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Unreserved Wine Talk

236 EpisodesProduced by Natalie MacLeanWebsite

The Unreserved Wine Talk podcast features candid conversations with the most fascinating people in the wine world. Your host, award-winning journalist Natalie MacLean, dives into how it feels to compete in the nerve-wracking World's Best Sommelier Competition, the shadowy underground of wine forgery… read more


104: Zinfandel Crusader Joel Peterson, Ravenswood Founding Winemaker

Do you know the rich and royal history behind Zinfandel? How does the air in a vineyard affect the flavours you taste in its wine? Why did Zinfandel become such a sensation in North America? What does mythology have to do with Ravenswood wine?

In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I'm chatting with the Godfather of Zin, Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker of Ravenswood Winery.


  • Why did Joel's father involve him in wine tastings as a child?
  • What sort of colourful tasting notes would you read in Joel's father's wine club newsletters?
  • What's the less-than-catchy name you'd use for the Zinfandel grape in it's home country of Croatia?
  • When would you find the first historical reference to the Zinfandel grape?
  • How is Zinfandel connected to Old World royalty?
  • What makes Croatia a great grape-growing region?
  • What do you need to know about "founder grapes"?
  • How did Zinfandel come to the United States?
  • What history can you taste in Ravenswood Vinters Blend Zinfandel?
  • What unbelievable raven encounter led to Joel's connection to them as a totem?
  • How did an opera inspire the name Ravenswood?
  • In which areas of mythology would you find references to ravens?
  • Why you will love a pairing of baby back ribs and Ravenswood Zinfandel blends?
  • Which climatic features make Lodi an ideal grape-growing area?
  • How does your tasting experience differ between Ravenswood Vintners Blend and Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel?
  • Why do you often find higher alcohol content in Zinfandels?
  • How do you find the "sweet spot" for wine which has the perfect balance?
  • What do you taste differently with wines made with the punch down versus pump over techniques?
  • How does "airroir" impact your experience with wine?
  • What makes a field blend different from single grape wines?
  • Which annual charity event will you find Joel at without fail?
  • What influence does growing up with two superstar chemists as your parents have on you?


Key Takeaways
  • The historical roots of Zinfandel and its links to Croatia when it was part of the Austria-Hungarian empire as well as Venetian courts is fascinating, as is the detective work to establish the grape’s true heritage and parentage.
  • Zinfandel's history goes back to 1488, and it’s one of the 12 founding grapes of all wine grapes.
  • Why Lodi makes such great Zinfandel with its deep, sandy soils that were once part of an ancient ocean bed. This produces larger grape clusters with smaller skin to flesh rations resulting in less harsh tannins, and a smoother, juicier, fruitier wine.
  • How wine achieves sweet spots of different alcohol levels, where everything is in balance i.e. the fruit and acidity say at 13.8% alcohol but maybe not at 13.9%.
  • The concept of "airroir" is fascinating and something I want to explore more in the wines I taste in terms of their influences.
  • Joel’s story about tasting wines as a child and learning to identify aromas, not just apples, but the type of apples by smelling and eating them. That’s how we all can learn to be better sniffers and tasters.
  • The story of Ravenswood name, including all of the raven folklore in Poe and Odin.
  About Joel Peterson

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.






To learn more about the resources mentioned in this episode, visit the

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