it’s one of the 12 founding grapes of all wine grapes.
  • Why Lodi makes such great Zinfandel with its deep, sandy soils that were once part of an ancient ocean bed. This produces larger grape clusters with smaller skin to flesh rations resulting in less harsh tannins, and a smoother, juicier, fruitier wine.
  • How wine achieves sweet spots of different alcohol levels, where everything is in balance i.e. the fruit and acidity say at 13.8% alcohol but maybe not at 13.9%.
  • The concept of “airroir” is fascinating and something I want to explore more in the wines I taste in terms of their influences.
  • Joel’s story about tasting wines as a child and learning to identify aromas, not just apples, but the type of apples by smelling and eating them. That’s how we all can learn to be better sniffers and tasters.
  • The story of Ravenswood name, including all of the raven folklore in Poe and Odin.


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About Joel Peterson

In 1976 Joel founded Ravenswood in partnership with fellow wine lover Reed Foster, a Harvard MBA who handled the green stuff while Joel oversaw the red stuff. In the ensuing years, Joel had dual careers, working nights and weekends in the lab as he built the winery during the daylight hours. In 1977, he’d left his job in San Francisco and moved to Sonoma to work in the clinical lab at Sonoma Valley Hospital. He didn’t quit that job until 1992, a few years after the winery turned its first profit and Robert Parker pronounced Ravenswood wines “first class – bold, dramatic and complex.”

Today, Joel works with 100+ northern California growers who provide grapes for Ravenswood, consulting on irrigation methods, cultivation practices, cropping levels, and a slew of other vineyard management issues. This attention in the field, coupled with the fact that Ravenswood is one of the few wineries that has had the philosophical and winemaking skill of one winemaker for over 30 years, contributes to a consistency of quality and style rarely found in California.

Joel is a current member and former president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance (S.V.V.G.A.) and is on the Board of Directors for the Sonoma County Vintners. He is a founding Board member and former two-time President of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (Z.A.P.). Joel is also a Senior Vice President with Constellation Wines US.

A rakish raconteur (and provocateur) whose erudition and down-to-earth enthusiasm make him an articulate spokesman for the winery (and sometime-heckler of the wine industry), Joel is a stylistic trendsetter who helped make Zinfandel the runaway phenomenon it is today. Along the way, the raven maven (dubbed “the Godfather of Zin” by one media wag) has built a legacy of enjoying wine with grins and gusto.




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Natalie MacLean 0:50
Do you have a thirst to learn about wine? Do you love stories about wonderfully obsessive people, hauntingly beautiful places, and amusingly awkward social situations? Well, that’s the blend here on the unreserved wine talk podcast. I’m your host, Natalie MacLean and each week, I share with you unfiltered conversations with celebrities in the wine world, as well as confessions from my own tipsy journey as I write my third book on this subject. I’m so glad you’re here. Now pass me that bottle please; and let’s get started!

Welcome to Episode 104. How is  Zinfandel connected to old World wine royalty? When did Zin come to North America and how did it become California’s signature grape? How did an opera inspire the name Ravenswood? What is “airroir”? And how does it change the wine you drink? That’s exactly what you’ll discover in this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast. I’m chatting with Joel Peterson, the founding winemaker of Ravenswood Winery in California. He’s a rakish storyteller, provocateur, and sometimes a heckler of the wine industry. But he also helped make Zinfandel the runaway phenomenon that it is today. You can find links to the wines we tasted, the video version of this chat, where you can find me on Facebook Live every second Wednesday at 7pm, and how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class. That’s all in the show notes at nataliemaclan.com/104.

Now on a personal note, before we dive into the show, I was watching the first episode of HBOs’ Industry and it brought back memories of Westerns MBA and the McKinsey interviews. Look to your right, look to your left: one of you will not be here in six months. Thanks for the pep talk. This show is wonderfully tense and gritty. Bonus!  Wine is a big part of it. My pairing suggestion, something complex and bold with a long finish. Okay, on with the show.

We’re joined by the godfather of Zinfandel. His name is Joel Peterson. Welcome, Joel.

Joel Peterson 3:29
Thank you Natalie. I am delighted to be here. Boy it’s amazing to be in Canada even when I’m not.

Natalie MacLean 3:37
You are everywhere. Joel and people better watch out.

Natalie MacLean 3:42
You’re actually joining us from:  Is it Las Vegas where you are right now?

Joel Peterson 3:45
Actually I am in Burbank right now. I am near Universal Studios because last night we had this really wonderful charity auction and wine tasting on the backlot of Universal Studios. I was in the streets of New York City last night.

Natalie MacLean 4:00
Oh my goodness..

Joel Peterson 4:01
At least the fake streets.

Natalie MacLean 4:03
Oh, okay, a fundraiser. So you were leading a wine tasting I guess?

Joel Peterson 4:08
Well, I was doing a wine tasting with many other people. And it’s a big auction that’s been going on for about 28 years. I’ve been here for about 20 of them and made some significant progress in helping to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. It’s been exciting. It’s been fun. The auctions great and there are just a tremendous number of really lovely people who show up at it as well as all my wine making friends. It’s probably some of the only time during the year I get to see people that I really like but don’t get to see very often.

Natalie MacLean 4:36
That’s a very selective comment. Now cystic fibrosis. This is sort of off topic, but I’m still intrigued because you have just so many interesting stories. Is there a tie in for you? Is this a cause that’s close to your heart?

Joel Peterson 4:49
No, it was close to my heart because Ellen and Barbara Bailick run it.  Ellen and Barbara Bailick are very good friends. And over the years we’ve done many things together and this is really their cause; that is close to their heart.

