There was a time when consumers who loved the zinfandel grape could follow the “R” rule, that is, they could buy zinfandel wines produced by Ravenswood, Renwood, Ridge or Rosenblum and have no qualms about quality or integrity. The truth, of course, is that many wineries in California make fine examples of zinfandel, and the labels are not confined to one letter of the alphabet, but Joel Peterson, the founder (with partner Reed Foster) of and still the winemaker for Ravenswood, was a leader in using French oak barrels to age zinfandel wines and in making zinfandels from single-designated vineyards.

Peterson, a clinical microbiologist, grew up in a household devoted to food and wine, though both of his parents were scientists. He made his first zinfandel wines — from single vineyards in Sonoma County — in 1976, and in the next five years the wandering winery moved five times. While making wine and trying to build a winery, Peterson worked nights and weekends in the laboratory at Sonoma Valley Hospital, a job he kept until 1992, when the success of the Ravenswood Vintners Reserve brand finally enabled him to become a full-time winemaker and winery owner. Industry giant Constellation Wines acquired Ravenswood for $148 million in 2001; Peterson remains as the winemaker and is a senior vice president at Constellation Wines US.

There are six single-vineyard zinfandels in the Ravenswood line-up. I recently tasted two of them from 2008, the Dickerson, from Napa Valley, and the Belloni, from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. One is high-toned, elegant, distinctly fueled by tannin and minerals; the other is more approachable, definitely more spicy and fruit-driven, though not decadent or over-done. You’ll see which is which. Ravenswood also makes a “County” line of zinfandels from Lodi, Sonoma and Napa, the expanded Vintners Reserve label, and several limited edition wines.

These wines were samples for review.


The Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley, feels balanced and harmonious from start to finish, though after 30 or 40 minutes, you feel the well-knit oak and tannin begin to assert their spicy, slightly woody and grainy influence. The wine, 100 percent varietal, aged 20 months in French oak, 30 percent new barrels, 28 percent one-year-old, the rest older. This is a zinfandel that feels warm with ripe fruit and spice and cool with graphite-like minerality. Notes of lavender, licorice and cloves highlight black currant, black cherry and plum jam scents and flavors in a package that’s sleek, polished and elegant, though tugged by the persistent gravity of those earthy, briery-brambly tannins; a few minutes in the glass bring in hints of bittersweet chocolate and black tea. 14.8 percent alcohol. Production was 755 cases. Drink now through 2016 to ’18. Excellent. About $35.

The oak regimen for the Ravenswood Belloni Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Russian River Valley, is close to the process for its cousin mentioned above; 20 months but with 32 percent new barrels and 32 percent one-year-old. The more important difference is in the make-up of the wine. While the Dickerson 08 is completely zinfandel, the Belloni 08 is a blend of 78 percent zinfandel with the balance of petite sirah, carignane and alicante bouschet grapes. For whatever reason — geography, climate, composition — the Ravenswood Belloni 08 make an immediate impression of size, ripeness and succulence, though it avoids anything sweet, jammy or over-ripe. Still, the tannins here, though certainly an influence on the wine’s dimension and structure, are softer, leaning a bit more toward the sanded graphite-in-velveteen camp. The wine is rich and warm and generously endowed with black currant, black plum and blueberry flavors dredged in cloves and allspice (with a touch of the latter’s faint astringency to lend complexity) and a strain of fruitcake that lingers provocatively through the finish. 15 percent alcohol. Production was 535 cases. Now through 2015 to ’16. Excellent. About $35.