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Q&A: Joel Peterson, Ravenswood Winery, Sonoma

Q&A: Joel Peterson, Ravenswood Winery, Sonoma
© Ravenswood Winery
Joel Peterson, 65, is head winemaker at Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma. He is also a senior vice-president of Constellation Brands, which bought Ravenswood in 2001.

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

I see a man who is getting mature, who is ready for the next challenge, but who is very happy with his life so far. And is thrilled with his family and his very good luck.

What drew you to wine?

I grew up with wine. It was one of the things I did with my father. He wasn't one to play football or baseball, but wine was his passion and I shared it.

My mother was the one who discovered wine. She found a 1945 Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 1951. She was learning to cook, and read that the French drank wine with their meals. She'd never had wine before. She bought a bottle of wine and they had it with Thanksgiving dinner, then they got a catalog and ordered a case of French wine. It was an amazing case  an introduction to the wines of France: Bordeaux, Beaujolais, the whole nine yards.

My father was so excited about that wine, he flew to L.A. to meet the importer. He started a wine club: Darrell Corti was part of it and Narsai David. Paul Draper would drop in. It was an amazing group of people.

How old were you when the group was meeting?

I generally tasted before the meetings with my father. I was, like, 10 years old. I didn't taste a huge amount, but my father would use me to get words for wine. He'd say, 'Smell these wines, tell me what you smell.' When I was teenager I sat in with the group.

That sounds like the way you raised your son Morgan (the owner/winemaker of Bedrock).

The difference between Morgan and myself is that Morgan grew up in a winery.

Is great wine made in the vineyard or the winery?

You can't have one without the other; they work together in a symbiotic association. You can't make great wine without great grapes grown in a great place. But you also can't make great wine without somebody who understands the techniques that enable the greatness to come out of those grapes.

What's your position on natural wine?

There's a difference between natural wine and organic grape growing. My position is basically that I wouldn't make it, because I don't prefer it. But there are people who like to make it because they like taking risks.

I love the fact that wine comes in so many different forms and flavors. It's a kaleidoscope. There are natural wines that are so full of aldehydes that they give me a headache, but then I've had some wonderful natural wines. To me, natural wine means giving up techniques in your tool kit, rather than adding them.

Which of those tools do you least want to give up?

I think sulfur is the one I don't want to give up. It's mostly for damage control. I could give up refrigeration, I could give up stainless steel, I could give up all that. But sulfur is the one thing that keeps wine from being defective.

Do you make wine for the people, the critics, or yourself?

I run a winery; I make it for everyone. I have levels of wine I make for the people [that] I wouldn't necessarily drink myself – or it wouldn't be my first choice. But I make wine for people who want to have a quick drink with pizza.

The single vineyard wines, I make for the critics, but I'm the critic. My sense of style, my sense of character in the wine, comes from a long line of successful wines. Of course I make wines for myself, but I don't work in a vacuum. I started out as a geeky little winemaker who made geeky little wines. I had to broaden that idea.

What do you think of the Robert Parker system of ranking wines?

That's one of those discussions that can go on for a very long time. First of all, it's not really a 100-point system. It's compressed into a 20-point system. To give points below [80] is really rare. It's useful as long as you have somebody like Parker who is pretty consistent about the wines he likes in a certain way. The downside is it produces lazy wine sales people; they all rely on the score to sell the wine. And people read it like it's some kind of gospel, rather than one man's opinion about what wine is.

I have made wines under two labels and I've had them scored in the same periodical as much as five points apart. Same wines, different package. Like all judging of wine, it suffers from the wine that came before, the wine that came after, the time of day. All those things can affect a wine by as much as five points.

Joel Peterson pictured amongst his gnarly old zinfandel vines
© Ravenswood Winery | Joel Peterson pictured amongst his gnarly old zinfandel vines

What impact is the recession having on your business?

Surprisingly, the recession is having remarkably little impact on our business. It's held relatively steady. The wine business is more affected by collateral things like competition. In my case, you have other wineries that are coming in the market with inexpensive zinfandels in pretty packages. I have to meet that challenge.

Whom or what do you most admire?

I admire the tenacity of these old vines in California that have managed to stay in the ground and continue to attract people. There's a capacity to be a survivor. The old vines produced the best wines before Prohibition, they produced satisfactory home wine for home winemakers, they produced white zinfandel when it was called for, and they survived. And now they're producing exceptional wines when people are looking for wines that show a place.

In wine terms, who are your heroes?

I have to list Joe Swan – he taught me to respect wine. André Tchelitscheff had such a cheerful and thoughtful way of approaching wine. I have to throw Brad Webb in there; he created the modern wine business as we know it. Frank Schoonmaker, because he reassessed the way we sold wine in the United States. He made the definitive break from Europe in selling by grape variety instead of place names.

Steven Spurrier had the guts to take on the French and get grief about it ever after. I'd throw in André Simon, and Harry Waugh and Hugh Johnson – all of whom were very important in how we think about wine. They framed the subject for us and people ran with that frame. And all those people without names who managed to get vinifera from somewhere in the Middle East to Europe. All those Roman legionnaires who moved it around.

What do you most dislike in a wine?

I don't like bad winemaking where the wine has gotten away from the winemaker. They lack precision, they have serious defects and they don't taste good. You can have defects in the wine that are harmonious, but it disturbs me greatly when I see bad winemaking.

