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Tuesday Trials and Tribulations
Serious Zinfandel For Serious Winelovers: Ravenswood

By Stephen Eliot

Zinfandel’s fortunes may have waxed and waned over the years, but those who know and love Zin have been a very loyal bunch willing to forgive its occasional episodes of excess. There have been silly claims lately that Zinfandel has suffered years of directionless wandering in the wilderness, and the message seems to be that there has been nothing worth drinking for a generation or more, but, make no mistake, there have been folks making very good, very serious Zinfandel all along, and one of the very best has been Joel Peterson of Ravenswood.

Rather surprisingly, however, Joel is rarely, if ever mentioned by the new, in-the-know, “we are going to break you of your bad habits” school of wine writing. Maybe that is because Ravenswood is now a huge, corporate concern that is responsible for a million or more cases and that conventional “wisdom” precludes any possibility that fine wine can be made on such a large scale. Maybe it is simply because Ravenswood is not new. Maybe the winery’s motto of “No Wimpy Wines” automatically tags the label as unacceptable in an era where subtlety and understatement are, by many, proclaimed the ultimate aims of any fine wine, and that authority and richness are regarded as liabilities. Whatever the reason, the slight of being so ignored is unjustified.

Yes, Ravenswood is very big and does, in fact, make oceans of everyday Zinfandel, some of it quite good, but I wonder how many people are aware that Joel oversees all aspects of the winery’s limited single-vineyard bottlings and is still very much a hands-on winemaker who has few peers when it comes to understanding the ways of Zinfandel. It is true that his wines are not and never have been wimpy, but they are remarkable studies in varietal character and true terroir that handily dispel any notion that ripeness and keen expression of place are de facto mutually exclusive.

As proof, one need look no farther than Joel’s newly released 2011s and our recently published tastings of which are included below. Not only are the wines very good, they are each of a singular piece with a personality all its own, and this from a less-than-forgiving year.

One of the great virtues of Zinfandel is its ability to succeed in a wide range of styles from light and quaffable to complex and broad-shouldered to alcoholic, over-the-top versions that suggest chocolate and prunes more than wine, but it would be a sorry day if one model was to prevail at the expense of all others. I have my favorites and do not begrudge those who disagree, but credit needs be given where credit is due, and, in that regard, I would offer a most appreciative hurrah for Joel and his wines.

94 RAVENSWOOD Teldeschi Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2011 $35.00
Ravenswood takes its accustomed place at the head of the class with its collection of single-vineyard offerings from 2011, and, among the many of a very good lot, the Teldeschi bottling wins top honors once again. Leading with a sweetly perfumed nose of dark berries and briar with highlights of stony soil lending it a singular complexity all its own, the wine comes across as serious and even somewhat brooding on the palate, and, while fairly sturdy, it is never severe. It is as deep as or deeper than most Zins we have yet tasted from the vintage, and there is not an ounce of fat to found on its well-muscled frame. It can only improve in the decade to come.

92 RAVENSWOOD Belloni Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2011 $35.00
Fairly intense and not lacking for ripeness but showing nary a trace of chocolaty excess and convincingly keyed on very well-focused, blackberry fruit, the Belloni bottling is full and fleshy with a nice sense of youthful buoyancy and an ever so slightly lighter step than typical Ravenswood workings. That is not to say that it wants for richness or depth, and it has the structured feel of a wine sure to age famously. Tuck it away for three to five years and match it up with hearty pastas bathed in a meaty Bolognese sauce.

92 RAVENSWOOD Dickerson Zinfandel Napa Valley 2011 $35.00
Standing slightly apart from its meaty mates from Sonoma and showing a distinctive red-berry twist to its message of energetic, young fruit, this Zinfandel from Napa's Dickerson Vineyard is a wine of emphatic brightness rather than one that places all of its eggs in the basket of concentration and ripeness. It shows a bit of roundness to start and an edge of oaky sweetness to be sure, but it is neither soft nor sweet in character, and it quickly tightens as its ample acidity demands. We see it working quite well with tomato-laced ragouts in the short term, and it looks likely to age with real grace.

91 RAVENSWOOD Old Hill Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2011 $60.00
Ravenswood Old Hill bottlings are typically the toughest and the least outwardly fruity of the bunch, and, if arguably a bit fruitier than usual, this years' version comes with all of the structured solidly we expect. It a deep and decidedly complex offering with lots of briary spice and suggestions of stony soil to the side of its concentrated, dark berry aspects, and it is as always a brooding wine whose tannic frame tags it as one needing age. Some four or five years would seem the minimal wait, but it will be going strong for a good many more.

90 RAVENSWOOD Barricia Zinfandel Sonoma Valley 2011 $35.00
This ripe and extracted young Zin comes with a clear sense of old-vine concentration, yet it is among the more accessible and open of the Ravenswood's single-vineyard offerings in 2011. It is as fixed on dark berries at the end as it is at the start, and it hints at minerals and dusty soil from front to back. It is slightly juicy and just a touch tannic with a bit of heat showing up at the finish, but very well-defined fruit stays the course and is the wine's most lasting message.

88 RAVENSWOOD Big River Zinfandel Alexander Valley 2011 $35.00
This may be the ripest of the new Ravenswood lot, but it does not go the way of chocolaty heaviness, and it delivers a fair bit of bright, slightly raspberry-like fruit. It is fleshy, big-bodied and a bit hot in the bargain, and it is firmed by acidity more than by tannin. We expect that it will remain a bit ripe and unruly even as it develops over the next several years, but Zinfandel does not need to be prim and pretty to succeed as long as it is as well-filled in fruit as this one is.


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by TomHill
Posted on:1/29/2014 12:02:37 PM

Totally agree, Charlie, that Joel seems to be overlooked these days by Zin lovers....and because of the corporate ownership of Ravenswood. But he's still very much involved in the making of the vnyd-designate Zins (probably not the Old-Vine or Vintner'sBlend, much, I would guess). and I think they're as good as they've ever been, maybe even better. And I think he is a guiding force behind Morgan's Bedrock efforts as well.

   In the Dickerson Zns, I do miss that distinct eucalyptus/minty character that they used to show & made that wine so distinctive. I understand the nearby eucalyptus trees were taken down some yrs ago.



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