Thursday, November 29, 2007

Last Night's Tipple

Back in the late '80s and early '90s, wine critics and wine consumers commonly referred to the three Rs of Zinfandel: Ridge, Rosenblum, and Ravenswood. The first and the last of that group were most often mentioned together because they provided a study in contrasts: Ridge made wines noted for their restraint and elegance (and the fact that they were -- and are -- aged in American oak). Ravenswood isn't like that.

Ravenswood is the creation of Joel Peterson. Peterson is a baby boomer whose parents were both chemists. Peterson pere was also a major figure in the Bay Area wine connoisseur community, and Peterson fils has been tasting wines since he was 10 years old. When he was a boy, his father would measure out the wines that he served him and then measured what was in Joel's spitoon after the tasting. If the two measurements didn't match, there would be hell to pay. Joel went on to get a degree in molecular biology and to work as a researcher in a hospital. But he retained an interest in wine, and he started Ravenswood to be something of a sidelight and hobby in 1976. Commercial success and critical acclaim -- not least by Robert Parker of The Wine Advocate -- in the mid to late 1980s eventually allowed him to quit his day job and to become Ravenswood's full-time winemaker. Peterson chose "No Wimpy Wines" for Ravenswood's motto, and he has made wines in keeping with that motto from the beginning. They're big, highly-extracted, packed with flavor and tannin, and aged in French oak. To call Ravenswood the anti-Ridge would be misleading: both wineries believe and have believed in natural winemaking with the highest-quality fruit available. It's just that the wines that Peterson believes to be ideal are very different from the wines Paul Draper, the winemaker at Ridge, believes to be so.

Ravenswood went public in 1999 and was purchased by beverage Goliath Constellation Brands in 2001. That fact hasn't helped Ravenswood with wine connoisseurs, who tend to be very suspicious of the vinous products of big corporations. They also don't tend to like that Ravenswood has become ubiquitous over the past ten or twelve years, primarily because of the Vintner's Blend range, which is responsible for 800,000 cases of Ravenswood's 1 million cases sold per year. Vintner's Blend wines are simple, pleasant, and cheap, and they can be found anywhere. Familiarity breeds contempt. But if you read reviews of Ravenswood's single-vinyard wines, particularly of the flagship Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel, it's evident that critics still think that Peterson makes some excellent wines. It's just that Ravenswood has long since ceased to be the Flavor of the Month.

Ravenswood's County series of wines lies between the Vintner's Blend range and the single-vinyard range. There are five Zinfandels in the current 2005 vintage: Sonoma County, Napa County, Amador County, Mendocino County, and Lodi. Since Ravenswood is a Sonoma County winery, and since some of their best-known and most-respected wines are made from Sonoma County grapes, I decided to give the Sonoma County bottling a try first. Wow. If any wine can be said to have "hedonistic gobs of fruit," this is it: lots and lots of sweet raspberries. It actually tastes like raspberries and cream, the cream coming from the French oak, I would assume. At 15% alcohol, it packs quite an alcoholic punch. It's also pretty tannic, but there's so much fruit that I didn't really notice the tannin much. I like it. A lot. Especially at $13 a bottle.

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