This week is the inagural launch of my new monthly column, Winemaker 2 Winemaker. There are so many times when I get together with other winemakers and we have great discussions. I always learn something fun and exciting and I wanted to share those experiences with my readers. This month’s winemaker is Joel Peterson, founder of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, and all around gregarious personality.
NC: I know from our earlier conversations that you have been around wine all your life. How do you think this shaped your career?
JP: I think being around wine for the vast majority of my life has definitely shaped how I think about wine and certainly how I think about my career. Ultimately, I learned the ethic of fine wine very early. Many of the things that young winemakers struggle to understand or learn by trial and error I intuitively knew because of my youthful environment. I had an opportunity to taste wines from Europe that were considered legendary from vintages such as 1911, 1929, 1945, 1947, 1949 et al. These were in relative abundance and at ridiculously low prices. In my early twenties I had a number wine obsessed peers with whom I shared expansive wine dinners and blind tastings. Looking back on some of those bacchanals of great wines brings me near to blushing. Frequently these verged on the profligate. It was also a fairly competitive environment, and a whole lot of fun. The majority of the wines of that era are, sadly, unavailable or out of the financial reach of most young winemakers these days. These wines certainly informed my perception of what great wine could be, but it also taught me that every year is a new vintage and ultimately the fate of a winemaker and the wines from any given year is determined by many elements out of a winemaker’s control. Humility and patience came later with experience.
NC: The Ravenswood Motto is “No Wimpy Wines”. What was it that inspired that motto for you?
JP: The motto “no wimpy wines” was inspired by white Zinfandel, the ultimate wimpy wine. I got so tired of people asking me why my Zinfandel was not pink that by necessity I had to realign peoples’ expectations. No Wimpy Wines = nothing pink, sweet or wimpy. That slogan became something of a rallying cry for Ravenswood. Marketers have occasionally tried to reinterpret it as super powerful and Harley-esque, but it is really about a wine being true to the best expression of the core identity of grape and place. As a corollary think Nureyev and Ballet. No wimpy Ballet Dancer. Or think Einstein, no wimpy physicist. Of course you could also think powerful as in Thor, No wimpy Norse God.
NC: When you were starting down the path of winemaking was there a single person who you felt was an important inspiration for your style or did you pull from multiple sources?
JP: I certainly relied on multiple sources as inspiration for my style. I derived much of how I thought about wine from my own tasting experience. I also read a number of old winemaking texts from the 1800’s to try to understand wine making it its simplest form before there were things like refrigeration, cultured yeast and stainless steel. It is also necessary here to list my mentor, Joe Swan. He contributed significantly to my understanding of process and the meticulous attentiveness required to make great wine. There was also Andre Tchelistcheff, who provided good counsel, criticism and grounding as well as a remarkable demonstration of chain smoking mixed with tasting acuity that I could never have hoped to emulate.
NC: Is there a vintage in your career that you would like to experience again?
JP: Sure, the 1976 vintage. That means that I would get to live my wine career all over again, right? Aside from that, I have no favorites. Each one has had its own quirks, challenges and successes. It is the variation and possibilities that keep wine making interesting. Beyond that, I still haven’t gotten a single vintage quite right, so I might as well keep at it. Perfection seems so near and yet so far away. My Hippie self just keeps telling me that it is the journey, not the destination that is important.
NC: Do you feel wine is an art or a science and why?
JP: Art and science are not mutually exclusive. Science brings an understanding of your materials and process. Art is the personal statement that you bring to the assembly. With winemaking you are much better off if you combine both and try not to parse them.
NC: What was one of the most memorable winemaking mistakes you ever made that you still think about to this day?
JP: The 1982 Sonoma County Cabernet. During bottling one of the vacuum pumps somehow leaked machine oil into the filler bowl. We bottled 300 cases of wine with a 1/8 layer of oil in every bottle before I caught the problem. It is a little disturbing to see an oil slick in my glass. It would have been less tragic numerically if I hadn’t gotten side tracked and had been more attentive to my QC. That one really hurt because 300 cases was a large percentage of my production and the 82 Cab was the best Bordeaux style wine I had made up to that point in my young career.
NC: If you could share only one or two things with younger winemakers, what would be the most valuable piece of knowledge or experience that you pass on?
JP: Taste as many interesting wines as you can. The rule of 10,000 applies equally to winemakers as it does to musicians. The only difference being that we use our organoleptic sense and they use the auditory/proprioceptive senses. Revere tradition and make intelligent diversions that please you.
NC: Can you describe your philosophy on winemaking in haiku?
Nature knows the way
do no harm honor spirit
Channel into wine
NC: Are you working on any exciting projects now that you would like to share?
JP: Old vineyards have always been an obsession. I am currently working with the Historic Vineyard Society to designate famous historic vineyards with old vines as “California Historic Landmarks”. Also, the Heritage Vineyard project that I have been working on for many years with ZAP and UCD will be releasing four named Zinfandel selections from the Heritage Vineyard in Oakville that are free from viruses and have multiple years of viticulture metrics associated with them. We hope that this material from 100+ year old vines will form the basis for the next generation of 100+ year old vines.
NC: Thanks for your answers Joel!