No wimpy wines from Sonoma’s Ravenswood
Recently, Steve Humble, talented and self-effacing corporate director of wine at the Roaring Fork Club, hosted a tasting featuring winemakers who belong to the Roaring Fork’s sister club Mayacama, which is located in Sonoma County, Calif. If that sounds like a big deal, it was. Mayacama, a golf club with a wine pedigree, counts among its members some of Napa and Sonoma’s top vintners. A number of fine and very expensive wines were represented at the tasting from A-plus names like Bond, Miner Family, DuMol and Failla. I found myself at a table where wines from Ravenswood Winery were being poured. “I probably drink more Ravenswood than I do all these other wines put together,” I said to John Bostock, one of the winery’s founders. “Me too,” the gentleman next to me chimed in. Significantly, that gentleman was Don Weaver, director of both the Harlan Estates and Bond Winery, producers of perhaps the most coveted, and most expensive, California cabernets. So why do Don Weaver and I drink so much Ravenswood? Reliability and consistency come to mind initially. While they make in the vicinity of 800,000 cases a year, ranging in price from under $10 a bottle to around $35 a bottle, you always can count on quality commensurate with price. Second, their wines are approachable. Peterson’s original mandate was to make the best “jug wines in the world.” While his wines far exceed that rather pedestrian description, they are wines that are made to be drunk, not simply sipped. They are big and bold and they pair perfectly with food. The company motto is “No Wimpy Wines” and their portfolio lives up to that.But finally, and perhaps most importantly, they specialize in zinfandel. And I love zinfandel. Originally planted by Italian immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush (its lineage has been traced to the Italian grape primitivo), zinfandel is one of the oldest commercially harvested crops in the state.Ravenswood’s winery is in Sonoma, just a few blocks north of the town’s main square. Since 1976, winemaker and co-founder Joel Peterson’s special gift to the world has been to make rich, fruity, and affordable California zinfandel. The quest paid off handsomely for Peterson when he sold a majority stake to wine and spirits giant Constellation Brands in1999, but unquestionably it has worked out even better for a generation of wine drinkers who have come to rely on Ravenswood as a staple at their weekend barbecues.Ravenswood makes and markets wines in three categories. At the bottom of the barrel, but the top of the sales charts, are the Vintners Blend wines selling for $10 to $15 a bottle. Immensely drinkable, these wines are blended from grapes found throughout Northern California. There is a zinfandel, of course, but they also make a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon and a shiraz along with a chardonnay.Moving up a notch is the County Series, which features blends of grapes that are all grown in a single county. While the Sonoma and Napa wines are terrific, I love the hot-climate blends from both Lodi and Amador counties, where zinfandel vines thrive in the California sun. A bit higher in price, these County Series wines retail in the teens but are worth the extra few dollars.Finally, at the top of the food (or wine) chain, we get to the single-vineyard wines labeled Vineyard Designates. These wines, made in very small batches, are selected from single vineyards that are ideally suited to the varietals that are grown there. The grapes come from extremely old vines — some planted up to 150 years ago — and feature what Peterson refers to as “specific flavor characteristics and profiles.” Priced in the $30 range, they are well worth the money and have, for the most part, good aging potential.If you like zinfandel, you’re looking for a good buy, and “wimpy” is a word you’d rather not hear at your summer BBQ, look for Ravenswood on the label. You’ll be drinking in good company.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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