The Godfather of Zin
Always a vino-revolutionary, Joel Peterson took his first big steps toward personal independence in 1976. Educated as a clinical laboratory scientist with a degree in microbiology, the Oregon State University grad was working full-time in cancer immunology research at a San Francisco hospital and dabbling with wine on the side. The two single-vineyard Zins the longhaired winemaker made from the 1976 vintage would be the first he unveiled to the world.
The son of two chemists, Joel grew up on Point Richmond on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Mom was a nuclear chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project; she used her scientific training to become an excellent cook who tested recipes and helped edit Alice Waters’ first cookbook. Dad was a physical chemist specializing in high-temperature lubricants used in industrial machinery.
Walter Peterson also was a wine lover and serious student of the grape who organized twice-weekly gatherings of the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club (today’s San Francisco Vintners Club) at the family home. Joel’s oeno-education began at the age of ten when he sat in on his first tasting session, with stern instructions to “Shut up and spit.” (Afterward, his father carefully measured the wine in the boy's glass and in his spittoon to make sure everything was expectorated.)
Back then, California had a dearth of fine wines; most of the bottles the club tasted were from France, Italy and Spain. By the time he was a teenager, Joel had a working knowledge of European vineyards and vintages. He not only learned how to judge wine, he learned how to talk about it (to the delight and consternation of everyone’s who’s met him since).
During his early career as a medical researcher, Joel made extra money through wine writing and consulting. Eventually it dawned on him that he had the background (not to mention strong opinions and the confidence to stick by them) to be an actual winemaker. He apprenticed with Joseph Swan — one of California's outstanding craftsmen of fine Zinfandel — to learn the art of traditional winemaking as practiced in Bordeaux and Burgundy. “From Joe, I learned to pick grapes by taste and to farm for less fruit, not more. That using wild yeasts may be tricky, but makes for more interesting wines. To ferment long and warm, and age in French oak.” Ravenswood still uses these same basic techniques to make its wines today.
In 1976 Joel founded Ravenswood in partnership with fellow wine lover Reed Foster, a Harvard MBA who handled the green stuff while Joel oversaw the red stuff. In the ensuing years, Joel had dual careers, working nights and weekends in the lab as he built the winery during the daylight hours. In 1977, he’d left his job in San Francisco and moved to Sonoma to work in the clinical lab at Sonoma Valley Hospital. He didn’t quit that job until 1992, a few years after the winery turned its first profit and Robert Parker pronounced Ravenswood wines “first class – bold, dramatic and complex.”
Today, Joel works with 100+ northern California growers who provide grapes for Ravenswood, consulting on irrigation methods, cultivation practices, cropping levels and a slew of other vineyard management issues. This attention in the field, coupled with the fact that Ravenswood is one of the few wineries that has had the philosophical and winemaking skill of one winemaker for over 30 years, contributes to a consistency of quality and style rarely found in California.
Joel is a current member and former president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance (S.V.V.G.A.) and is on the Board of Directors for the Sonoma County Vintners. He is a founding Board member and former two-time President of Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (Z.A.P.). Joel is also a Senior Vice President with Constellation Wines US.
A rakish raconteur (and provocateur) whose erudition and down-to-earth enthusiasm make him an articulate spokesman for the winery (and sometime-heckler of the wine industry), Joel is a stylistic trendsetter who helped make Zinfandel the runaway phenomenon it is today.
Along the way, the raven maven (dubbed “the Godfather of Zin” by one media wag) has built a legacy of enjoying wine with grins and gusto.