Natalie MacLean 5:01
So they’re good friends.

Joel Peterson 5:04
This is such a thrill, by the way, because, you know, I’ve been in this business for a very long time. And back in the old days, I mean, you had no way of doing this. It was like you didn’t have a conference. There’s no way to talk to all these people. And this is really exciting. I’m one of the greybeards. And to be able to be a grey beard and still be part of the modern technical world is fabulous.

Unknown Speaker 5:26
Did you say you’re one of the graveyards?

Joel Peterson 5:28
One of the greybeards.

Natalie MacLean 5:33
You’re not gone yet. Sort of on trend, but not quite. Okay. So yeah, I love this too. I really do, Joel, because every week we get better at the technology. You and I were working out the sound and the visuals and everything else, and you just have to have patience with it. But the power of connection is pretty amazing. When you know I’m talking to you; you’re in California, I’m here in Ottawa, Paul’s in Virginia, Anne is Halifax, Liz is in Sudbury, and there’s many, many more people. It’s bringing us all together. I love this, too, that the technology can bring such an old world fascination and beauty in such a non intimidating way. Like we are all sitting at a table. Okay, Joel, back to you. You have such an interesting story. I thought, well, I’m not going to have to work hard tonight. This man is just a roll of stories. So let’s start at the beginning. 1976, I think, is when you started your winery, but you are the child of two chemists. Your Mom was a nuclear chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project and your dad was another kind of chemist who was working on something else. So major brainiacs. And did you go into chemistry at first?

Joel Peterson 6:50
I did. You know, I grew up in this crazy household with two really superstar people who met by the way at a chemical under society meeting and I guess the chemistry was good. That was the result. So yes, I ended up studying biochemistry, microbiology when I went to college, and I really didn’t expect to be in the wine business. Even though my father had taught me to taste wine when I was quite young. We used to get together on Friday evenings before his tasting and go through 10 or 12 wines because he thought a kid would have better words for wine than an adult. So if I said a Chardonnay tasted like apples, for instance, he would go out and collect different kinds of apples until we could actually sit down and smell these cut up apples and determine which was the Northern Spy, and which was the Golden Delicious: all blind. Yeah, so next time we had a Chardonnay I could say this one smells like Golden Delicious apples, and so forth.

Natalie MacLean 7:49
This  was just his own informal Wine Club. He was just doing this as a passion, not his..

Joel Peterson 7:54
He actually started one of the first wine clubs in San Francisco. You know, when my mother went out and found that bottle of 1945 Chateauneuf du Pape that rocked their world and then they got this case of wine. That was a survey of France that included a bottle of 45 Haut-Brion and a bottle of 29 Chateau d’Yquem for $15.40, they began to get really serious about wine. My father started a wine club called the San Francisco wine sampling society, later changed society to club because it sounded more intense. And he was writing a newsletter that he put out every month and it was complex. He would write up wines that he described and I remember you described the 1949 Château Rouget  as smelling like the spars of the USS Constitution. The USS Constitution was an old sailing vessel; old “Ironsides” in American parlance. He  probably meant piney and tarry and briny because I went and smelled the spires of the USS Constitution. It still exists in Boston.

Natalie MacLean 8:57
What are spars? I’m not a sailing kind of girl..

Joel Peterson 9:00
Spars are the things that go across the mast in a sailing ship. So they are the things that hold the sails

Natalie MacLean 9:11
Okay so you were sniffing at spars  at an early age,

Joel Peterson 9:12
Yeah, sniffing at spars. But nobody understood that. So he thought a kid would have easier terms for wine. I was 10; so I came in as the kind of the simpleton to simplify language and make it basically more basic. So he was started into this, he wrote these newsletters on a monthly basis. He covered all the great regions of the world. There wasn’t much happening in California at the time. So I really got to taste a lot of Bordeauxs and Burgundies and German wines; they were really the core of it with some Italian, but it was a learning experience. I ended up not doing wine. I ended up in medical research. I was doing immunology research, stimulating science like growing tumour cells and doing things like that. But you know, the beauty is that a lot of the stuff that I was working on was really before its time in terms of the technological feasibility of that. And we have really moved forward with DNA research and understanding how these things work in ways that we didn’t before. So I’m now beginning to see some of the things I was working on coming to fruition in terms of the kinds of therapies, the gene therapies and other things that are being looked at. So that’s very exciting. But you know what, I’m really happy to being a wine maker. I think I got very lucky in that way. And interestingly enough, I’m going to just take this on a little sidetrack, because interestingly enough, I just got back from Croatia, and I got back from Croatia, because I was part of a conference that was put on by the Croatians called I Am Tribidrag.

Unknown Speaker 10:56
How does that translate? I am Trudy dog?

Joel Peterson 10:59
I Am Tribidrag because the name of the grape Zinfandel in Croatia is Tribidrag.

Natalie MacLean 11:09
That’s not catchy.

