Wine on Starchefs RAVENSWOOD

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Ravenswood: Wines to Drink with Company
By Jim Clarke

The Ravenswood Logo-looks a bit like an 45 rpm record adaptor, no? 2004’s #1 wine trend: big fish eating little fish. And “little” is relative: witness the Mondavi buyout. A lot of wine drinkers are worried; the thinking is: bigger is not better; bigger means mass-produced. More generic. Middle-of-the-road. Mediocre.

It ain’t necessarily so. Wine companies can learn something from the music industry here. I remember when finding U2’s first record “Boy” was a challenge. They were recorded on Island Records, which was then a small label. Universal eventually bought them out and added them to their portfolio alongside Motown, DefJam, Geffen…and others. And under that umbrella the band U2 is widely available, has an enormous following, and has found a deeper, richer, musical expression and sophistication than anyone could have guessed (I’ll even forgive them for 1988’s “Rattle and Hum.”)

I can rewrite that story in wine, more-or-less. In 1976 Joel Peterson made his first vintage of Ravenswood wines: a meager 327 cases of prize-winning Dry Creek Zinfandel. The company was nomadic through the mid-80s, making each vintage in a different winery – wherever Joel could borrow the space, really. The wine was consistently outstanding, but it was hard to find, like “Boy.” The Vintners Blend series finally made Ravenswood profitable and they settled down in their own place in Sonoma.

In 1999 the Ravenswood went public. It was bought out by Constellation Brands two years later and took a prominent place within their fine-wine division, Franciscan Estates. Just as Universal owns a number of labels, Constellation Brands has several divisions or subsidiaries like Franciscan, specialized according to regional or marketing demands.

Why does it work? Because music labels and winemakers generally don’t make music or wine, they market it, promote it, and sell it. Good musicians and winemakers are both artists to some degree or another. If Bono is signed to a label, he is an asset only as much as he gets to be Bono. And when Constellation bought Ravenswood, the most important part of the package was Joel’s taste, experience, and knowledge. It behooves Constellation not to interfere with that; the best way for U2 and Ravenswood to make great products is for the companies behind them to stay out of the way when they’re doing their thing.

Ravenswood’s Discography

Joel looks to France as his winemaking role model – primarily to Burgundy. His techniques remain old-school: native yeasts, open-top fermenters, minimal temperature controls during fermentation, and extended skin contact. However, the centerpiece of Ravenswood’s portfolio is that most Californian of grapes, Zinfandel. Why not Pinot Noir, or Cabernet? When he started sourcing grapes, Joel was looking for several things: old vines, low yields, and good sites, among others. He valued these traits because they were prerequisites to making great wine in France. In California, Zinfandel came through on all accounts, even if it was was hardly known as a quality winegrape in the 1970s – or in France. An apprenticeship with Zin pioneer Joseph Swan and the opportunity to taste older bottlings of the grape reassured him of Zinfandel’s potential.

Joel makes wines from about ten vineyards that he feels consistently merit being bottled individually. This means the site embodies the qualities mentioned above, is tended by a conscientious grower, and yields a wine with a distinct flavor profile. One of the vineyards lies in Napa; the rest are in Sonoma. These are solo artists: one highly-gifted individual playing their heart out. Aside from being Zinfandel-based, they break with the French model in one other regard: they retail for about $30, something few, if any, single-vineyard Burgundies could do.

Dickerson VineyardThese Vineyard Designate wines also age beautifully, contrary to Zinfandel cliché. Like people, they become more comfortable with themselves as they grow old, and their personalities show more clearly and grow further apart from each other. In my notes I described three wines from the '90s in terms of other wine regions: a ’94 Dickerson Vineyard reminded me of Barbaresco, whereas a ’92 Belloni struck me as more Tuscan and a ’92 Old Hill evoked Bordeaux. All were beautiful and full of subtleties that were still hidden in their younger counterparts.

Almost as intimate are the County Series wines: several vineyards from a single county which are blended together. These are bands: each player brings something to the blend, so weaknesses in one can be covered by another. The winemaking follows much the same procedures as the Single-vineyard wines, but the individual vineyards aren’t up to going solo…yet. As the vines mature a vineyard may “go solo” in the future if they show their own depth, power, and personality on a consistent basis. County Series wines can sometimes achieve the same richness and complexity as a Vineyard Designate, but cost less – about half, generally – since they are made in greater quantities.

Vineyards – or individual blocks within a vineyard – that drop the ball in a particular vintage may be “declassified” into the Vintners Blend series. These wines are blended together with wine or grapes bought on a yearly basis from vintners around California; it’s putting together the various elements into a whole that creates balance, so the Vintners Blend wines show Joel’s skills as a blender and winetaster. It’s like a huge, multi-track recording of nameless, freelance studio musicians; no single performer stands out, but the producer makes sure that each contributes something to the ensemble. Given a great vineyard, the winemaker’s job is: don’t screw it up; making good wine by combining lesser material is another sort of test. The Vintners Blend wines don’t have the intensity or character of the more expensive bottlings, but they are consistently among the best values available in the $10 range.

In the wake of the recent wine documentary, Mondovino, worries about wine globalization are justified, but there are many models for how companies of any size can make and sell their wine without sacrificing individuality and quality. For every manufactured, Brittany Spears wanna-be there is a U2 out there following a muse. In both fields we can only hope that the companies can tell their artists from their assembly line, and give each their due. Ravenswood releases a great album every year, each with its own hits; they just call it a vintage instead.


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 Published: May 2005