Joel Peterson, founder-winemaker of Ravenswood since 1976, is as good for a quote as he is for a zin. I first met him at a tasting about a decade ago; a bunch of riffraff, layabouts and lowlifes (read: wine writers) had fallen to discussing Brettanomyces bruxellensis a.k.a. Brett.
It had just begun making news as the cause of the aroma, a.k.a. stench, the polite call "barnyard" and Voltaire called merde in some Burgundy and Rhone reds. Without skipping a beat Joel looked up to say "We used to call it gout de terroir. Now we known it’s just dirty wine-making."
Recently run to earth by the relentless Lisa Klinck-Shea, I joined him and some of my blameless-hence-nameless posse to score a free lunch while tasting some 2007s and shyly mooning over Jessica Lange. (Of whom more anon.) The site: Gramercy Tavern, a long-time Zagat champion. GT’s staff is attentive, knows how to pour, doesn’t fuss about and never comes begging you to surrender glasses that are still half full because they’re running out id stems below stairs. In fact, you can ask for and be sure of getting extra stems as needed. As is shortly to be seen.
Poured with Pleasure were seven single-vineyard wines. Six were Zins: Dickerson and Big River (the former Napa, the latter Alexander Valley, both 100%), and the blended Belloni (Russian River), Barricia and Old Hill (both Sonoma Valley) and Teldeschi
(Dry Creek Valley). The seventh was Pickberry (Sonoma Mountain), a Cab- Merlot blend. All are $35 each save for Pickberry ($50) and Old Hill ($60), but if we are far from the bargain basement here, note that costs rise with the making of small lots (these average 1800 cases each), organic certification (Old Hill) and old, low-yielding vines. The best things in life ain’t free, but there is always Ravenswood Vintners Blend, which is about $10 and nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s a delight.
The above, by the way, are in wide distribution. Several single-vineyards are available only at the winery, including Cooke, Todd, Bedrock, Ravenswood Estate and Chauvet (all Sonoma Valley) and Distasio (Amador County) are all Zins, and there’s also Angeli, an Alexander Valley Carignane) Peterson calls "almost Zinfandel."
Peterson’s mantra, for which boldface is a necessity, has long been No Wimpy Wines! and this selection lived up to it. Still, the alcohol, always plentiful in Zin (it ran from 14.2% to 15% at our table) did not intrude, as in many other red Californians. Other Zin sins (none committed here) are too much residual sugar and enough oak to make a camp stool.
The blends come from vineyards of "mixed blacks"–Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet–which Peterson says made up the ‘California Claret’ of the 19th Century. For lagniappe he poured his version of that wine, which he calls Icon ($75). The surprise is that Carignane is, for 2007, its lead grape at 36%.
Ravenswood’s vineyards are full of old vines or rattle-snakes or stories or all of the above. To buy Ricardo Belloni’s vineyard Peterson had to placate Belloni by promising to save him enough grapes every year so he could make his own wine. Done and done! Then one year Belloni didn’t come to pick up his grapes. When Peterson called to ask why, "he admitted he liked my wine better than his own." Barricia, Peterson’s favorite vineyard, is named for its current owners Patricia and Barbara; it once belonged to Sonoma farmer and Civil War General Fighting Joe Hooker. Teldeschi has many vines planted pre-Prohibition, some dating to 1900. The younger ones are from the 1950s.
We’d begun at noon and were threatening 4 when we broke up, with Peterson feeling best pleased with the growth in American wine consumption. ‘When I started out,’ Joel says ‘you didn’t drink wine in this country without a vowel at the end of your name, and now we’re nip-and-tuck with beer.’
Oh, yeah–Jessica Lange. One of us spotted the Rose of Cloquet, Minn. and a companion at a corner table hard by. Her two Oscars and recently mended collarbone seemed worthy of celebration to me. The wine steward briskly provided two more stems and I took it upon myself to present them along with the hope that she’d enjoy a taste of Barricia. She accepted, without calling Security. My companions were horrified, of course, in full ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ mode, pretending they weren’t at the same table, until she stopped by our table on her way out and graciously thanked me. Very graciously.
Then they were all ga-ga.