Joel Peterson 11:11
Yeah, that’s not catchy. Tribidrag. Sounds like a bad player in a Star Wars movie actually

Natalie MacLean 11:15
It does; it sounds like the Borg or something that will

Joel Peterson 11:19
And if you read Jancis Robinson, in her book on phenology, where she lists all the grapes in the world, she doesn’t list Zinfandel as Zinfandel. She lists it now as Tribidrag, and that was because a university professor here, Carol Meredith, used DNA to identify Zinfandel, and then Tribidrag, and of course, Primitivo, they’re all in the same family. And at this conference, we had people from Croatia, we had people from Italy, and we have people from, obviously the United States, myself, David Gates and Carol Meredith. We were all there to talk about this grape and I learned some stuff that was fascinating. It turns out for a long time, we didn’t know the history of Zinfandel, we didn’t know where it came from. We knew it came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, via Queens, Long Island, but it didn’t seem right that it was from Austria. And obviously, it was from the Austro-Hungarian Empire because in 1820, when it got to the United States, Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But it turns out that this grape is much older. The first historical reference to this grape is in 1488; that is several years before Columbus sailed to find the new world. It says sale of a barrel of wine from Croatia, to the Italians in Apulia, interestingly enough, because apparently, there were some Croatian monks over there buying wine. So it’s a very ancient grape. We also know even more about it now. It turns out that it was the grape of Venetian royalty, the princes and the dukes that lived on the Dalmatian coast. It turned out that the Dalmatian coast was controlled by the Venetians from 1400 until about 1800 when Napoleon kind of dislodged them, but they grew this grape so if you went to a Venetian masked ball, one of those nice festive things, the wine you were likely to be drinking was Zinfandel.

Natalie MacLean 13:19
Wow; so clarify there Joel; the Dalmatian coast. That is where the historical roots are for Zinfandel ?

Joel Peterson 13:27
Yes, the Dalmatian coast is right along the Adriatic. It’s part of what is now Croatia, it’s part of what used to be Yugoslavia. And it is a very interesting wine region. It turns out that there are 280 some odd different grape varieties in Croatia that are unique to Croatia. And that is not as many as Italy, which is 530. But it’s more than any other place for sure. The other part that’s really interesting about this is, is that through the use of DNA and the work that they’re doing with that, they have decided that there are these founder varieties in Europe and they’re like 12 of them that are related to all the other grapes that came out of Europe. And Zinfandel is one of the founder varieties. So it’s really ancient, there’s about 24 varieties related to it in the Adriatic area. And in fact, one of those varieties is a grape that I ran into over there called Grk, which honestly is delicious, but it’s white. It tastes like Greco di Tufa. It’s fabulous. It’s got great body. It’s got these really pretty aromatics. It’s very, very nice. So Zinfandel is one of them. Cabernet Franc, for instance is another, Pinot is another. So there are these 12 grape varieties that are the fathers, if you will, or the mothers of all the other grapes in Europe. It was one of these kind of places where you just got all this information. It was so much fun; like recharging my set of information banks. As you know Zinfandel came to the United States in 1822; it was brought in by a guy named George Gibbs. He was an amateur geologist..


Natalie MacLean 15:14
We have to do a tasting at the same time. History; yes. But also, we want to get your comments

Joel Peterson 15:21
You mean drink wine?

Natalie MacLean 15:23
Yes, there will be  wine, not just theory and academia. So I want you to continue with your story, but also sort of segue into what’s this one?

Joel Peterson 15:35
That is Vintners Blend Zinfandel  I believe. Vintners Blend Zinfandel was the wine that I started making in 1983. I had started the small winery and was only going to make single vineyard designated wines. And I found out that I was quickly going broke doing that. So I needed a wine that I could get out of the winery more rapidly, but a wine that didn’t cheat. I wasn’t out to make a wine that was anything but delicious. And so I had to go to areas that I hadn’t formerly worked very much in: Lodi and Amador and Mendocino, because the grapes were inexpensive. And I had to use a little less oak in it and I had to move it through the process a bit faster. But it’s still made with native yeast, it’s still you know, has friendship associated with it. So the wine is made precisely, but I could charge less for it. And in charging less for it I could sell more of it obviously, and it would sell more rapidly. So in 1983 I started with  a small amount. I think I made 1000 cases in 1983. I think that wine ultimately became one of the most consumed Zinfandels in the entire world.

Natalie MacLean 16:46
And Carrie is saying again, she’s a product consultant. It’s a staple in her store. Excellent seller. You know what:  I smell this and I want to tell a campfire story. I want to be camping. I don’t like camping. But I imagined myself to be camping under a starry bolt of the night and I just love this. It’s evocative. So I want to tell a story and I want to have maybe some barbecued meats and bring a blanket and it’s just it’s lovely, delicious wine.

Joel Peterson 17:19
When I’m grilling burgers for friends, just throwing like this big juicy, meaty burgers; I do a lot of Buffalo burgers these days. Bison, American bison. And this wine is delicious with it; it’s got enough brightness and enough acidity so that it makes the burger taste fresh every time you bite

Natalie MacLean 17:38
That’s nice. Wow. Okay. So is this the entry level?

Joel Peterson 17:43
That is the entry level

Natalie MacLean 17:44
Because I have one other that is not Zinfandel, but Petite Sirah. So this would be a sister  or something like that. Right?

Joel Peterson 17:54
They are similar because they’re made in a similar style from grapes that cost me a little less so most of that Petite Sirah was from Lodi although some of it is from Mendocino and Petite Sirah is a really interesting grape. For a long time it was thought of as a blending grape for Zinfandel and you see it in the old Zinfandel vineyards a lot. But it’s got this spice; its got this pepper and it’s got this round, kind of juicy character to it. It can be mouth wrenchingly tannic if you’re not careful, but this one is not; this one is, you know, a little softer because a lot of it comes from the Lodi area.

Natalie MacLean 18:33
Very plush. And what’s this about Lodi, I know that area I mean, I’ve heard lots about it. But what is it? It’s warm, it’s dry, it’s arid. It’s less costly than, say Napa?