What has been your greatest winemaking achievement?

Making wine at all. It's a really happy circumstance of chance, luck and skill that's put me in a position to make wine. Who would have thought, when I grew up in Point Richmond and had no formal winemaking training, I would be making wine and be one of the most successful zinfandel producers in the world? That's amazing. I don't sit back and think about it often enough.

What has been your greatest winemaking failure?

My greatest winemaking failure had more to do with the time I lived in. I would have liked to have been more successful at convincing the world that zinfandel and zinfandel blends were a noble variety on par with cabernet – in terms of the price and the respect that it got. We've come a long way, but what I hoped to achieve is a lot more.

If you could make a special wine for a particular person, who and what would you choose?

I did make a special wine for my wife: a late-harvest gewürztraminer, because she's of Alsatian extraction. That is the highest calling of any husband, to do something nice for the wife.

What music do you listen to in the winery?

When we're all working together, we listen to a lot of mariachi. That's a given. It's lively, it's high energy, it's easy to work with. It makes cleaning out tanks kind of fun. When I'm doing more solitary work, I tend to listen to more classical.

When I used to punch down vats, I'd listen to things like Led Zeppelin. It just seemed appropriate. I punch down a vat every year, whether I have to or not, just to remind myself.

What do you drink on a school night?

When I turned 50, I promised myself I'd have a glass of Champagne every night the rest of my life to remind myself of what an amazing life I've had. On a school night I have Champagne, and on weekends I have Champagne.

[When] I have a glass of red it's always different. I love trying wine I haven't tried before. Morgan and I are always sharing stuff with each other that's unusual.

What has been your best experience in the wine industry?

I suppose the best experience has been being able to travel worldwide, and talk about the wines and share them with people who are interested. That's pretty magical. I get to know a cross-section of humanity.

How about your worst experience in the wine industry?

Brewing up a lot of wine that was totally my failure and having to throw it away. It was a long time ago – 1989. It represented a serious investment. It was painful.


The Dickerson vineyard at Ravenswood; a tombstone reflecting the winery's motto: "No Wimpy Wines"
© Ravenswood Winery | The Dickerson vineyard at Ravenswood; a tombstone reflecting the winery's motto: "No Wimpy Wines"

Are you adjusting your practices to climate change?

Currently, no. Unless you consider that climate change may have been responsible for 2010 and 2011. Of course, I adjusted my winemaking for those.

It's probably more true for northern Europe than it is for us. They've had more California-style vintages in the last 10 years then they've had in their history. [Now] they have to think about stuff like alcohol and ripeness.

If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

I'm not fond of all the sugar in juices. I don't drink a lot of juice, I drink a lot of water, I love coffee, I also drink interesting tea. It falls along the sense of wine, in that it comes with interesting flavors and relates back to place. But I don't drink anything as a substitute for wine with dinner. I drink wine.

Do you have a wine and food match you find hard to resist?

Popcorn and Champagne. There's something about the crispness and the saltiness that comes out of good popcorn.

If you weren't making wine in Sonoma County, where would you want to make wine?

I guess I'd like to make wine in the Rhône. I love the textural qualities of good Rhônes. I love the flavor profiles.

Where specifically?

Côte-Rôtie. They may not have been the greatest wines I've had, but the bottles from Côte-Rôtie have been the most satisfying at the moment I've had them.

How do national differences display themselves in wine?

National differences display themselves in the way that people think about tradition, and how innovative they are, and how readily they accept change. The French are very bound by tradition in the way they look at things. They have changed, but it's been slow and very argumentative and very French.

At the other extreme, you've got Australia, where it's the Wild West. They are trying to explore what is new and how to do it in ways that are effective and efficient. The Aussie personality wants it done quickly and wants it done well.

During harvest, who or what do you pray to?

If I had to make up mythical gods, I'd say I pray to the weather god. That would be tongue in cheek. I just hope for the best outcome. If I'm a good winemaker, I hope I have been knowledgeable enough to deal with whatever comes.

Where would you like to be buried?

I would like to have my ashes sprinkled at Bedrock, the vineyard that I own. Nothing could be finer than to be part of the wines some day. To appear molecularly in somebody's glass of wine.

What's the wine you'd like to have as your last?

1947 Cheval Blanc – the wine my father put down for me. There's a completeness from the beginning to the end. I think Champagne's a good beginning. That's why Morgan had Taittinger on his lips shortly after mother's milk. But for my last wine, it would have to do with memory.

Do you have any regrets?

No. Regrets are about paths not taken. The path that I took was the one that seemed right. To think about things that might have been, when I have been as fortunate as I might have been, makes no sense.

What brings you the greatest happiness?

Sitting around the dinner table with family and friends. It sounds trite, but it's true. Coming home from a trip like I did last night, sitting around the dinner table with family and friends, there's a warmth, a calmness that comes through.

What do you think would make the world a better place?

We could disarm everybody to start with. And then provide people with adequate food, shelter, health care and a good glass of wine.

You're a Democrat.

I don't make any secret of that.

In the end, what really matters?

People should find fulfillment in what they do, and they should do it in harmony with their environment. And they should be able to pass on a place that's as good, or better, to their children.

 

Some popular wines from Ravenswood Winery include:

To find any of the 50 wines available from Ravenswood Winery, click here.

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