Ravenswood's Big 40 

Celebrating four decades of American zin.

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If you happen to be in the vicinity of Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 11, you might want to swing by Ravenswood Winery on Gehricke Road for their 40th anniversary party, where you can blend your own Ravenswood Icon wine, taste the newly released 2014 zinfandels, enjoy a barbecue and groove to the sounds of Ten Foot Tone and The Cork Pullers. The price: $40, of course.

Thankfully, you don't have to travel to Sonoma to taste these iconic California zins. At least some of these selections are readily available at many local stores.

It is said that ravens circled overhead on the day in 1976 when founding winemaker Joel Peterson completed his first harvest—hence the name. Since then, the company has become California's leading producer of zinfandel.

It's interesting, and a little ironic, that Peterson—who's been dubbed "the godfather of zin"—has a background in microbiology and worked as a medical researcher. It's ironic because he doesn't make "modern science" wines. Rather, they're old-school; Peterson practices the art of traditional winemaking as found in Burgundy and Bordeaux, and his best creations come from old, gnarly, pre-Prohibition, dry-farmed, low-production vineyards. He utilizes wild yeast fermentation in open-top fermenters, and the wines undergo long aging in small French oak barrels. They're neither over-oaked, nor sugar-coated. As he once told me, "Our goal is to exalt the grape, not overwhelm it."

In conjunction with the anniversary, the winery is also having a sort of homecoming, as Gary Sitton, who began his career there in 1999, has returned to take over the position of winemaking director. He and Peterson have collaborated on a special commemorative, bottling of zinfandel, blending grapes from Ravenwood's world-class Old Hill, Teldeschi and Barricia vineyards. Unfortunately, it's only available in gift boxes at the winery. However, you can, and should, treat yourself to the Ravenswood Single Vineyard Designates produced with grapes from the aforementioned vineyards. This series is all about terroir—vineyard locations that are ideally suited to the grapes grown there: old, low-yield vines that are site-specific. 2013 Ravenswood Dickerson Vineyard Zinfandel Napa Valley ($33) is the most refined and elegant of the series, offering up notes of mint and eucalyptus, along with sweet mid-palate raspberry and currant fruit flavors that are well-balanced by the wine's acidity.

I recently had the good fortune of tasting 2013 Ravenswood Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($58), made in part from Old Hill Vineyard zinfandel grapes that are thought to date back as far as 1855. This is a wine that'll be a standout 10 years from now, but if you're in a hurry and can't wait a decade, be sure to decant it. It's muscular and assertive with well-balanced acidity and mineral undertones leading to a long, lovely finish.

For a weighty vino with lots of black fruit flavors, think in terms of 2013 Ravenswood Barricia Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma Valley ($35). It's a dense, rich wine that, according to Peterson, has a high percentage of petite sirah. Save it for a dark and stormy night.

For less cash, they also produce quality everyday zins like the 2013 Vintners Blend Old Vine Zinfandel ($13), 2013 Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel ($15), and 2014 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel ($15). Personally, I'm raising a glass to the next 40 years of ravishing Ravenswood wines.

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