Joel Peterson 18:45
It’s the bottom of an old lake bottom. You know, if you look at California from a distance, you can see that it’s got this giant depression in the middle of it, which was a giant lake. So really, you’re looking, you’re growing grapes in very sandy sedimentary soils that are quite deep. And the grapevines get really big out of Lodi, and they have fairly large clusters, which means that the skin to juice ratio is not quite what it is in Napa or Sonoma. You do get cool evenings and because of that, you get this less concentrated tannin feel. And so the grapes give you a softer effect, which is very nice in this particular case. They’re not frequently what you would call profound like Barolo but they make a really nice beverage.

Natalie MacLean 19:33
Absolutely; like plush, voluptuous, satin cushions falling back on satin cushions, something like that. Ah, so good. Okay, so we’ve done these two, why don’t we just have an intermezzo here? I want to know the story again how Ravenswood got named because, you know ravens and I made the mistake when we were test calling of saying the word crows

Natalie MacLean 20:04
I know you had a strong gut reaction

Natalie MacLean 20:06
So let’s just take it back: Ravenswood. Ravens are smart. But what’s the backstory on the name of this winery please?

Joel Peterson 20:15
You  have to take yourself way back way back to 1976, when I am determined through some strange quirk of hubris that I want to make wine, and I had been working with Joseph Swan from 1972 until 1976. And so I figure I’ve learned the nuts and bolts, and I can do this. My hair is longer than yours is now at the time and my beard was a bit longer and I was living in Berkeley and doing lots of Berkeley things, and spending all my spare time with Joe Swan. So I had to find grapes. And I went out and found grapes. Growers were very suspicious of me. So they didn’t think I was going to pay the bills. So I had to pay for these grapes in advance. So they were my grapes. I found these wonderful grapes on Dry Creek, sort of the west side of Dry Creek. They were very old. They were exactly what I was looking for. They were Zinfandel, I wanted to make Zinfandel, I knew that it could make great wine if somebody paid attention to it. So I contracted for the grapes, I paid for the grapes. The deal was the guy was supposed to put them in my 50 pound load boxes, he was supposed to load them on the truck for me. I was helping Joe Swan that day. So I was going to come up in the evening and pick them up. And I waited until the last minute honestly to pick these grapes. And there was a rain storm coming in and I knew I had to pick them. So I picked them or had Joe pick them and got up there at six o’clock in the evening to pick them up. And sure enough, they were picked but they were spread over four acres of vineyards and 50 pound wooden fruit boxes because of the rainbows, because there were like three rainbows. It was like pretty spectacular. And the sun was going down. And the clouds were kind of opalescent pink and orange, it was really beautiful. But I’m in a state of panic, because I’ve got to pick these grapes up; it was in the days before cell phones, remember those days? and I had to pick up those boxes and I started running them down to the end of the rows and setting them down. Turns out you’re picking up not four tons of grapes, you’re picking up 16 tons of grapes because you have to pick up each box four times. So you pick it up once,  put at the end of the row, pick it up again, put it on the back of the truck, pick it up on the truck, pick it up again and put it in place. It takes a long time. And the clouds are moving in, and its beginning  to rain, and I’m thinking this is gonna be really messy. I just couldn’t leave the grapes in the field. So while I’m doing this, these 2 huge ravens float into the tree next to the vineyard. And they begin doing this kind of strange chant. It’s like this rolling, throaty thing that ravens do. It’s not like the caw. It’s another voice that they have. And I’m thinking this is really weird. But I continued to work into the night and loading this truck and the ravens stick with me; usually ravens come and go, but  this pair hung out. And I got the truck loaded and it was raining around me; it didn’t rain on me and I’m thinking this is pretty strange. And I got the truck tied up, went down to Joe Swans winery, the streets were wet, but I didn’t get rained on. Joe is waiting for me at the winery to help me offload the grapes. And so we dump them in the crusher as we took them off the truck. And about one o’clock in the morning we finished up and the skies just opened up. I mean it was just crazy. So I’m lying in bed that night, you know, because you can’t sleep after something like that; you’re exhausted. But your mind is going too fast. And I’m thinking there. What is this about?  Rainbows, ravens? So I’m thinking this is pretty amazing. And then I remembered, because I’ve gone to school in the northwest, that Raven was one of the trickster gods of the Northwest Indians. So I thought Wow, I have  just run into my first trickster god. Amazing. And I had been reading Carlos Castaneda at the time, you know, it’s a story about a guy who takes tutoring from a witch doctor so he could find his internal animal spirit. And so I’m thinking I’m primed for a totem. So Raven became my totem.

Natalie MacLean 24:08
You’re talking fast right now. So you got the totem.

Joel Peterson 24:12
I got the totem. By 1979 I had made several vintages but I hadn’t bottled anything and I was going broke and I couldn’t afford to bottle what I already made. I thought it was like the end. I mean, just like it wasn’t going to work out. So a friend comes by because he can tell I’m depressed. He says I’m going to take you to an opera house. Let’s go to an opera. I said yeah, that’s great. Let’s go to the Barber of Seville or something like that. He said, No. I’m taking you to Lucia di Lammermoor. I said, Oh great. Everybody dies. And he says yeah, I said I want you to see how bad it can be; maybe it will cheer you.


Natalie MacLean 24:40
Italians have a knack for cheering you up because life’s always worse with them. Yeah, Romeo and Juliet. Everybody dies.

