I was recently contacted by a woman who opened her email to me by stating that we hadn’t met. Since I initially figured it was spam, you can imagine my surprise when I read on and found it was an invitation to join Ravenswood’s founder and winemaker, Joel Peterson, for a wine dinner at Boka in Chicago!
I was familiar with Ravenswood, of course, and I knew Joel Peterson was a pioneer of the California wine scene. But I was quite surprised by the quality of many of the wines that were poured.
We tasted through six single vineyard designate zinfandels from 2008, the 2008 ICON (a mixed black blend), and the 2008 Pickberry which is a merlot/cab sauv blend. When I found out that we were dining at Boka, I was a bit surprised, as the chef is known for inventive cuisine that isn’t easily classified by region or style. As it was, the food was as “diverse” as anticipated, and offered a fantastic opportunity to show off the food-friendly nature of the wines.
The first wine we tasted was the 2008 Dickerson Vineyard. Farmed from 80+ year old vines, I was immediately struck by a unique minty aroma on the nose, similar to a mint toothpick. This followed through to the palatewhere the wine finished long with dark berries and vanilla. Before you write it off as a “typical” hot, overly-extracted zin, know that it paired wonderfully with the chef’s interpretation of a Bento box that was brimming with raw offerings from the sea. This was the most interesting wine of the night.
Next came the 2008 Big River Vineyard. Joel commented that this particular vineyard, which was planted in the early 1900s, is 100% zinfandel which is unusual for a vineyard of its age. Lighter in color than the Dickerson, I was impressed by how balanced and nuanced this wine was. The subtle richness of French oak was evident without being over the top.
After tasting the 2008 Belloni Vineyard, which was enjoyable if unremarkable, we moved on to the 2008 Barricia Vineyard. The Barricia was heartier than its predecessors. Joel described it as his “most Italian” wine, and talked extensively about the vineyard. Originally planted by George Hearst, the old-vine, dry-farmed site sits next to Bedrock Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley. While I thought the tannins were a bit intrusive, this wines complex cherry and cinnamon flavors and long finish got me excited. I think it needs a few years, but it should be fantastic.
The 2008 Old Hill Vineyard comes from a vineyard filled with only 51% zinfandel vines. Many of the other varietals have no DNA match! This particular bottling is 75% zinfandel and 25% mixed black fruit. Incredibly rich and complex, again without being cloying, this is another offering that begs for a little more time in the bottle. The dark cherry, fresh herbs, and cocoa flavors should meld into a complex, satisfying wine if you have the patience to stash this away.
The final zin we tasted was the 2008 Teldeschi Vineyard. This was my wine of the night. It shared many characteristics with the Old Hill Vineyard (I hope it wasn’t palate fatigue!), which I think will eventually be the better wine as it had a bit more going on. But I found the Teldeschi more open for business at this point with its long, smooth finish.
We finished the tasting with a 2008 ICON, which is equal parts Zin and Petite Sirah with a complement of Carignane. I found it a bit shallow (again, palate fatigue?) but it did serve as one-half of the most interesting pairing of the night. Coupled with raspberry sorbet, the ICON was quite enjoyable. We ended with a 2008 Pickberry merlot/cab sauv blend. I had no idea Ravenswood produced a Bordeaux blend. After drinking so much zin, it was easy to peg this as the outlier. Earthy, menthol flavors are predominant with a subtle vanilla finish and nice, gripping tannins. This blend normally includes Petit Verdot and Malbec, but Joel that the cool season in 2008 kept those out of this blend.
All-in-all, the dinner was a fantastic experience. More than the wine, it was really enjoyable to listen to Joel tell stories of dinners with Joseph Swan, his humble beginnings trying to convince vineyard owners to sell him fruit, his experience as a corporate “suit” (Ravenswood was purchased by Constellation Brands about 10 years ago) that still strives to stay true to his brand, and his pride in watching his son Morgan nurture Bedrock, his relatively new but wildly successful label.