The Oenophiliac

Bringing you stories from the world of wine and beer.

Mike Matthews – A Profile of California’s King of Zin – Joel Peterson and Ravenswood Wines

Ravenswood labelsCalifornia has been a hotbed of great wine for many years now, even if somewhat misunderstood. The massed produced styles of Gallo’s Rosé have dominated supermarkets and High St outlets for a long time now, thus giving a poor representation to the true nature of this States wonderful wine.
California’s history dates back as far as the 1700’s when missionaries and immigrants alike crossed the ocean and began planting European vines. On top of wine production, California is home to one of the world’s foremost wine and agricultural research institutes, University of California: Davis. Also, California is the fourth largest wine producer in the world, behind France, Italy and Spain. Not bad for a single state!

When it comes to grape varieties California is synonymous with one particular style, a grape the winemakers of the region have long claimed as their own, Zinfandel. The story of this grape can be traced back to Croatia, under the tongue twisting titular title of Crljenak Kaštelanski. There was a long time debate over the origins of Zinfandel. DNA profiling showed it to be the same as Primitivo of Italy, which in turn could be tracked back to the same said Croatian grape. Zinfandel wines are fairly robust reds, peppery, full of fruit and flavour, yet juicy and very, very nice.

Take a trip to the West coast of America and you will find one man who has made a living out of producing world class Zinfandel, Joel Peterson, co-founder and winemaker of Ravenswood Wines. Known affectionately as ‘The Godfather of Zin,’ Peterson inherited his father’s passion and enthusiasm for wine as a child. Walter Peterson was somewhat of a local pioneer in wine during the 1950’s. In a time where wine was far down the list of beverages of choice, Walter would organize weekly meetings of, what would become, the San Francisco Vintners Club. It was at one of these meetings where a ten year old Joel sat in on his first tasting. Having developed a fine palate and understanding of European wines by his teens, Joel supplemented his way through college by working weekends in the local wineries. After graduating, and whilst working as a medical researcher, Peterson had developed a solid reputation as a consultant and wine writer.

It wasn’t until 1972, a year after the death of his influential father, that Joel, having worked his apprenticeship with respected Zinfandel producer Joseph Swan, made the first steps into producing his own wine. In 1976, after four years, Peterson, along with colleague Reed Foster, founded Ravenswood. Their first vintage delivered up 327 cases of Dry Creek Zin, this proved a bit of a triumph; here they picked up 1st place at a prestigious San Francisco tasting.

The first six years of the business had a rather nomadic existence, moving from winery to winery. After twelve years, Ravenswood finally made enough money to buy their own winery, located on the northern edge of the Sonoma Valley, where the visitor centre and tasting room is still situated. Success didn’t buy financial independence immediately, fifteen years to be exact! After Joel moved to Sonoma in 1977, he took a job in the clinical lab at the Sonoma Valley Hospital. Peterson maintained this position where every penny earned was ploughed straight into the wine business. It wasn’t until 1992 that he could finally resign his role from the alternate day job to focus all efforts on Ravenswood.

I first discovered Ravenswood wines in the late 1990’s whilst working for the Ravenswood logocompany I was involved with at the time. These wines were a revelation. When everything American in the UK was being dominated by Gallo, here was a wine that was actually brilliant. I made the conscious effort not to sell it with my other Californian wines, reason? I didn’t want to bring it down to Gallo’s level, so I sold it with my Australian wines instead. The packaging stood out a mile. A circle of three ravens with interlocking feet, a firm favourite with ardent Zinfandel fans who have taken to tattooing it to their bodies.

Ravenswood is a multi-award winning winery picking up accolades from Decanter World Wine Awards, International Wines & Spirit Challenge, Berlin Wine Awards, International Wine Award and many others.

In a recent lunch-tasting, hosted by Joel Peterson at Vinoteca in London, I had the opportunity to chat with the guy and try an extensive range of his work. A truly remarkable man.

On show we had the Vintners Blend Zinfandel 09, Lodi Zinfandel 09, Napa Zinfandel 10, Sonoma Zinfandel 09, Single Vineyard Teldeschi 09, Single Vineyard Teldeschi 06 and the highlight of the afternoon, Ravenswood Belloni 1995. All the wines were exceptional, which was a bit of a relief. When you have long admired a winery the worry is that you taste a broad range from different areas and alternate years and they don’t live up to expectation. No problems here!

The 1995 Belloni showed that good Zinfandel can age very well. There were distinct rich, sweet fresh red fruit and coffee notes on the nose. The palate still picked up those sweet fresh red cherry and raspberry fruit characters yet it was still as young as the day it was bottled.
Price unknown – Retailer Unknown

One that is available in the UK, the one that got me hooked on Ravenswood in the first place, the Lodi Zinfandel. To begin with the nose emitted lovely, easy, soft red cherry fruit with a touch of white pepper. The flavours are a mix of initial Spice, soft red fruit plus some noticeable acidity. As these flavours develop the cherry flavours begin to fill out to a dark black cherry finish. 14% ABV.

RRP – £9.98 individually or currently on offer at £7.48 per bottle when you buy it as part of a 6 bottle case from

Enough said from me. I think I’ve made my point!

For more information on Ravenswood Wine visit

Prices correct at time of publication. Offers subject to availability. Terms and Conditions Apply.

All reviews are my own. I am not paid for any reviews I write. I will always give an honest assessment of the wines I taste and review.

Story by me!

Taken from my Huffington Post UK blog – Lifestyle Section

The Huffington Post


4 comments on “Mike Matthews – A Profile of California’s King of Zin – Joel Peterson and Ravenswood Wines

  1. marikane
    December 4, 2012

    Sounds like Joel is still on tour, the one he started here in Vancouver a month ago. Thanks for the link to my review!


    • Magics Wine Guide and Reviews for Newbies.
      December 4, 2012

      No problem. One hell of a guy.
      I always like to link in relevant stories.


  2. I never would have thought how much stuff you could find out there about this!
    Thank you for making it simple to get it


    • Magics Wine Guide and Reviews for Newbies.
      March 2, 2013

      Much appreciated.
      It was a very good afternoon. As for Joel Peterson, it was a delight and pleasure for me to have spent time with the great man.


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