Joel Peterson 24:47
Yeah, this is like Romeo and Juliet gone worse. And the Romeo character is a guy named Eduardo Ravenswood. In the opera, he falls on his sword but it’s based on a novel by Scott called the Bride of Lammermoor. Scott was the guy who wrote Ivanhoe. And it’s foretold that Eduardo Ravenswood will ride in the moor and get drowned in the quicksand. And I thought, wow, I get ravens, I get angst with this name, I think this is the name for Ravenswood. Obviously, I didn’t drown in the quicksand. And just shortly after that, I found 15 guys who were willing to sort of gather together with me and bring this wonderful vision of Ravenswood.

Natalie MacLean 25:30
Edgar Allan Poe;  quoth the Raven, Nevermore, nevermore. Do you tie into that as well?

Joel Peterson 25:36
I didn’t tie into that at all. I mean, but there’s so many wonderful Raven images, there is Edgar Allan Poe, but there’s also the two ravens that sat on Odins’ shoulder (Since I’m of Nordic extraction). Yeah, he had two ravens who went out over the world, called Thought and Memory, and they brought him information and told him what was going on. So it’s a great image.

Natalie MacLean 25:58
I love all the mythology; I love that there’s a backstory. Oh my gosh, I’m there. Oh, Carrie says Ravens remember faces.  True story. Ravens are smart, right?

Joel Peterson 26:10
True story. Ravens remembers faces.

Natalie MacLean 26:13
Okay, I know crows are smart too. And they have a thing for shiny objects. But what’s the difference between crows and ravens?

Joel Peterson 26:20
Ravens tend to be bigger. Ravens tend to be smarter than crows. Crows fly in flocks; ravens mate for life; ravens have territories, however they are sociable. And if they have a meal like a piece of carrion that’s down there, that’s bigger than they can eat themselves, they will call in their neighbouring crows for a feast; one presumes they have Zinfandel of course

Natalie MacLean 26:46
Of course; pairing is always important. I’ve learned about hawks how they mantle their food; like they just sort of put their wings around. It’s like “ Back off”

Joel Peterson 26:54
So ravens also figure heavily in legend because of their unique personalities. In Indian legend they found man in a pod on a beach and taught him how to survive under the worst possible circumstances; brought fire and light, stole the star, moon and sons from the other gods so that man would have this energy

Natalie MacLean 27:17
That’s great. Oh my gosh, I just love that that you’ve dug deep here. Oh, Paul: He’s enjoying baby back ribs with a blend of Ravenswood;  Great match. Yes baby back ribs would be a great match would it not for

Joel Peterson 27:36
Baby back ribs are a wonderful match. And you know there are several wines that go really well with baby back ribs, in part because Zinfandel has this really pretty sweet fruit. The blend he may be talking about is Besieged, which is a traditional California field blend based on what California did pre prohibition; nobody was trying to make varietal wines. They were trying to make wines that tasted good and were particular for that location. And they planted grapes together called Zinfandel, of course, Petite Sirah, Carignan and Alicante, Bouschet, sometimes a little Grenache, sometimes a little Syrah, sometimes a little Mataro or Mourvèdre. But those were the blending grapes of California and so Besieged is based on that concept,

Natalie MacLean 28:21
Okay, interesting. So, I don’t know if I’ve gone in sequence here but would this one, perhaps be next up? Old Vine Lodi.

Joel Peterson 28:33
Okay, so Lodi, that would be a perfect next step.

Natalie MacLean 28:39
Okay, good, tell us about this one and how it differs from the last ones we were looking at.

Joel Peterson 28:44
Okay, the last one; the Vintners Blend is a California blend and that has old vines in it from Lodi and Mendocino and Amador, and little bit from Sonoma County as well. So it’s a composite blend I put together to taste good, to not be kind of over the top and not necessarily represent anything except Zinfandel from California. So this is Lodi. So we’ve narrowed the range in which I can play, so the average age of the vines in this bottle is about 85 years old. It is all from Lodi. Lodi is this growing region which is due east of San Francisco. The  Golden Gate Bridge forms a gap in the mountains or the hills and the air flows in through and across the Bay, and actually up into about an  11 mile stretch of Lodi, which would be sort of the north-south diameter of it and in which you can grow good grapes. If you go too far to the south or too far to the north the grapes begin tasting like brown sugar candy because it gets too hot. So this is an area where it gets warm days, cool nights: good diurnal variation. It’s been growing grapes for a long, long time; many old vines there. Much of this fruit during Prohibition, the reason it has so many old vines, is because much of this fruit got shipped to home winemakers in places like Canada, and places like eastern United States, and Chicago and places like that. So these vines stayed in. Up until fairly recently, maybe 20 years ago, most of this fruit was still shipped out. But it was kind of the playground of Gallo; if you drank Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a lot of the Lodi was in it. But people like Ridge and myself began to make wines from this area. And they turned out to be really pretty; they’re soft, they tend to be round, they tend to have a lot of blueberry tones to them, they tend to be spicy, and the winemaking tends to be a little bit more upscale than the winemaking in the Vintners Blend. The winemaking in the Vintners Blend tends to be larger volumes, not massive volumes, but larger volumes and the Lodi tends to be smaller, some of the tanks are punchdown tanks, some of the tanks are pumped over tanks, we’re using a bit more French oak in this: it gets about 20% new French oak. It stays in barrel, you know, not 10 months but it stays in barrel for 14 months. So it’s got a little bit more time to evolve and change. So we make it a little bit bigger than the Vintners Blend, if you will, but it also has got the character of Lodi.

Natalie MacLean 31:27
So can we talk alcohol, please. So this is 14.5. So as I’m tasting these, to me, they don’t taste hot. But 14.5 and I’ve got some others here. 14.9. Holy smokes! So what makes a balanced wine, even if you’re at high alcohol and why do these wines have high alcohol and can still not taste hot?

Joel Peterson 31:56
Okay, so let’s talk about why they have high alcohol to start with. And then I will give you a whole dissertation on alcohol, which is great. I’m glad you asked that question. So Zinfandel is an uneven ripening grape. A cluster of Zinfandel has berries that are perfectly ripe berries that are slightly under ripe, and berries that are slightly overripe or slightly withered on the same cluster. If you pick Zinfandel too early, and it doesn’t have a few of these slightly overripe berries on it, the wines have lower alcohols, but they don’t have any kind of internal substance. They don’t have any character, or weight, or any of those things that make them into really good table wines, to make them competitive with wines that are from the Rhône or other good European wines, if you will. So you have to get some of that. The trouble with getting some of that, is that these slightly withered berries have extra sugar in them. So you can pick the grapes at what you think is 23 Brix, which is might be where you would pick Cabernet. But actually in the fermenter, it ends up at 25 Brix. So there are two ways of dealing with that, either you can pick earlier and get lighter wine, or you can try to find exactly the right spot. So you end up with alcohols around 14 or 14.5, or you can do what some people are doing, you can let them get really ripe because they’re trying to make these big, dense, slightly sweet wines and dilute them back. And hopefully, so you get to like 15 or something like that, but frequently end up with 16 with some residual sugar associated with them. So alcohol is like one of these funny things, I try to pick at that precise point where the wines come in between 14 and 15% alcohol. And the wines are fresher that way, than they are if you let them get riper, and then water them back, and they have more staying power, and there’s just better brightness. Now, on to balance. This is a more complicated picture than anybody ever thought it was. It turns out that because of a thing called reverse osmosis, we’ve been able to play with alcohol. There been several people who specialise in this. So it turns out that if you take a wine that is 16% alcohol, and you reduce the alcohol level to 13.5, it actually may taste more alcoholic in terms of the way you feel it, then it does at 16. It also turns out that alcohol is not linear. So if you take and you take this wine that you’ve reduced to 13.5, and you add back alcohol 1/10 point increments; so 13.6, 13.7, 13.8, 13.9, 14; you’ll find that there are what they call in the biz “sweet spots”. 13.5 may taste alcoholic, 13.6 and 13.7 may taste alcoholic  but you hit 13.8 and you suddenly reach this point of harmony, where you can’t really taste the alcohol and the wine seems to have good character, it seems more balanced. And then you hit 13.9 and it goes out of whack again, and it goes out of whack, I mean, and every wine is different, but maybe it’ll go up to 14.2 and you’ll say, “Wow, so another point of harmony” and 14.2 it really tastes good, again, doesn’t taste out of balance. So do this all the way up the scale, the effect of the alcohol is present, because alcohol makes the wine taste sweet, as well as everything else. So the wine will seem bigger and rounder at these sweet spots along the way. Now, the way I make wine, the way most people make wines, we’re not using reverse osmosis. So it’s a bit of a crapshoot. And whether you end up at one of these sweet points or not, and this is why we blend. We keep all my Lodi vineyards separate from one another, and then I begin to sort of create a blend. And part of creating a blend is creating the harmony. And really part of what we’re doing is finding the sweet spot for alcohol by blending

Natalie MacLean 36:00
The sweet spot for alcohol; where it comes together with the flavour and it’s not distinguishable as that’s alcohol, that’s heat, that’s worth

Joel Peterson 36:09

Natalie MacLean 36:10
Okay. That’s interesting. Kari is saying “punch down”, is it two processes? I’m not sure what that means. Do you know?


Joel Peterson 36:21
I’m not sure what she means. But we can describe punch down. You know, when I was first making wine,  punch down is where the winemaker literally stands on a board above the vat, and has a punch, which is a disc on the end of the board and pushes the must or the grape skins back into the juice. So you get more of the homogenization of the juice and the mixing, so that you get more flavour out of the skin. The other technique that is used, there are lots of techniques that are used,  is called pumpover, where you take the juice off the bottom of the fermenter and you pump it over the top of the fermenter. So you’re creating this blanket of juice that then goes down through the skins and breaks them all up. They give you different things.  I mean, because you’re actually physically moving the skins around when you’re punching down, you tend to get more structure out of a wine like that, when you pump over it tends to be more gentle; it’s a way of maintaining more of the fruit in the wine. So winemaking techniques tend to be customised to grapes. So for instance, in Burgundy, they use a lot of hand punch down and they actually walk around in the must in some places there just to get it broken up. Because Pinot Noir has got thinner skins and it’s not quite as tannic, and you’re really trying to get as much tannin out of it; so a lighter colour grape. But in Bordeaux, where they have this big, massive tannic grape, you know, Cabernet Sauvignon, they tend to pump over because it gets less extractive and you don’t get any of the bitterness associated.

Natalie MacLean 38:00
Well, I need a part two here because I need to show the other wines and have another conversation with you. Okay, so I am going to show you two wines here, Joel, from the Dickerson vineyard because I have them here. 2013, 2014 from the Dickerson if you want to tell us a little bit about these,

Joel Peterson 38:24
I would be happy. Okay, those are my single vendor designated wines. So we’ve just kind of moved down an echelon, or up an echelon in the sense that the vineyards I make distinct single vineyard wines are really unique, very special vineyards that stand alone, they just make terrific wine. So Dickerson vineyard is a vineyard that was planted in 1920 on Zinfandel Lane in Napa Valley. It was one of the first vineyards planted on leaf roll infected rootstock. So this changes the way that vineyard metabolises. So instead of being big and round and plummy, like you might expect a Napa Valley Zinfandel to be, it tends to be having more red fruit, lots of raspberry tones, lots of spicy tones, some cedar aromatics, and there’s a little bit of a mintiness to it as well because there’s a hint of the koala. There’s a eucalyptus tree not so far away from it. So it has what I call airoir.

Natalie MacLean 39:25
I wanted to get to that. Now, that’s pretty cool. Terroir we know or geeks know terroir, climate, soil, etc. Yeah, but what is airroir

Joel Peterson 39:36
Airroir is what you get from the environment around you. So the French like to talk about garrigue in southern France. They like to say that the odours of the lavender and the wild thyme and things; the oils blow off across the grapes, they land on the grapes and they flavour the wines. We certainly know that’s true with Eucalyptus. I’ve seen it also with things like bay trees. I have a friend who does wine analysis and he takes things apart with this gas chromatograph. And he once gave me an extract and he said, Hey, what’s this? What are the wines? I said, Jeez, it smells like a fry restaurant, it smells like greasy. And he said, Yeah, he says this vineyard is right behind a fast food restaurant that vents out over. He says, the character that you’re getting is in fact, you know, Gregory’s.  We tasted the wines, you couldn’t actually taste it in the wine, it comes out as this lightly interesting character. He wouldn’t say oh my god that smells like a greasy spoon. But it’s there and the same if you showed me another one that was next to a diesel truck stop. And this fraction you can actually smell the diesel fuel but in the wine, it was there. But it was like you know, only if you knew

Natalie MacLean 40:54
What’s happening? Is it the molecules, airborne molecules, settling on the leaf so the grapes,

Joel Peterson 41:01
It’s actually the airborne molecules settling on the clusters. You see it most radically with say, eucalyptus trees which produce oil and in windy years that are quite hot the wines near Eucalyptus tend to have a more Eucalyptus flavour associated with them. Because there are  these little drops of oil that blow out across the vineyard and ultimately, are highly flavoured. If you’ve ever been in a sauna with Eucalyptus, you know how distinct it is. So t when those get on the grapes, they’re there to stay. They go through the whole winemaking process with you.

Natalie MacLean 41:35
Hmm. So they actually impact the flavour of the final wine.

Joel Peterson 41:40
They do. Absolutely. Heitz Martha’s Vineyard is a perfect example. You know how every everybody talks about how minty it is and how eucalyptusy it is? Yeah, that’s that and taste almost any Australian Shiraz. It  always has that kind of minty, eucalyptus note. That’s because it’s got Eucalyptus around.

Natalie MacLean 42:02
Interesting. Okay. Well, we’ll take your word for it, but I’ve sensed it too as well. So we’ve got the Dickerson. Is there much difference in your opinion between the 2014 and 2013?

Joel Peterson 42:16
Not really, they’re both from the same vineyard. 2013 was a bit of a smaller vintage, so it tends to be a little bit more concentrated and there tends to be a little bit more roundness to the fruit, but they’re both very pretty. Bill Dickerson was a very good friend of mine, and he and I were running a Domaine Chandon race before I knew him actually, he was in my father’s group when I was a kid. So I’d run into him before. And we were running along. And I looked over at this guy, and I said, I know this guy. And I said, Tony, I know you from somewhere. And he looked over at me, and he said, I’m sure I don’t know you. I was in my long hair days. And I said, Yeah, that’s the North Carolina accent. I know you. You’re Bill Dickerson, aren’t you? And he looked at me in a slightly horrified way, thinking I was probably one of his patients. He was a psychiatrist. So he said, What are you doing here? I said, Well, I got a little winery. I said, What are you doing here? So like a little dinner, you know, and I found out he grew Zinfandel. So I’m running along, I’m trying to negotiate Zinfandel from him. And he says, you know, maybe you’d like to start running now. He said, we’re getting near the end of the race. We can talk about this afterwards. Now he’s old enough to be my father. So he’s like, 20 years older than I am, at least. And I’m just thinking, Okay, old man, let’s run. And he beats me by a full minute; it was pretty embarrassing. So we ended up doing this vineyard together and he insisted that I make wine for him, as well. So he had something called Dickerson Press of vineyards. And it was the same wine basically. I would start the bottling line,  I would bottle myself 1800 cases, I bottled 200 cases for him. And then I finished up with the bottling line. But you know, this wine has never got the same score from a wine writer. And sometimes even the same periodical. Even though they were identical wines.

Natalie MacLean 44:01
Those wine writers; they’re so unreliable

Joel Peterson 44:03
Those wine writers are  so difficult.

Natalie MacLean 44:05
Don’t get me going. So let’s differentiate. This is the Belloni.  Am I saying this right?

Unknown Speaker 44:14
Oh, yes.

Natalie MacLean 44:15
Belloni from the Dickerson. What is the Belloni?

Joel Peterson 44:18
Belloni is one of my favourites. So Dickerson is the name of the vineyard, Belloni is the name of the vineyard. Dickerson’s is 100% Zinfandel, but Belloni is one of the true old vine field blends, vines  planted around 1900

Natalie MacLean 44:34
Let’s define field blend. It’s because they really they planted a bunch of different vines and whatever, right?

Joel Peterson 44:41
Yeah, this is a co-plantation. So back in the old days, they didn’t really care to make varietal wines, they just wanted to make the best flavoured one. And different regions have slightly different mixes of grapes depending on what they needed. So this is Russian River, so it has a fair amount of Alicante Bouschet because they had trouble getting colour, but they also had to let it hang long enough so they needed acidity. So it’s got some Carignan. It’s got a little Mataro in it as well, and a little Petite Sirah. So I pick all the grapes together, and I co-ferment them so that you get all the goodness and all the synergies that those grapes bring to one another. But made exactly the same way the Dickerson is made. Yeah, same time in top fermenters,  the same time in barrel, the same native yeast. But of course native yeast, this is another place we can go if you’re interested. Native yeast is part of terroir. Now, the native yeast. Every vineyard has a fingerprint. We know now based on all this good DNA we do with PCR, every vineyard has a fingerprint that is identical for that particular vineyard.

Natalie MacLean 45:44
PCR is what?

Joel Peterson 45:46
PCR or polymerase chain reaction. Polymerase chain reaction, it’s the new way we have of looking at mixed solutions of organisms and identifying them with their DNA. People used it originally on gut microflora when they’re trying to figure out you know, why people had colitis, and things like that. But it turns out, you can use it in vineyards. So we can look at the mix of micro flora. In, for instance, fermentation solutions, we can look at micro  flora on grapes by crushing the grapes all together. And we can identify every fungus and every bacteria within that particular solution. So it’s quite amazing.

Natalie MacLean 46:36
Wow, you’re so into science. This is not enough. This one conversation. We need to do this again. Well, at least you know what, it’s gone so fast. Joel, really, I mean it, I want to have you back again and dive deeper because the stories bring to life the wine, and yet there’s lots of education wedged in the middle crevices, which are amazing. I’m going to close this right now. Not that I want to, but because you need to go on and have your life and other people need you. But I want to invite you back again. When you come back, please, you know soon. And talk with us again, because this is amazing. I love all the history, all of the science, all of the backstory. It’s been terrific.

Joel Peterson 47:26
I would be delighted to do that. It’s great fun to talk to you, you ask good questions. And this technology. It’s amazing. We can do it. I mean, it’s not that hard. It’s not like I have to travel. Any place that I can just pull out my computer;  we can talk.

Natalie MacLean 47:42
Yeah, it’s it’s pretty cool. Bringing us together through wine and technology

Joel Peterson 47:47
It’s good.

Natalie MacLean 47:48
So thank you so much for a great chat. I really appreciate it.

Joel Peterson 47:53
Thank you, Natalie. All right. See you soon.

Natalie MacLean 47:55
Yeah, absolutely. Good luck.

Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my chat with Joel Peterson. Here are my takeaways. 1. I love Joel’s story about tasting wines as a child and learning to identify aromas, like not just apples but the type of apples by smelling and eating them. That’s how we all can learn to be better sniffers and tasters

  1. The historical roots of Zinfandel, and its links to Croatia when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as the Venetian courts is fascinating. As is the detective work to establish the grapes true heritage and parentage. Its history goes back to 1488 and it’s one of the 12 founding grapes of all wine grapes.
  2. I now understand better why Lodi makes such great Zinfandel with its deep sandy soils that were once part of an ancient ocean bed. This produces larger grape clusters with smaller skin to flesh ratios, resulting in less harsh tannins and a smoother juicy or fruity or wine.
  3. I also appreciate how wine achieves sweet spots of different alcohol levels where everything is imbalanced. I eat the fruit and the acidity; say at 13.8% alcohol but maybe not at 13.9%; especially when it comes to Zinfandel.
  4. The concept of airroir is fascinating and something I want to explore more in the wines I taste in terms of their influences.
  5. I love the story of the Ravenswood name, including all the raven folklore and Poe and Odin.

You won’t want to miss next week when I chat with Janet Fletcher, the author or co-author of nearly 30 books on food and beverage, including Cheese and Wine. She publishes the weekly Planet Cheese blog, and her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Saveur, Fine Cooking and Food and Wine. We’re talking about wine and cheese pairings for the holidays. In the meantime, if you missed Episode 45 go back and take a listen. It’s all about pairing wines with Turkey, whether that’s for Thanksgiving, if you live in the US, or for the upcoming holiday season around the world. I also chat about wine trends that you can completely ignore, and a weird wine defect called mouse. Who knew? I’ll share a short clip with you now, to whet your appetite.

Unlike poultry and gamebirds turkey meat is very dry in texture especially if I cook it. No, I can’t cook. What am I saying? I pull corks; I don’t cook. Even with the best of cooks Turkey is not your friend in terms of juiciness. Good options wine wise are crisp whites like Riesling and Pinot Grigio. And yes, you can drink red wine with white meat. Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Gamay, Zinfandel, all have juicy, berry ripe flavours that go well with the turkey. What you want to avoid really are grippy tannin- big reds like Cabernet. A big buttery Chardonnay from California Chile can complement the roasted smoky flavours of squash, chestnuts, and pecan stuffing. But if you’d rather have a contrast to the richness of cream sauces and dressings, try a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or an Austrian Gruner Veltliner.

If you like this episode, please tell one friend about it this week, especially someone you know who’d be interested in the wine tips that Joel Peterson shared. You can find links to the wines we tasted in the show notes, the video version of this chat, where you can find me on Facebook Live every second Wednesday at 7pm, and how you can join me in a free online wine and food pairing class. That’s all in the show notes at nataliemaclean.com/104. Thank you for taking the time to join me here. I hope something great is in your glass this week. Perhaps a lip smacking delicious Zinfandel.

You don’t want to miss one juicy episode of this podcast, especially the secret full body bonus episodes that I don’t announce on social media. So subscribe for free now at nataliemaclean.com/subscribe. We’ll be here next week. Cheers